The term community can mean many things: your friends, your colleagues, your neighborhood, your industry, your subculture, your customers, your constituents. All of these groups can have community but community does not just exist because there are more than two people in the (figurative) room.
Vibrant communities by their nature are in a state of constant flux with the inclusion of new members, leadership succession and project life spans. Communication, therefore, should not only be a method to relay information, it is also essential way to bind a community together. Whether this is the sharing of communal documentation, meetings, open conversations or the affirmation of shared values in the way this is done. My issue is that now we have more ways to communicate with each other, the term community is increasingly overused as a nice way to say an audience for my marketing material.
We can all pretty easily see through the motivations of commercial based marketing media, and choose to participate accordingly, but it is the trickle down effect of marketing tactics used by private citizens that, well, is really irritating. Tactics such as personal branding which apply principles of product brand management to the individual, suggest “that success comes from self-packaging”(1) over the acquisition of skills. Not to dismiss this tactic wholesale, there are plenty of benefits to refocusing your goals and understanding your skills. Instead I take issue to not only the idea of the commodification of the individual but is the way that this behaviour affects communities that is disturbing and unfortunately prolific with those of us who work freelance, as contractors, consultants or artists. Often, as is the way with any form of ideology, this method is applied in an inauthentic manner. We expect the marketing talk from a company, but from your boss, or your colleague or your friend, it comes off as insincere and guarded. Which has the reverse effect that any community would intend, you feel excluded.
Communities at their best are about all the members, are about a conversation, about common goals and interests. Honesty about success and failure builds trust, learning comes through other’s experiences, saving time in reinventing the wheel, where inspiration is just as likely to come from a member of community as a leader. When you feel valued and included, you are more generous, when you have the tools to easily make a contribution to your community, this leads to what writer and academic Clay Shirky describes as “cognitive surplus”. He defines this term as the combination of generosity and creativity with your free time and the digital tools to implement it. For organisations that run on volunteered time and talents, the opportunities through understanding this method are enormous.
In online content sharing communities, where this kind of thing can be measured, Shirky describes the participation in terms of a power-loss distribution, where 20% of the members produce 80%of the material. In your community if you are trying to reach the widest community possible you need to reach out to those 80% who occasionally contribute. Digital tools particularly can mange this kind data, allowing for effective organisation of large numbers of casual contributions. Opening the spectrum to different types of participants allows for a greater breadth of membership, the refocusing on quality of ideas (even if you only have one) and greater potential cognitive surplus, that in the end will further the purpose of the community. Permission to participate (at any level) is sometimes all that is needed to make the jump from a passive to an active member and understanding that in making that jump, a casual contributor has the potential for greater contribution in the future.
This does not preclude communities from being based around a commercial venture, actually I think a lot of leadership in this area comes from entrepreneurial start up companies. They see the value (and equally believe) in building authentic communities and understand how to use new communication tools to do this well. As an artist I am interested in sharing ideas, in particular online content sharing sites, which help artists find audience and provide support and social networks for feedback and collaboration. Recently I have started using Issuu, to share my comic book publications, and in a similar form SoundCloud for music producers to share tracks and mixes. Both provide effective solutions to share content and dialogue, then create community around this activity. Interestingly both sites use Get Satisfaction customer communication software to harness the huge amount of contributions from users about their service, in terms of flagging issues, to facilitate support and answer questions, but my favourite feature is the ability to suggest ideas. Whilst this is obviously not a practical solution for many kinds of smaller organisations, there is an enormous opportunity for engaging new and existing members in a meaningful way by incorporating some of these features into current communication methods.
With so many communication tools at our disposal, we (us regular folk) really do have the ability to reach historically unprecedented audiences, but we should be more critical of the way we are talking to each other (content style, frequency of communication and just as importantly listening: remember in the 1990’s “netiquette” lessons, when we all had to learn how to write an email that wasn’t offensive). Just a bit of getting back to basics, all these tools allow us to communicate globally, but it is vital to remember that it is just a tool for something we all crave, real connection. We have the power to create great communities, but we also face the challenge of continual re-education how to be better at this in an ever-changing media landscape.
(1)Daniel J. Lair, Katie Sullivan, George Chene, (University of Utah), Marketization and the Recasting of the Professional Self: The Rhetoric and Ethics of Personal Branding Management Communication Quarterly February 2005 18: 307-343
and thanks to my Dad, Robert, for sharing his experiences with me.