What is Community?

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Not long ago, I had the opportunity to speak at WordCamp. My topic was “Community is already there, inside everyone”. This is something that I am passionate about. Much of my life is devoted to my community, and to the communities of others I choose to interact with.

I have been online for so many years, that I remember when the “Internet” as we know it now began. Seeing an old friend in the audience made me realize that that is what community is all about – getting to know people. The Internet is not so much a series of cables and wires as it is a connection between people.

I remember the first time I sat down in front of a computer to email someone, back in 1992. I sent an email to a person sitting not ten feet away from me. I knew at that moment that my life had just changed forever. It thrills me every day to wake up and check my email. It’s the connections that I make with people from all around the world that still amazes me to this day.

Community is already inside of you. There’s this idea of a Venn diagram out there. These are diagrams that show all hypothetically possible logical relations between a finite collection of people or things. You have these circles, and in between they cross over. I like coffee, and I also live in Seattle. And there are other people who also live in Seattle and like coffee. I also use Mac OS X. How many other people have these same interests?

At that point where everything kind of crosses over is where you find me. It’s who and what I am. I am this person – a walking Venn diagram. We all are. We’re multi-faceted. You carry these things wherever you go. That is community. It’s inside of you, and that’s why you can go from one website to a million others. It’s the experience that it helps you have.

It really bothers me when someone approaches me and informs me that they are going to create a new community, and it’s going to go “viral”. Do they really think all of this will just happen?! It doesn’t work that way, sorry to tell them.

Back in the day, I would connect with people using newsgroups and BBS’. I subscribed to lists of things to do online. It was a piece of text that was the definitive resource of what you could do on the Internet. You could only go to certain places to be able to communicate back then. It’s not that way anymore. Instead of community existing in one little pocket – it’s everywhere!

Community requires tools that can’t be built. It kills me when someone says they built a blog and no one came. Well duh! A blog is just a tool… and if you think a blog is a community, then you too are a tool! Community exists in one place – in your heart. Without that, what is community. Without passion, without connections, without a feeling of belonging – what is there? You cannot build heart. It’s either there, or it’s not. You know you have a community when it takes care of its own.

Without heart, it’s just a set of tools. Anyone can go out right now and set up a website with any number of features. There are tons of tools out there. It’s not the topic or idea that makes what you do valuable – it never is. The tools are a commodity – but you are not. You’re unique. You have your own set of morals, ideals and beliefs. You have your own heart. YOU are the asset to the community you are in, not the other way around.

A community grows its own leaders. The strong voices will be the ones who emerge as the leaders of what you are growing. Even if you don’t agree with them at all times, encourage them. Use your voice and exercise it. Make those connections. Before you know it, you’ll be a leader of sorts, whether you set out to be or not.

Community is the antithesis of ego. Community is inside of you – but it’s not about you. It’s about other’s experiences with you. The strongest voices inside of a community are devoid of ego. The first thing on their mind isn’t themselves.

Community is everywhere, and it starts inside of you.

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