On community building – what matters is why
Posted by shannonclark on June 6, 2007
Today in Silicon Valley there was an unconference on Online Community. I was traveling to NYC today so was unable to attend but I weighed in on the active discussion on upcoming about the fact that they charged for participation in this unconference (and though not high by the standards of major tech/business event, nearly $20o seemed like a lot to many of the commenters who felt that unconferences should, by their very nature, always be “free”.
Also today my friend Edward Vielmetti blogging from Ann Arbor Michigan wrote about discussions he had recently about starting and keeping a group going.
I think, however, there are some basic issues that hold true for online communities as well as hybrid online/offline groups (and for entirely “offline” groups). Basic issues that are so basic they often go undiscussed or thought about.
First – what is reason for the group?
Second – are the patterns of the group aligned with the purpose of the group. By patterns I mean the online tools being used, the timing of offline events & meetings, even how people are invited to join and participate in the group
Third – if the group is intended to persist (not all groups are, many have designed into them a planned end – think an entering class of students, or a campaign for a specific election) is the group’s patterns aligned with persistence? For example, does the group depend almost solely on one person (so that person ceasing to be active, for whatever reason, could define the end of the group as well)
Groups come in a variety of types. The purpose of these groups – and the meaning/import given to the group by members (and by non-members if they are aware of it) differs widely. Yet all to often people ignore these differences and assume that somehow all “groups” are akin to each other – that they all have the same broad structures & patterns and thus for many might all be manageable via the same set of infrastructure and technology.
A few types of groups
A group to accomplish a specific non-individual task. Team competitions are often a clear example of this – i.e. a group of people have to enter together and compete together and the group is thus often defined via this shared, joint activity. Frequently when an individual is no longer able to contribute towards the group tasks in the same way they first find other means of participating and then later have to stop their group activity (though a small handful might remain involved via coaching. In these types of groups (and many companies fall into this type as well) what is crucial is an individual’s role in accomplishing the group task – and more fundamentally what that group task is and what has to happen to achieve it.
A group which exists to define trust. This is a bit harder to give examples of if you are not an active member in one or more of these types of groups, but there are many groups which exist not to accomplish a specific task together, but which are created around some common bond (often a shared experience and/or connection to an individual or organization) and which exist in large part to create and validate trust amongst the members. This trust enabling the individual members to engage with each other in an advantageous way – usually, though not exclusively for financial gain. I am personally a member of a number of these types of groups – they have usually been by far and way the most “productive” groups I belong to. Furthermore they are the “groups” which have historically built up lasting and strong friendships – as well as business partnerships.
With this second type of group I am primarily considering trust between group members. These groups serve a vital and powerful role of filters, once you are “in” the other members hold you (and each other) with some regard and are usually willing to extend deeper and more significant trust within the group than they would with a non-group member with whom they had the same degree of contact. A small example, in such groups it is by no means uncommon for group members to offer each other a place to stay – even to members they may have never previously met in person.
Groups which exist to define identity external to the group. There are countless examples of these types of groups – actively created by their members (honors societies, graduates of a given school, alumni of a given corporation) or created by other (races, speakers with a given accent, people meeting some physical criteria such as height or hair color). It may just be personal, but though I qualify for some of these groups – and have observed many others, I tend to find groups which exist primarily for external validation to be of minimal personal interest or utility. Many of these groups do also have significant intra-group activities (IEEE, Mensa, various alumni groups etc) and people do find value from these interactions with other members. But fundementally the purpose of many of these groups is to serve as shorthand, to validate and often rank someone within some external criteria (when they are formally defined – though it is easy to argue also with some such as race as well).
“Groups” such as religious organizations (churches, monasteries, religious orders) may cross a couple of these definitions. For their members they often exist for a specific purpose – a church for example might exist to fulfill religious requirements. That same church may also serve as high trust group for members (certainy church members often help each other out). And finally a public definition of a religious order or group might serve in part to place someone externally. Religious attire – from a cross around someone neck, to the vestments of an Orthodox Hassidic Jew, to a Hajjib, all serve to define their wearer in at least two important ways. Externally to the group (as a clear “other”) and internally as a “fellow traveler”.
There is much more to explore here in this post I have touched on many topics each worthy of much longer bits of writing. Please leave comments if I have missed critical types of groups, if you disagree with my points (or even if you agree) and I welcome examples, counterexamples, and further discussion. At somepoint this summer I will be organizing one or more one day MeshWalks and I welcome futher discussion on types, roles, and definitions of groups.