In a Plane, Pondering Community

So, I’ve been building communities for a long time. My first job (real job) was managing a radio station in the city of Hamilton in NZ. It was the independent student station Contact 89FM and it was the center of the city’s music scene… at least the center of the cities good music scene…the station was a thriving central hub. We supported the local musos with free ads, live-to -ir performances, battles of the bands (more fun than the name suggests), booking support slots for them with national and international acts coming through, played their music on-air, had a dedicated show for the local stuff; and while I was managing the station, we even built a recording studio, a record label and a tv station to support the local scene…

I never thought about it as community building back then but it is exactly what it was… After that, I did some other stuff before becoming a professional artist some years later and that was also all about community. Except this time I was really ‘in’ the community. The community was a wonderful assortment of crazies that did wonderful art (sound art, digital art, network art etc) that had independent practices and wandered around the globe going from gig to gig… it was an incredible time… I looked forward to seeing some collection of my buddies in maybe Linz (Austria) for a exhibition, or Helsinki for workshops or maybe for the start of a conference on a boat, or a conference on the transiberian express, perhaps at a shared workspace (the thing) in New York, or, as it happens, on an icebreaker on its way to Antarctica. It was an incredible time and I was very lucky. I feel lucky to this day to have been part of that. It was a privilege and it also gave me a sense of what it is like to be inside the community bubble…

Then I started FLOSS Manuals, which still goes to this day – a community writing free manuals about free software. This was an online community. I had to build that up from the bottom. It was hard work, but it worked… I learned a lot about how to build momentum, stone by stone, with a group of people dispersed around the globe that might never meet each other…

And now, Coko, which is also a community. In fact, it’s a community of communities – a multifaceted community of folks that have similar but disparate needs. Journals, books, micropubs etc only have so much in common, but they also have so much in common… its a difficult juggle keeping them all going and feeding the right ‘community building nutrient’ to the right community…

So… as I fly over the Equator, on my way to Morocco for a week from NZ (I see I am over the Banda Sea) I am pondering… what have I learned about community? It must be something after all as I’m pretty sure I know what I’m doing. But the knowing feels very ephemeral… like most things I do, I don’t realise how much I know about it until I tell someone else… so, here goes…a short telling to see if I can distill some latent knowledge into this post…

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Off the top of my head, going rogue with the keyboard… community is something you can build, but the building is a weird process. You must be simultaneously inside and outside the community. Inside, so you can speak with the other community members in a way that is genuinely of the ‘I’m with you’ variety. It is a kinship you need to maintain and it can be nothing other than natural. If it is not natural, then you are essentially an ‘outsider’ and outsiders are not, by definition, part of the community. It is ‘insiderness’ you need to achieve.

But… at the same time, you must be a strategist. You must know how to massage community to maintain, and build, momentum. You must be able to act deliberately to bring about the growth of the community. This requires constant gardening as you can not (at least I don’t think I’ve seen anyone do this) lay out the path and then run the community automatically through its paces. You must tend to it and react with it, let it have its own head, but also help ‘keep its head’. In other words, it is constant emotional labor. It is also messy.

Strategising community building also has the danger of ‘otherness’ or ‘outsiderness’. You must never, for example, instrumentalise community. You can not use the community and manipulate it to your own ends. You will just kill it if you do so, or you will reduce your cultural currency, the only thing you really have, to zero – rendering yourself ineffective.

The fuel of the community is essentially value. Communities form around things they value and the more you grow the value, the more the community grows, and vice versa. It is symbiotic. If you want to build a community you must build value for the community. You must also not act out of a desire to build value only for yourself. This is the same as instrumentalising community and it is a shallow act. You, as the community builder, must push value out to the community. The community members must benefit from their involvement. The more you push to them, the healthier the community will be.

The more you contribute to growing that value, the more cultural currency you have. And cultural currency is everything. You can only be given so much by association, the rest you have to earn. Earning it is, like the building of community, and ongoing and constant process. You get as much as you put in. It is not the same as ‘meritocracy’ which is often thrown about by the open source community as a kind of ‘community value metric’. Cultural currency is earned not just by what you contribute but by how you contribute it. The merit of the contribution is only one axis. The other is your ability to make the contribution generously and in good faith. Which is why meritocracy is an unhealthy exercise. How you are is as important as what you give.

Lastly, community is self-associating, self-identifying. You don’t get to ‘appoint’ community. Participants must identify themselves as part of the community.

These are some of the basic mechanics. I am sure there are many more… but I think maybe also not. The thing about community is that it can take many forms. Communities of people making publishing platforms… communities of musicians…communities of book writers… it doesn’t matter…they have the same underlying mechanics… but how you employ your skills to build the community changes dramatically according to the context. You are using the same navigational principles but in substantially different waters with each case.

But, as a takeaway, from this shortish flight, if you want some bullet points I’ll leave these here for now for us both to ponder…

  • you are inside the community, it is not ‘out there’
  • to build community, you must also maintain something of an ‘external’ position while also being wholly inside the community
  • your goal is to build value for the community members
  • you must do so generously and in good faith
  • you must *never* instrumentalise a community
  • community is self-identifying

It’s tricky stuff, but incredibly satisfying when it works.

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