Some Thoughts on Community

Part of being involved in Podcamps and podcasting in general, is about forming communities. For my presentation this year at Podcasters Across Borders, I’ll be talking about why community matters. In much of my life, it is the sole motivator for what I do.

Community is defined by Dictionary.com as a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage. It can be a social, religious, occupational or other group sharing common characteristics or interests, perceived or perceiving itself as distinct from the larger society. The word comes from Old French, meaning ‘fellowship, community of relations or feelings,’ and it’s clearly about how we identify ourselves as part of different groups according to our core beliefs and interests.

Each community can have it’s own label, and when people ask “tell me about about yourself”, the words we use often identify us by our community affiliation with others.

Some of my labels: parent, educator, podcaster, new media girl, volunteer, knitter, diver, squash player, photographer, event organizer, reader, researcher, writer, and there are many, many more.

Each of these labels expresses one of my interests, hobbies, or the things I am good at- my strengths, if you will. And each word can have a community affiliation as well.

Community Stories

Everyone has limited time and personal bandwidth, so our engagement in different communities varies. For example, a few years ago, I went to a weekly “Stitch and Bitch”- a knitting group that involved some great women, including professors at a local university. My enthusiasm was as much for the conversation as for the yarn, but the love of the yarn also meant that when I went to London, I got a chance to sit down and knit at Liberty’s with a group of ladies I knew only through online channels up to that point. It was a really special moment, and proved to me that online relationships reach into the real world, and even mundane hobbies can bring people together.

My local knitting group disbanded after the person who lead the group moved, and the community epicenter seemed to disintegrate. It’s a shame, really- I miss that group. It’s harder to see all those people as regularly as when our community was functioning and meeting regularly. Now I see some of those women only occasionally and one on one, and I miss the interplay and ideas that came when we were all together, regularly, as a group. I miss the community.

Religion

Many people participate in communities around their local church. My dad was a card-carrying atheist, yet he sang in the choir at the local Unitarian Church every weekend. The Church and the choir were his community, regardless of his personal religious beliefs. My mom, on the other hand, takes an active role in the local episcopal church. Her interest and participation changes as the community leadership has changed, and as the community morphs over time.

What do these two stories have in common?

Communities rarely form spontaneously- you need to have more than one person to have a community. Communities need some sort of leadership or epicenter; sometimes a common interest bonds the community, sometimes it’s values. Without some sort of unifying force, common purpose and/or leadership, communities can fizzle and dissolve. The loss of the community leaves a hole in the lives of those who were once involved, but recapturing the “special” in a new community, even if bonded by the same interest, may not be the same.

Communities require a little leadership and direction- this is what helps to form the identity and sense of common purpose. This isn’t to say every group needs a leader, but people tend to look for someone to take charge, even if the extent of that direction is “You can come to my house Tuesday Mornings from 9 am to Noon if you can make it.” Without that sense of setting a time and place, people wander around without direction or purpose.

Community And Event Planning

For most community-oriented events, ranging from Book Fairs to Community Days to Podcamps, organizers struggle to keep volunteer labor dedicated to achieving the goals. Volunteer labor operates based on passion and commitment. In fact, you probably couldn’t pay people enough to get the passion and commitment volunteers have. Yet volunteers can be flighty as well. Since the only commitment they really have is psychological, (they aren’t relying on the monetary exchange of a salary or other reward) it’s easy for them to neglect commitments and put the volunteer labor you depend on at the bottom of their priority list. This means volunteers, while wonderful and passionate, can also be unreliable. It makes relying on volunteers difficult at times, because you really have no leverage to demand that things are done in a timely manner.

People get different things out of volunteering. The PTO moms I know get a sense of community by knowing other parents, and knowing the faculty and administration of the school. They take the information in books like Freakanomics to heart- the data that shows parents involved in their kids’ school do better on tests- and hope that it will be equally true for them. These are the intangible benefits PTO moms count on beyond the good feeling of contributing to a bake sale and showing their kids know they care.

Yet the skills required to organize a book fair or a Podcamp or any event – even the Super Bowl (and I speak from some experience here…..) are all the same. It requires a few people to manage what needs to be done and coordinate all the other moving parts efficiently. The more people feel like a team, whether they are paid or not, the more it will show in the final product. The people in charge of different committees or teams need to be as dedicated to the overall goal as to their individual performance. there needs to be some leadership, even if it’s informal, to make sure everyone is progressing to the final goal- a successful event.

Next post, I’ll talk a bit more about leadership in communities-and about how to make things happen without whining or causing resentment. It’s not always easy.

More importantly, let me know what you think about communities and leadership. What makes for a successful community? When do communities fail? And can we “save” a community when it starts to dissolve?

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1 Comment

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One response to “Some Thoughts on Community

  1. Hi Whitney –

    Couldn’t agree more with you re: the importance of community and the idea that it takes a few sparks to ignite community. I recently started a company called SchoolPulse — see http://www.schoolpulse.com — that aims to provide a home online for offline school communities. It’s about community and about simplifying parents’ busy lives. We’re in beta now and will launch our v2.0 platform later this summer. I’d love to hear your thoughts and connect directly.

    Thanks for sharing here – good stuff.

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