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The community craze is a symptom of what the world is going through right now

May 13, 2021
Rosie Sherry
Community Lead
The community craze is a symptom of what the world is going through right now
Welcome to The Observatory, the community newsletter from Orbit.

Each week we go down rabbit holes so you don't have to. We share tactics, trends and valuable resources we've observed in the world of community building.

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The world has gone community crazy. It’s not that hard to see. The dramatic shift has definitely been noted by people like me who have been studying and building communities for years. I won’t lie, it’s exciting to all of a sudden be appreciated and valued for the work that we do.

“About time!” is what I’ve heard recently and many times from community builders. Of course, it’s great we are now being given a seat at that table. I’m loving it!

However, I take it with a bit of skepticism. Yes, I want us to have a seat, but for me, it has to be done carefully, thoughtfully, and for all the right reasons.

As community builders, we cannot simply apply what has worked in the past and expect it to work today. The world has fundamentally shifted in so many ways. I most definitely won’t pretend to understand all the moving pieces. I sure am finding it fascinating though!

Here are some key thoughts about where I think we stand from a ‘community building industry’ point of view. I don’t come to you with answers, just thoughts, ideas and many questions!

🗓 Book a timeslot if you’d like to geek out on any of these thoughts with me.

Community is cool, but it’s not necessarily the answer (right now)

Community is the cool kid in town. Everyone wants one, yet most don’t really understand why.What I’ve noticed time and time again are people jumping and sinking in the deep end. They end up confused and lack understanding on why they literally can’t swim. The lack of community understanding rings alarm bells to me.

My biggest fear is community being given a bad name and our seats taken away from us. This thought hurts me deeply because I know and have experienced the power of community. When people come together with a purpose, vision, or mission, our breath is taken away with what a community can achieve.

Many communities these days lack the most basic community principles, and I worry that this is what will be remembered. The failed communities will be made examples of why community isn’t important.

I feel and know to a certain extent, that people are jumping to the solution first. They believe community is the solution to their problems rather than looking at the problem and figuring out what is the actual best solution.

One mantra common in early-stage startup land is that you should “Fall in love with the problem, not the solution,” and I think that’s an apt concept when deciding whether or not a community is the answer.

People look at successful communities today and decide that they want that same thing. Yet, they fail to see the years of work that has gone into building those communities. Communities don’t start as communities. They start with things like a purpose and conversations. Weekend Club and Femstreet are good examples of this.

We need to study and learn what is working right now

As community builders, it’s crucial that we open our minds up as much as we possibly can. The past year of COVID has been pretty amazing at showing us new possibilities on how we can gather.

Shortly after the first lockdown in the UK, Ministry of Testing hosted its first online conference. It was a mixture of live and pre-recorded talks & activities. One of the things that stood out to me was some of the talks were replays from previous conferences, some were years old, but the result was amazing.

The experience was magical for a few reasons:

- They were all in a time of emotional uncertainty

- People were watching a talk together (chatting and asking questions as it was happening), many could have watched it on their own before, but had never bothered.

- The speaker was joining in the live text chat too, and then came online for a live video AMA

Prior to that we had never even considered doing that was an option, seeing it in action was a revelation and pivotal for me. Now we have things like Netflix Parties and Girl Trek’s Black History Bootcamp. It almost feels normal to explore a (re)connection in new ways.

I’m excited about what other things we can and should be experimenting with. Human creativity is everywhere. The old way of seeing community as a ‘forum’ or an ‘organized gathering’ needs to be thrown out the window.

I almost feel like anything is possible, and to me, that’s mind-blowing to think about.

Is it time to go back and look at the basics?

When I think of what the basics are for community building, what springs to mind is the ability to pull things back to the bare minimum. But what does this actually mean?

At the heart of this is curiosity. To be willing to explore, converse, and experiment. This means being open-minded and educated, to what is actually needed. Sometimes this results in community, sometimes it does not.

Going into a project fixated on the idea that community is the answer, or that community exists from day one, is quite frankly, a dangerous waste of your time.

Here are some things you can be asking yourself at this stage.

What should I be observing?

I have a personal philosophy of 'always be learning and observing'. I feel that the more we can do this, then the more answers naturally gravitate towards you.

What is it the community is doing and talking about?

- What is important in your industry right now?

- What are they excited about?

- What annoys them?

- What is their vision?

- Why are they really there?

- What’s stopping them from going somewhere else?

What conversations are happening?

The things people talk about are the clues you need. Pay attention to them. Be a good student and take notes!

- What is (not) being talked about?

- Is there a gap that can be served?

- Who are the people that you can help?

- Who are the people that can help you?

- Do you have anything to add to the conversations?

- Who aligns with your way of thinking?

- How does your vision fit within these current conversations, if at all?

Taking the time to understand what people are talking about is your competitive advantage. The more time you take doing this, the more opportunities you will naturally discover that no one else will.

What is the vision of the organization?

Much of what community building is about is getting people to believe in the direction you are heading. They have to love, want, or need to be a part of it.

- How can you get people excited about your vision?

- Does your vision actually matter?

- How will your vision be helping people?

- What can you do to build trust?

- Why should they follow your vision over someone else’s?

- Does your vision overlap with the values they hold?

- Does your vision stand a chance in the future?

- Is your vision too big?

- How can you break it down into smaller and meaningful actions?

What values do we hold?

The world is changing fast. The values and rituals that use to be formed from religion and culture no longer exist. We are multicultural and we need to redefine the values and rituals that matter to us today.

- Who are you?

- Who are you not?

- Who do you want to be?

- What new and exciting values can we co-create?

- What new rituals can be formed?

- How can we be less afraid of becoming the people we want to be?

- What boundaries can we positively break?

This, to me, is perhaps one of the biggest areas of change and impact we can have as community builders. What we value is changing, constantly and increasingly quickly. How can we stay connected with all these moving pieces?

What trends are happening right now?

Personally, I mostly look at trends from a technological, business, or cultural perspective. You may have different focuses.

Whatever trends you focus on, please don’t dismiss them. You only need to look back 1(!), 5, 10, 15 years ago to see how the world has dramatically changed.

There are so many questions you should be asking yourself, such as:

- How are people changing their behaviors?

- What are their spending habits like?

- What tools are people (really) using?

- Where are people naturally showing up?

- Where and how is it hard to get people involved?

- What behaviors are people naturally adopting?

- Where are others succeeding, or failing?

- How are people trying to gather?

- How are people frustrated or tired?

We have a huge opportunity to innovate

I do have the opinion that community can (generally) solve most problems. I feel the future holds a fine balancing act: knowing that community takes time but also being open minded to what the future holds.

I say that community is a symptom of the current world situation because (it feels like) everyone has jumped onto it as the solution, rather than looking at the underlying problems. It is simply too early to tell how much of an impact this current emphasis on building community will have.

Now, personally, I think we can prove that community is often the answer to what we need, or what we will need, but my current concern is that we aren’t thinking deeply enough about how to approach it with real depth, commercial and human consideration.

I’ve included 40+ questions above to help us start thinking deeply, together. Yes, there are a lot of questions to consider and discuss, but in my opinion, we owe it to ourselves and our future communities to invest in understanding upfront. Doing so will help us avoid costly mistakes later, and help us all stay in our hard-earned seats we’ve gained at the table.

🤔 What does this make you think about right now?

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