When we are asked to visualize or plan for a community it can be overwhelming or even impossible to think of all the potential moving pieces. The process of figuring out what your community needs is hard and slow.
One common failure case I’ve seen when people start building community is that they begin by visualizing a ‘community as a space’. By focusing on the end product (‘the space’) we get distracted with what would actually be a successful community.
Whether this ‘community space’ is physical or virtual, there is this current perspective that a community is only real and successful if we create a vibrant permanent space to gather. We get over excited with these possibilities that we forget to look at the basic steps of what leads to creating a healthy community.
I’m here to tell you that this is the equivalent of building a business without any product or market validation. A vibrant community space is great, but it’s the end result of doing the hard work of first understanding what your community needs.
In startup world, Steve Blank is famous for encouraging founders to get outside the building and talk to potential customers. I think that’s fantastic advice for community builders as well.
Alongside having a community vision, I feel conversations are at the heart of building any community. Where you have a vision, and conversations evolving around that vision, you have a really good chance of building a strong community.
Thinking about conversations as core to community can become an eye opener. It may not seem like a big difference from having a ‘community space’, but the more I think about it, the more it makes complete sense.
Just this week I hosted a Community Twitter Space. I had been struggling on the specifics of how to host. The opportunity arose with Hillary, a Senior Community Manager, being the trigger. She tweeted a comment at me about a community flywheel I wrote recently. I used it as an opportunity to create conversation. First, directly with Hillary, then inviting her and Jelmer to join a Twitter Space. I had never really spoken to either of them in the past, but I do feel these actions have contributed to our Orbit community, and importantly to strengthening our relationship.
When you shift your focus to having good conversations, a community space will naturally evolve from that. The opposite is unlikely true.
Firstly, the benefits of having conversations are immense, as they:
These outcomes can create the gravity around which a community naturally forms.
Secondly, conversations happen everywhere, and we cannot stop them from happening. In the virtual world, we are more aware of this as it is just easier to tune into many more of the conversations that are happening.
Let's look at this list with the perspective of the mediums and tools these conversations might happen:
This is far from a complete list, but hopefully, it’s enough to show you the variety of places that conversations can happen.
When we accept that conversations happen everywhere, we can then understand why it is so hard, especially these days, to try to enforce conversations to happen within spaces that we artificially create.
The reality is when we have conversations with an aligned vision, we create community. It doesn’t matter where those conversations are happening — connections, relationships and community can be built. And of course, a tool like Orbit can help in understanding who’s having what kinds of conversations across the various channels.
If we truly understand that conversations are scattered, then we can understand that we should be leading with conversations first, wherever they may be. This doesn’t mean we can’t create permanent community homes. It means that we need to rebalance the focus.
We cannot control how people converse. We can embrace, work and evolve with it.
It’s amazing. And exciting. But also, woah.
Before the internet we would build community locally. We would value the local events. The serendipity of bumping into each other and building up relationships over time. The spur of the moment activities. The sharing of knowledge, gossip or news. The shared understandings, needs and visions we had.
We did not have to show up at a particular space to feel a part of a community. Sure, it could be part of it, but we could figure out how to gather and create progress in many other ways.
Nor did we have to measure our progress based on whether people showed up for ‘town hall meetings’. Progress and community success can be measured in many ways. The upkeep of neighborhoods or how safe we feel are great examples of how to consider the ecosystem.
Now, with tech and the evolution of the internet, so many doors have opened. Yet, there is still this fixation on starting and leading with a permanent place called home. Perhaps this is a dangerous focus as these communities end up getting measured by what happens within the walls that we create, and not by what happens outside.
So much magic happens on the outside, and it’s our challenge and opportunity as community builders to go find those conversations, to get involved, and to try to learn something about what the conversations say about the people having them.
I’m calling for us to re-think our approach to community and to dive in deep with an emphasis on having conversations. There are many ways we can have conversations.
Here are some things that we are doing right now at Orbit:
Communitree: a network of community building audio conversations. My short term goal is to co-create 100 conversations. I’d love to get to 1000. Then we can see where that takes us next.
Community Built: regular audio discussions on how people have built their communities
Twitch: The Orbit team are also hosting Twitch streams, it was started with just people from team Orbit, but it is growing to include other people from the community.
One-to-one conversations: I put regular invites out on Twitter, via emails and on our Discord for people to book 30 minute chat sessions with me. To talk about anything community related that is on their mind.
Twitter Spaces: I’ve started hosting weekly Community Twitter Spaces. I love the excuse it gives me to reach out to new people and also the potential it brings to pull people in.
Discord community: this is our community home, it is where we support our customers and are slowly and confidently growing an intentional community.
Our goal is to measure all of these activities, all with different weight and emphasis, to help us understand better how to build our Orbit community. All of these things matter to our community as a whole.
In his book, Outside Lies Magic, John Stilgoe says “Exploration is a liberal art, because it is an art that liberates, that frees, that opens away from narrowness. And it is fun.”
With this perspective that conversations happen everywhere, it means our communities are decentralized. We are community where the conversations happen.
There is another bigger perspective, if conversations happen everywhere.
There’s lots to explore together, like:
Big questions that I’ll leave you to ponder. ✌️