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The 11 Pillars of My Community Philosophy
Lessons from two decades of community building and research
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My friend Jay Clouse has a wonderful question he likes to ask people:
“What’s something you believe but don’t yet have the data to back up?”
I’ve been building and studying communities a long time. 15 years professionally, and much longer unprofessionally. When Jay asked me this question, I realized that over time I’ve formed a set of core beliefs that drive how I build community.
I’ve never articulated them before. This is a first stab. It’s not an exhaustive list, but I think it does a pretty good job of encompassing my philosophy.
1. Communities are defined by who doesn’t belong
This is the community builders’ dilemma:
We create communities to help people feel included, but it’s impossible to build a community that doesn’t make some people feel excluded.
Exclude the people who make your members feel unable to have the important conversations they need to have.
Exclude with intention, exclude with empathy, but exclude you must.
2. You can’t convince people to do anything.
Your members and potential members are all at one of three stages:
The Convinced: eager to take action
The Undecided: needs a gentle nudge to take action
The Unconvinced: aren’t ready to take action
Always start with the convinced. Once you’ve activated the convinced, then move to the undecided. Only after you’ve activated both should you focus on the unconvinced.
The convinced don’t need much. Mostly just permission. Give them the tools and remove the barriers preventing them from contributing.
The undecided need some prompting. They won’t take action unless you ask.
The unconvinced need time. Make it easy for them to watch and learn.
3. You need leader-community fit.
Everyone has the ability to build great communities but no one person will be great at building every community.
Communities are adept at sniffing out inauthenticity. If you’re building community just because it’s a job or a good business opportunity, but you don’t personally care about the members or the topic, every day will feel hard.
When the community is a group that you personally crave for yourself, you don’t need a community framework. Just follow your intuition.
4. People join communities for benefits, not belonging.
People primarily join communities to learn something new, to achieve a goal, to grow status, to be entertained, to have fun, etc. We only find and value belonging after we’ve been a member and formed relationships.
Even if someone is lonely and coming to a group to form new relationships, they’ll only join the group if there’s some benefit that they value. They aren’t going to your underwater knitting meetup unless they actually want to do underwater knitting, regardless of how lonely they are.
Belonging is an outcome of participating in a community, not a cause.
5. The word community is too broad to be meaningful.
We use the word community to describe our families, neighborhoods, jobs, sports, interest groups, religion, friends, political groups, teams, social networks, schools, hobbies…
To have a meaningful conversation about how to build a community, you must first clarify why you’re building one, and determine what specific kind of community will achieve your goal.
Don’t choose a community platform before you know why you’re building your community, or you’ll end up designing it around the platform instead of around the members.
6. Communities don’t solve loneliness, relationships do.
One deep, meaningful relationship does much more to relieve a person of loneliness than thousands of shallow relationships.
If members aren’t forming deep relationships, your community is not solving loneliness.
In fact, being in a community where you have no deep relationships is one of the most lonely experiences one can have. It’s like standing alone in the corner of a busy bar.
If you want to eliminate loneliness, help members form a deep relationship with at least one person. You do that by engineering serendipity. When we believe the universe brings us together, a relationship feels like magic.
7. People need a balanced diet of community.
Despite pillar #6, not every community needs to be deep and meaningful. Not every community needs to solve loneliness.
Sometimes people just want a space to be silly together.
Sometimes we prefer transactional social spaces like a coffee shop.
Sometimes we crave big groups and sometimes we need small ones.
Don’t be a community purist. Don’t spend too much time worrying about what is “true” community and what isn’t. Let people community how they want to community.
8. Great communities are weird communities.
The inside jokes, the strange rituals, the unrecognizable symbols... these are the things that make a community feel like magic.
When you see something weird taking form in your community, run with it.
9. People want to be welcomed, not onboarded.
Onboarding is for ships and airplanes. It’s orderly. It’s transactional. It’s optimized.
Welcoming is for communities. It’s personal. It’s messy. It makes them feel included.
Welcome members, one-on-one, for as long as possible. When you can no longer do it, ask your existing members to help you.
10. All communities are born from past communities.
Take a look at any community and you’ll find a line, barely visible, connecting it all the way back to the start of humanity.
Every community is carved from a past community.
Sometimes it’s a direct split. When a community becomes large, it no longer solves all its members' specific, nuanced needs. Those needs grow strong enough and members break off to form a new community. This is how most religions have formed. If the community organizers are smart, they’ll create the space for this new community to exist within its walls, as Reddit did with its first subreddit: Ask Reddit.
Sometimes it isn’t so direct. Community founders pull from the culture, norms, and structure of their previous communities, changing just a few things to make it feel like its own.
All communities are also in a constant state of change, constructing and deconstructing.
Any attempt to maintain a community’s status quo will fail.
11. I know nothing about community.
The more I learn about community the more I learn how little I know.
We cannot truly know community any more than we can know love. I cannot teach someone what a community is any more than I can make someone understand love when they have not experienced it themselves.
Community is an enigma. Community is immeasurable. Community IS love.
I hope these pillars, whether you vibe with them or vehemently disagree, guide you in your own community journey.
Here they are again:
Your turn: What are the pillars of community that guide you?
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📰 Community News
A new section? A new section! There was a lot of news this week.
Reddit increased the prices of their API access and over 7,000 subreddits have gone dark in protest. This quote from Casey Newton stood out to me: “Tell your users that the community belongs to them for long enough, and at some point they’ll start to believe you.” This is going to be a fascinating case study on the clash between community and capitalism.
Orbit announced a new suite of tools for managing community champions programs. Love to see it.
Sarah Drinkwater raised a new fund focused on community businesses. Massively impressive that she was able to raise in this market. She’s a legend.
Circle joins Discourse, Mighty, and others in launching their own suite of AI tools. I wonder what percentage of community content will be AI-generated moving forward.
That’s all for this week!
We had a wonderful weekend up in the Catskills for a friend’s wedding. We snuck in a hike in Mohonk before the festivities.
On the business front, I closed my fifth client this week which means I am officially fully booked! It’s been a blast getting to work with a lot of different kinds of communities and this new one is a true gem of obscurity (compared to the tech communities I’m used to). I’ll write more about them soon.
You can still get in touch if you’d like to work together and I’ll let you know when a slot opens up.
Or just hit reply and say hi because that’s what friends do. How’s life? How’s business? How’s community? TELL ME.
Until next week!
Thanks for building community.