Every movement, to stay alive – a very difficult thing to do historically – has to find a way to harness that initial surge of emotion and turn it to the hard, steady, un-sexy work of recruiting new members, strategizing, negotiating with those in power, keeping itself going. – George Packer
I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a member of a group – of a community or a business or of people that practise a hobby. It’s probably not something that many people have thought about since university but we do go through life being a part of circles and changing circles over time. As someone who went to boarding school I learned early about how groups form and how you can be inside or outside them. Ever since then I’ve seen the value of participating in groups but also been wary of them and their ability to draw you in and then keep you in, restricting your ability to move out again.
When you think about it those kinds of groups are everywhere. Religions use the methods of marking you as in or out. So do companies. Your country gets you to feel that way by stoking up feelings of nationalism. Sometimes these are good, as when people volunteer their time or donate their money to help the needy. Often they are bad as one community takes up a position and argues or fights against another.
I’ve been through a few groups in my time and I can think of quite a few that had a range of interesting problems. Perhaps you had a founder or leader who took everything personally. Perhaps you had differences of opinion and no way to resolve it other than the exercise of power, which you didn’t have. In such situations one group might leave and set up a competing group. I remember there being a cultural difference between people who preferred dancing in lines and those that danced in circles in one particular group. And now, of course, with online groups, you have a huge range of options – but what marks out the ones that seem to have a large and growing membership from the ones that struggle to get interest?
If we ignore the ones that are based around a celebrity – where the members are really there to follow what one or a few people do – then the thing that makes the biggest difference is how the group helps you to engage and participate in what’s going on. Most of us are lurkers and we just want to wait and watch and consume content. Some will create content. Others will engage with content, and perhaps curate it. I think curation is perhaps the hardest skill to develop – being able to critically but considerately bring together useful material that may help someone else.
In the olden days – when we used to meet face to face – what was important was having someone who would take on the responsibility for new members. These days it’s probably about content. We tend to follow individuals – either for their own work or for their community based work for a while before we try engage with them. Some of that content is going to be organic – the stuff you put out as you’re making everything else. But it probably makes sense for some of it to be meta content – stuff about you and what you do and guidance to how to get started interacting with your work.
The models of community that I think are important in this post-modern world are ones where communities can simply just get along – whether it’s a community of thousands or a community of one. We’re going to bump into each other and the question is whether that leads to conflict or not. Throughout history the default reaction has been one of conflict. What are the chances that things could be different now?