The online community is the shiny new thing on the internet. This is the conclusion I have come to browsing through twitter. Even though It is being bandied around so much, I don’t feel like there is a commonly understand framework for what it exactly means. This piece is my (cursory) attempt to try and build up a working definition for the online community from the ground up drawing on my professional and personal experiences with communities. My goal is to take a high-level look at what a community is and what purpose it serves.

How do we identify a community?

A community is a social unit that that inhabits either a physical or virtual space unifying a group of individuals through a shared objective. This objective could manifest in numerous forms that include but are not limited to: beliefs (e.g. religion), context (e.g. neighborhoods, peers within an industry, friends and family of students at a school), characteristic (e.g. ethnicity). It is important to understand the only reason communities exist is because they are a more effective vehicle for individuals to make personal progress with respect to the shared objective.

Why do individuals expect out of community?

If we treat a community as a service, we can use the Jobs to Be Done* theory to probe more critically at what makes a community tick. In my experience, I have come to identify two common and generalizeable Jobs to Be Done requested from “customers” (members) of a community. Individuals will only “hire” the services of a community and become a member if they can satisfy the one or both of these Jobs:

  • I need to make progress with <insert shared objective of the community>
  • I need to feel confident about how I pursue <insert shared objective of the community>

If one looks at a specific community, given the requisite research, these two Jobs to Be Done can be broken down further unique to the context of the community and the share objective that binds them.

What does a community look like and how does it work?

Not all communities are made equal. While some occur naturally, others can be artificially cultivated. We first need to identify all the elements likely to be found within a community. I like to divide its inhabitants into three key roles: members, contributors, and shapers.

  • Shapers are the most engaged and play a thought-leadership role
  • Contributors are active members who readily help out with projects and / or activities
  • Members are mostly passive agents and beneficiaries of the work of the Shapers and Contributors

This framework I use is hierarchical: all shapers are contributors and all contributors are members. Another important consideration is the relative proportions of these different groups. Shapers number ~1%; contributors number ~20%; and members the majority.

We can analyse typical examples of how communities works to the benefit of its members by looking at the aforementioned Jobs to Be Done.

“I need to make progress with <insert shared objective>

The functional value of a community is the collective knowledge of its members. Within each member is a drop of knowledge, or in some cases, a vast ocean that will be helpful to some subset of the community. The challenge is in teasing out this knowledge and wisdom so it becomes visible to the right members at the right time.

“I need to feel confident about how I pursue <insert shared objective>

The emotional value of a community is the important pastoral role peers can play in the pursuit the shared objective. This is especially important in some contexts as the community acts as a social outlet e.g. highly-specialised professionals, unique or rare shared objectives.

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