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Cranes in city skyline This is not about how to create communities and who is doing it wrong. This is about the perception of community and the difference between the perception and reality.

Here's what I know about communities:

  • They're hard to get into.
  • They're hard to get out of.

What in the what?

On the first rule: this goes for all communities. Move to a new neighborhood. Get into a new software project. Go to a new school. Move to a new city. Join a new company. All of these are "communities" in different ways. It's usually not the case that you show up and you're immediately seen as "a valuable member of the community"—you're an unknown quantity. You have to put energy into this community to be welcomed; to be able to contribute, you have to have spent time there.

To the second rule: once you're in, you're in. It's hard to leave a community. If it's part of where you "live," you have to spend some effort to not being a part of it. Leaving your church is a big deal. You have to break a lot of habits at once to leave a community in which you've become ingrained. The more energy you put in to get in, the more you have to be able to put in again to get out.

Here's what to worry about with our new online spaces:

  • They're easy to get into.
  • They're easy to get out of.

Join a Slack team/IRC channel/Facebook group, and there's no way to know who's an old valued member of the community—who's brand new and doesn't have the community norms or who's an old valued member of the community that's having a bad day.

We can talk about how these things are communities, but there's no shared goal, no one thing that you're working towards. They look like "communities," they call themselves "communities," but they don't meet the first or second rules. They're easy to get into. They're super easy to get out of. There's no real attachment to the space.

But make no mistake: these can be good communication tools. Just don't confuse the tool for the desired outcome.

(Image courtesy Till Krech, (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic))

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