What is community?


Nearly all social media activists agree that success in their field requires a sense of community. It’s the “social,” after all, that distinguishes this kind of media from older media. Yet that means different things to different people, colored by their different experiences in life. What does “community” mean to you?

It’s not just an idle question. As different communities form around the ‘net people will expect different things from them following their different visions. I’d like to know what you think “community” means.

I’ve been asking around Twitter and in real life to get some good answers to this question. My favorite response so far comes from my neighbor Jack Boardman, who said, “It’s like pornography, I know it when I see it.” Other responses have included an emphasis on shared work to build a strong community, a view that I definitely have in mind – as another neighbor put it, “Community comes from working side by side, shoulder to should, day after day with people you don’t even like!”

Setting aside the pithy responses for a bit, desperation can always start with a Merriam-Webster definition of community, summarized as:

1. A unified body of individuals,
2. Society at large,
3. Joint ownership or participation

That’s about as dry as you might expect, but it’s worth mentioning. It fits with what Jillian suggested, “A place where one can (virtually) engage in never ending conversation.” But that definition, based on conversation, is not as strong as sharing work and/or common goals. As Bridget said, “I tend to believe real human, in-person connections are almost always going 2 b stronger (than online).” That is probably true, which explains why so many online communities eventually try to have gatherings like the Saint Paul Tweet-Up, for one example.

I also appreciated Tarra’s view, “I think of ‘community’ as a sort of extended chosen family.” That fits with the idea that we have community as an in between layer between those immediately around us and the bigger world, encountering it in layers as we need to.

My own view is deeply colored by my work over the last 20+ years as a community activist in the West End of Saint Paul. There is my immediate neighborhood, Irvine Park, which has had its share of threats and opportunities that come along like any other inner-city neighborhood. We band together to respond based on a common interest, one that is going to affect nearly all aspects of our life and investment in money, time and sweat to have a good life. We also work with the greater West End to help make that better, as well as the city of Saint Paul as a whole. There’s always work to do.

In the 1990s there was a brief push for a more activist and academic view of community referred to as “communitarian.” The word dates to the 1840s, but was fleshed out greatly by Amitai Etzioni and Sen. Bill Bradley, among others, as more of a moral and political view. It never really took off to the point of having a strong influence on the real world, but it does fit as a greater vision close the one I’ve developed as a community activist.

Online communities are inherently different. There is rarely shared work. “Interest” becomes another sticky word, meaning both the kind of stake I described above and the more casual “I am interested in this topic” pastime.

My own work with clients who want to develop a greater social media presence always centers on community as a goal because it helps to keep them focused on the strategies of online participation rather than the day-to-day chatter or the allure of “shiny objects” that are new apps and systems. But I know that community means very different things to each of them. I can accept that as long as we have that vague sense that we’ll all at least know it when we see it.

But what does “community” mean to you? I’d like to know what you think!