Community is a buzz word that’s thrown around a lot these days, often without a strong argument to back it up. Instead of giving concrete actions to take or some kind of practical strategy, some so-called “gurus” just keep saying the same thing over and over: “It’s all about community.” Right. Community. What the hell is that anyway? Let’s consult the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary:

com·mu·ni·ty (\kə-myü-nə-tē\) noun

1 : a unified body of individuals: as a : state, commonwealth b : the people with common interests living in a particular area; broadly : the area itself <the problems of a large community> c : an interacting population of various kinds of individuals (as species) in a common location d : a group of people with a common characteristic or interest living together within a larger society <a community of retired persons> e : a group linked by a common policy f : a body of persons or nations having a common history or common social, economic, and political interests <the international community> g : a body of persons of common and especially professional interests scattered through a larger society <the academic community>

2 : society at large

3 a : joint ownership or participation <community of goods> b : common character : likeness <community of interests> c : social activity : fellowship d : a social state or condition

We’re seeing three things here: unified body of individuals, society at large, and joint ownership or participation. Ok. Let’s break it down like this guy on a dance floor.

Community: Part 1

The unified body of individuals – that’s you and me. We come together over something we share. Maybe it’s a like or a dislike. Maybe it’s a product or brand. Maybe it’s a geographic location. Something brings us together or puts us in a certain category. But with us comes our baggage and previous experiences. We bring along our preferences and prejudices. We also carry our education and perceptions. In this part of community, we identify ourselves and begin to put ourselves into categories. Practical Example: Our Facebook profiles or Twitter pages.

Community: Part 2

Then, on another level, there’s society at large. The “they” in “they say”. It’s all of us plus everyone else in a specific group or category. They’re also bringing their baggage but at the same time, they’re (somewhat) separating it out in order to enforce a kind of group consensus or mentality. Rules are developed. Definitions and labels are crafted. Things are put into order in the universe because it makes us feel good and in control. Practical example: Twitter as a whole. For instance, how users as a whole respond negatively to the use of Auto-DMs.

Community: Part 3

There’s also shared ownership and participation. People in these categories contribute and practice a dance of give and take. Sometimes they give, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they’re along for the ride. The key is that someone in the category is contributing at some point or another, although that contribution may be positive or negative. Practical example: Forums. Users contribute, flame, and self-police (to some degree).

People Aren’t Just Numbers

You see, there’s more to the definition than we think. It’s not just about the number of followers or interactions. It’s not just about driving traffic or monetizing space. The question of quality comes into play. Is the community healthy? Does it grow and change? Does it take on all of these characteristics? Does it put focus on one characteristic in particular? Ask yourself these questions and you’ll see how not all communities are created equal. But in simplest terms, it still comes down to the common denominator: people.

People make up communities. You want to reach the community? Start with one person and work your way through. The community will notice and will be more likely to respond favorably. When you start with one, you put value on both the individual and the community itself – and that’s what makes all the difference.

So when “strategists” start spouting the importance of community, I’d love to ask, “What do you do to support your community?” In many cases, the answer is silence. Many people who preach the values of community don’t actually contribute. Plus, few actually focus on other individuals besides themselves. Instead of providing useful, engaging, or meaningful information or conversations, many just toot their own horns or advertise their own achievements/products/services. “Hey! Look at me! See how great I am?” That’s not community.

Community is when you take the time to get to know the members of your community and actually start conversations with them. You find out their likes and dislikes. You share common interests. You bare your flaws. You give feedback. You provide value and practical advice.You showcase your strengths. You help build something that’s bigger than your reputation and your resume. You focus on the people – not the numbers.

Me, Myself, and My Communities

On Wednesday, I supported my community in three ways. First, I passed on the good work of someone I knew. I touted her skills and passed along her info to someone who may need/appreciate it. Second, I shared a story. Unfortunately, the story involved my car and an exploding tire, but it was a story that turned into a conversation. Third, I shopped at the Scranton Farmer’s Market. I showed my support for local business (I try to shop local when I can) and picked up some yummy eats in the process. Strawberry butter, dried kiwi, peaches, sweet corn, and dried thyme to name a few. Then, I shared some of that kiwi with a coworker.

Community functions on a variety of levels and I think it’s important to recognize that an internet guru’s definition of community may be a whole lot different than what a farmer would have thought at the market yesterday. Understand that community isn’t just a buzz word to throw around. It’s not just about the community you build around yourself or your brand. It’s also about participating in the communities built up around you, both on the web and in your neighborhood. It’s about the people and what brings them together.

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