Is Your Community a Community?

There’s a lot of buzz in the tech world around the word community. Perhaps stemming from the wrench that social media has thrown into the works, business folks have started tossing around terms like community content, community relations, and community management. But do they know what community means?

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

I’ve been a community leader in the open source world for the last eight years. Before that, I was a community member. You cannot be a community leader without being a community member. To understand what a community leader does, you have to understand what a community is.

  1. A community is self-governing. Community members are empowered to decide the direction of the community. If you’re telling people what to do and how to do it, you don’t have a community. You have a workforce.
  2. A community is social. I don’t mean it’s on Facebook or Twitter. Community members might use Facebook or Twitter, but they might use something old-school like mailing lists or IRC. What’s important is that people are talking to each other, getting to know each other, and making decisions together. Without social interaction, you just have a random group of contributors.
  3. A community has a common interest. Community members will have differences on many topics, but there has to be something that brings and keeps them together.

Community leaders don’t set direction or dictate what gets done. That would work against the self-governing nature of communities. And they don’t keep projects or priorities secret. That would be anti-social. So what does a community leader do?

  1. The first job of a community leader is to welcome new members. People will come and go from your community. That’s the nature of things. A lot of people will just stop by because they’re curious. If you don’t welcome them and give them a way to get involved, they’ll be gone before they’ve ever started.
  2. A community leader keeps things running smoothly. If your community is trying to get things done (and when businesses talk about communities, they want those communities to do something), then someone needs to stay on top of those things. You can’t make community members do anything. But you can keep track of what they’ve decided to do and remind them. Leaders are like personal assistants to the entire community.
  3. A community leader keeps the big picture in mind. You have to have your finger on that common interest that’s keeping your community together. When people get bogged down with the trees, you have to remind them of the forest.

Every successful community I know of works this way. And every time a company tries to set up a community, but ignores the nature of communities, it eventually fails. So, do you have a real community, or are you just treating your users like employees?

5 thoughts on “Is Your Community a Community?”

  1. There’s this one company who has a community manager that does nothing more than try to get buy-in from the community for their products. It ends up being more of a marketing gig than managing community. It really erks me.

  2. I don’t think you understand. If you want to explain how communities work, you need to publish a book on the art of it all.

Comments are closed.

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States
This work by Shaun McCance is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States.