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04/03/2010 When is a Community not a Community?

From the American Heritage Dictionary
com˙mu˙ni˙ty  (kə-myōō'nĭ-tē)  n.
a. A group of people having common interests: the scientific community; the international business community.
b. A group viewed as forming a distinct segment of society: the gay community; the community of color.
c. Similarity or identity: a community of interests.
d. Sharing, participation, and fellowship.
Social media touts itself on the ability to bring together communities. When this is people driven, people creating and populating the online community themselves with a vested interest in the survival and growth of the community, it tends to succeed. When a brand or organization builds a community (of customers, fans or groups which it might serve) the bigger question for me is: is this really a community?

I'm struggling with this question as I see groups of people with common interests and fairly common goals but who I don't see acting as a "community." As I put this through the lens of social media, my problem is that I define community as a combination of the definitions above, with the last (sharing) being critical. If people aren't really interested in interacting with each other, can we really call them a community?

The first definition of a community (not listed above) is people living in close proximity to each other. However, community comes from the Latin communitatem, meaning fellowship. The Fellowship of the Ring was about a common bond and goal.

As we talk about community today, we have that same meaning in mind. We want to bring people together in a fellowship, where they can help each other, and themselves. Just because I live next to someone doesn't mean I feel a bond of community with him or her.

Some brands and organization find that creating communities online to allow people to interact can lead to some very empty spaces. The intent is good, and the information they provide is valuable. But what many struggle with is to show how active participation in the community helps both the individual and the organization. If the organization provides valuable material to individuals, but doesn't depend on individual participation to make that material better, what's the incentive to participate? Obviously there needs to be a much clearer value transaction that being part of the community benefits the individual.

Take Apple or Dell's support forums, for example. The organization has a clear interest in solving peoples' problems. However, they've incentivized computer pros to participate by rewarding them with points and anointing them as gurus. The individual benefits personally from participation and the organization benefits by having customers help each other. It's a true support community.


Let me put it another way: In any relationship, one-way transactions don't build lasting bonds. If someone always gives and another always receives, it's not a healthy relationship.

Instead of rushing to build brand communities and hoping that everyone will participate with lots of energy, brands need to ponder whether they have a community or what kind it really is. If it's just people who live close to each other, brands shouldn't expect a lot in return.

If, on the other hand, they want sharing and fellowship, brands need to take the time to understand and deliver on the needs of its community members to make sure participation has its rewards. And it's not clear that a Foursquare badge or a Facebook fan listing is enough.


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