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What’s in the word?

So what is a community? The word is used to mean many different things. Wikipedia talks of ninety-four discrete definitions of the word in social sciences in the 1950s. Let’s see if we can get a better picture of what we mean here with the word by pointing to some of the attributes of a community. Why bother? You might ask. Well, because if we are to try to understand communities, we need to be sure we are talking about the same thing, or at least be aware when we are not talking about the same beast (to use the word Jono Bacon uses about communities).

Belonging to a identifiable group of people

First and foremost, a community is a group of people. But is being a group of people sufficient to make up a community? If we were to point to the characteristic of a group of people, say that they are both tall and men, I doubt if we’d agree that all tall men constitute a community. There has to be some agreement between the members of the group as to what makes up their group and who belongs to it. In other words, the community has an identity that distinguishes those who belong to it for those who don’t. This may be a common interest or a shared activity. It may be a shared culture, a vocabulary used by all or common ways of doing things. A profession or a craft might be seen as a community in this sense as they have all these characteristics (common interests, shared activities, shared culture and terminology, common practices). But although dentists might identify with the group of all dentists and have a diploma to prove they are part of the profession, does that mean that the group of all dentists is necessarily a community.

Links between the members of the group

Clearly something more is needed than the fact of belonging and the notion of identity. One of the things that stands out, for me at least, in the notion of community, is that members of a community are linked together both by a shared goal or purpose and that leads them to act together. The Writers Circle, for example, brings together aspiring writers who want to share their experience and knowledge about writing. If a number of our dentists, mentioned above, were to get together to organize ongoing professional training for themselves, they might be considered a community in the sense implied here. It is this shared goal that strengthens the ties between the members and distinguishes them from those more casual ties that link together people who participate in an online platform like Twitter or Facebook. Note that people on Twitter might agree they have some goals in common about why they use on Twitter, like sharing information, but that does not necessarily tie them together in a community. The ties are too weak. Many online activities in social networks, like Twitter or Facebook, are characterized by weak ties. Where the strength of a tie between people depends on the time spent together, the emotional intensity of the relationship, the degree of mutual confiding and the level of reciprocal services granted. (Granovetter, 1973).

Ways and means of communication

One of the key channels used when pursuing a common goal or purpose is communication, especially in the case of an online community. Without communication a community cannot exist. Bacon stresses the importance of communication in communities when he quotes Peter Block: “community is fundamentally an interdependent human system given form by the conversation it holds with itself.” (Bacon 2009 Pg8) For him, then, it is communication that shapes the community and gives it its substance. In comparison, Etienne Wenger puts the stress not on communication but on learning together (Wenger 1998) but the vehicle of that learning is communication within the group and with the outside world. Communication in itself does not distinguish a group’s activities from those of a community. However, a community generally has its own organized system of communication and its own set of tools, even if that system is not necessarily formalized or entirely explicit.

Learning together

Although Bacon briefly makes reference to learning in his book about Communities (Bacon 2009 Pg42) he doesn’t give it the central place I believe it deserves. Learning takes place all the time and in the most surprising contexts, but the nature of communities makes them a potentially privileged place for learning. Newcomers learn the ways of the community. Members learn from each other. The community as a whole is challenge by exceptional circumstances to find new solutions and has to learn and innovate as a result. And in the case of open communities, a steady flow of information and people from elsewhere bring new ideas and new ways of doing things. Despite the writings of people like Etienne Wenger, however, the learning aspect of communities is much neglected.┬áThis is a shame because the learning perspective makes much sense of what happens in communities.

More than just groups of people

One of the first attributes of a community mentioned above is that it is a group of people. But it turns out that a community is much more than a group of people. A community also embraces an evolving set of ways of doing things that are negotiated amongst the members of the community. Wenger calls these ways of doing things, practices (Wenger 1998). These practices are an essential part of the life of the community and contribute to the identity of the community, helping to distinguish it from other communities. The ways of doing things that are typical of the community have to be learned by newcomers if they want to be accepted and participate fully in the community. In addition to practices, especially in online communities, there are also an array of tools used by the community in their practices. In the modern online world the move is to the combined use of a great many tools many of which are small apps that often interact with each other. In fact, the ways of doing things and the combinations of tools used to do them are so closely interwoven that it can be useful to think of them as making up a personal or group ‘environment’. This environment is no platform, but a selection of apps that are integrated in the way things are regularly done. Both the constellation of apps and the set of practices influence each other mutually and are constantly evolving.┬áThe speed at which these changes take place depends on the nature of the community, in particular, their openness.

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