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Recommended Reading: The Art of Community (book)

May 20, 2010

This may be old news to some of you, but I’ve just recently discovered this book and felt that it’s just too good not to share (again). If you are a Community Manager, Community Advocate, Social Media Enthusiast, or merely fascinated by the dynamics of online communities, this is a must-read book for you. Mashable had the same conclusion when they reviewed the book back in December, 2009.

The book was authored by Jono Bacon, who’s the Community Manager for Ubuntu, one of the largest open source software projects in the world. It’s a hefty 357 page volume that contains countless nuggets of insightful context and prescriptive guidance. And incredibly, the entire book is available not only as a free download but with a Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license, which means that its contents can be shared and remixed based on proper attribution, non-commercial usage, and share-alike licensing. In a keen sense, the author and publisher are “walking the talk” by contributing the book to the global community at large and encouraging others to chime in.

I could write at least a dozen blog entries to highlight the numerous key passages from the book, but I know that I just don’t have enough free time to do so effectively. So, I will simply repost an excerpt from the 1st chapter of the book, which resonated so well with my own views about the fundamental virtues that are essential to sustaining a vibrant community. Based on my experience in managing a worldwide community (for Microsoft SharePoint) and in consulting with many organizations (large and small), I would assert that no community can be successful long-term without a clear understanding of the basic concepts excerpted below. And please don’t stop reading when you get to the end of this blog entry; continue on with the rest of the book!

The Essence of Community

On February 26, 2004, three friends and I released the first episode of a new audio show called LugRadio (http://www.lugradio.org). Although LugRadio will be featured extensively in this book as a source of stories, all you really need to know about it right now is that (a) it was a loose and fun audio show (a podcast) about open source and free culture, (b) on that day it was entirely new, and (c) we had absolutely no idea what on earth we were doing. Radio personalities across the world were not exactly shaking in their boots.

Recorded in a very small room that I called a studio, but was actually a bedroom filled with secondhand recording equipment, LugRadio involved my three compadres and me opining into four precariously balanced microphones that fed into a computer. Episode 1 was around half an hour long, composed of bad jokes and a book review, and totally unpolished. At the time, it was just new and different. (Little did we know that four years later we would wrap up the show having achieved over two million downloads.) Anyway, enough of the self-congratulatory back-patting and back to the story….

With the show out, we did what many of us in the open source world do—we set up forums, wikis, and channels, and tried to get people together around our new project. The forums went online first (http://forums.lugradio.org), and people started joining.

The 22nd member was a guy called Ben Thorp, known as mrben on the forums. An Englishman living in Scotland, mrben was an open source enthusiast who stumbled onto the forums, listened to the show, and liked what he heard. For the four years that LugRadio lasted, mrben was there every single day: in total contributing over 3,000 posts; involving himself in the chat channel, the wiki, and the organization of the live events; running an episode download mirror; and much more. mrben was there every step of the way, loving every second of it.

The first question is—why? Why does a 30-something Engli-Scot decide to immerse himself so deeply in a group of people he has never met before? What is it that makes him want to spend time away from his friends and family to contribute to a radio show performed by four
strangers in a different country? Why would he want to contribute to something with seemingly no financial, career, or other conventional benefit to him?

A cynic could argue that mrben is some kind of socially challenged nerd who can only communicate with other similarly socially inept nerds. Conventional wisdom sometimes argues that anyone who contributes their time freely to something that could not benefit them financially is weird. This was clearly not the case with Ben. He had a job, a wife, and a child. He went to church regularly. When I had the pleasure of socializing with him, I found him a fun, smart, and entertaining part of the group. In fact, at two of the live events, he was a guest in my home. Social deviation was clearly not the answer, or if it was, he hid it well.

The reason why Ben was so involved in LugRadio, why Neil ran the Linux User Group meeting, and why thousands of other community members around the world get together, comes down to one simple word: belonging.

By definition, a community is a collection of people (or animals) who interact together in the same environment. Community exists everywhere in nature. From people to penguins, from monkeys to meerkats, the vast majority of organisms exhibit some form of collective grouping. Grouping, however, is a touch simplistic as a means to describe community. It is not merely the group that generates community, but the interactions within it. These interactions, and the feeling of belonging that they produce, are generated from a distinctive kind of economy: a social economy.

Building Belonging into the Social Economy

At this point in our journey, it is clear that belonging is our goal. It is that nine-letter word that you should write out in large letters and stick on your office wall. It is that word that should be at the forefront of your inspiration behind building strong community. If there is no belonging, there is no community.

From the outset, though, belonging is an abstract concept. We all seemingly understand it, but many of us struggle to describe it in words. I identify belonging pragmatically: as the positive outcome of a positive social economy. In the same way that we judge a strong financial economy by prosperity, wealth, and a quality standard of living, belonging is the reward of a strong social economy.

An economy is a set of shared concepts and processes that grow and change in an effort to generate a form of capital. In a financial economy, participants put goods and services on the market to generate financial capital. The processes and techniques they use include measuring sales, strategic marketing, enabling ease of access, and so forth. A social economy is the same thing—but we are the product, and the capital is respect and trust. The processes and techniques here are different—open communications mediums, easy access to tools, etc.—but the basic principles are the same.

Social capital is known by us all, but we know it by many different words: kudos, respect, goodwill, trust, celebrity, influence, supremacy, greatness, and leverage, to name a few.

The first known use of the term “social capital” (referred to in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community [Simon & Schuster]) was by L. J. Hanifan, a school supervisor in rural Virginia. Hanifan described social capital as “those tangible substances [that] count for most in the daily lives of people: namely goodwill, fellowship, sympathy, and social intercourse among the individuals and families who make up a social unit….”

Social capital is the collective family of positive interactions between two or more people. When you affect someone positively, it builds your social capital. This could include being generous, helping someone, sympathizing over a problem, or something else. Hanifan identifies the opportunity behind social capital:

  • The individual is helpless socially, if left to himself…. If he comes into contact with his neighbor, and they with other neighbors, there will be an accumulation of social capital, which may immediately satisfy his social needs and which may bear a social potentiality sufficient to the substantial improvement of living conditions in the whole community. The community as a whole will benefit by the cooperation of all its parts, while the individual will find in his associations the advantages of the help, the sympathy, and the fellowship of his neighbors.

The meat in Hanifan’s description is the opportunity for social capital to “bear a social potentiality sufficient to the substantial improvement of living conditions in the whole community.” In essence, if a member of your community has a positive approach to another member, her social capital grows, which has a positive impact on that person and the community as a whole. It all sounds a lot like karma, and it is.

Of course, capital, whether monetary or social, is not the end game. People don’t make money for the purposes of just having money: they make money because it allows them to do other things.

This is an important aspect of understanding where an economy starts and ends. Most folks riding the financial economy are not purely greedy numbers freaks who just want a big pot of money; most people who work with social capital are not merely air-kissing, hand-wavey, superficial animals who simply want to name-drop and be name-dropped in the interests of social acceptance. Of course, the greedy and the socially obsessed do exist, but it is important not to use them as a basis for judgment. The economy is not flawed; those people are flawed.

A final point: for an economy to work, every participant needs to believe in the economy. Belief is a critical component in how any group of people or animals functions. This can be belief in God, belief in values, or belief in a new future. Whatever the core belief is, the economy and the community can be successful only if everyone has faith in it.

So let’s have a quick recap:

  • A sense of belonging is what keeps people in communities. This belonging is the goal of community building. The hallmark of a strong community is when its members feel that they belong.
  • Belonging is the measure of a strong social economy. This economy’s currency is not the money that you find in your wallet or down the back of your couch, but is social capital.
  • For an economy and community to be successful, the participants need to believe in it. If no one believes in the community that brings them together, it fails.
  • Like any other economy, a social economy is a collection of processes that describe how something works and is shared between those who participate.
  • These processes, and the generation of social capital, which in turn generates belonging, needs to be effectively communicated.
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