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Who should own community?

June 4, 2021
Rosie Sherry
Community Lead
Who should own community?
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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When you look at the communities you lead, who do you feel owns it?

◻️ You
◻️ Everyone
◻️ No one
◻️ All of the above

It’s something I asked myself and then Twitter in my quest to explore the boundaries of what community means in today’s world.

What would you choose? I challenge you to reply to this email with your answer. 😇

Personally, I think I would opt for ‘all of the above’.

When community is decentralized. When conversations are key to the heart of a community. And when the true value of community lies in strong relationships. Can you, as a business, really claim ownership of that?

I think not.

“Who owns community?” is a common question for many businesses today, but I’m here to tell you: no one owns the community, but we’re all responsible for it.

Ownership is different to responsibility

We can be responsible for community activities, but not necessarily own the community itself.

As professional community builders we should strive to bring people together, with purpose and with value. Bringing people together does not mean we own community. It means we are responsible for the instances in how people gather.

We have a duty, as professionals, to strive for the best possible outcomes, for example:

  • We are responsible for when we bring people together
  • We need to abide by ethics, cultures and laws.
  • We need to ensure our people are safe and cared for
  • When it relates to business, we need to consider whether community activities are aligned with those goals

Again, we are responsible for how we bring people together, it does not mean we own it all.

Why even ask the question of who owns a community?

The world has shifted faster than anyone could imagine and it feels like community is at an interesting turning point.

This does not mean we should take advantage of the “community craze” situation. It is more my hope that asking questions leads us to rethink everything and to take hold of the opportunities and investments that community has always deserved, yet never gotten, until now. 🎉

I hope we can be mature about the situation and accept that so many things just didn’t work in the past. I don’t think this means we did a bad job as ‘community people’. It’s more we weren’t given the opportunities or resources to create the best possible communities.

We can keep doing what hasn’t really worked. We can keep believing that we own community, or, we can re-examine and re-imagine community life with the hope to do better this time around.

I feel that when community is decentralized and when conversations are core to community building, then it is near impossible to clearly define who owns what. It’s likely even a pointless discussion.

Instead of focusing on who owns a community, perhaps we can change the question we are asking.

Why and how are we supposed to gather?

When we understand that no one really owns community then we can shift our mind to perhaps more important things.

We can start focusing on things like why we care, why we want to gather and the goals we want to achieve. It’s an important mindset shift — our focus becomes on helping the community and the people get to where they want to be.

The more we do that:

  • the more we all win
  • the more we will see that no one owns community
  • the more we will see that everyone helps build community

We are all community builders, we all contribute to what a community can become. As professionals we need to figure out how to embrace and support it.

But we are not only the builders or managers. We are also the curators. The gardeners. The designers. The architects. The facilitators.

We are all community builders now

When we start to think like this, the boundaries become blurred.

One of the most common examples I often refer to is the tendency to dismiss social media as ‘not being community’.  Somewhere along the journey people have said that social media is marketing, and that’s where the discussion seems to end.

Yet, I very much believe, feel and know that I’ve built up community on social media. Both personally and on behalf of companies. I have used social media with different hats — as a founder, community builder, and a marketeer.

I didn’t always wear the ‘community builder’ hat, but I think everything I did helped towards building community.

I think what this really means is that every channel can be re-examined as a potential community channel, rather than be assumed that it is a marketing or sales funnel by default.

When we are community-driven, we are value-, relationship- and conversation-driven. To me this means these conversations can and should happen anywhere. We can all contribute to the conversation, but we may want to re-think how we should be contributing.

When we see everyone as community builders we can shift our mindset — our focus then becomes on other things like:

  • How can everyday people have better conversations?
  • What business processes do we need to create, adapt or remove?
  • How can we use technology to our advantage?
  • What does this mean for professional community builders?

It becomes our job to explore this, but how?

Here is a small selection of ideas.

Get past the small talk

One of our goals as community professionals is perhaps to enable others to get past the small talk and move onto more meaningful conversations. It does not mean that as community professionals we have to have those discussions or be directly involved in them. It’s more that we need to enable them, empower them, and give them rocket boosters.

As an example, I was forever getting stuck in small talk at conferences. I’d attend, have conversations with a few random people and never really connect. When I hosted conferences for Ministry of Testing it became a focus of mine to build community all year round, so that when people did go to a conference the attendees could dive into good and meaningful conversations quickly. This long-term attention to many-to-many connections is essential to helping your members go deep with one another.

Get past the small talk by doing things like:

  • Understand people’s expertise
  • Find ways to connect people, repeatably
  • Converse with people individually, or in small groups
  • Make it as easy as possible for people to find out about each other

All conversations contribute to community

When we take the mindset that all conversations can contribute to a better community, how will that change the mindset of the whole team?

Let's play. What if...

  • we all had a curiosity of people mindset?
  • every communication channel could be a potential way to have better conversations?  
  • we all tried to build good relationships?
  • we reconsidered how to use data to build better relationships?
  • we all clearly understood each other, our goals, and our desires?
  • the team communicated the ideas, challenges, and potential ways we could help our people?
  • we toned down our promotional voice and embraced empathy a bit more?

We can call some of this fluff or cheese, but isn’t this what people do to build companies? This is the ultimate customer research. Good conversations can lead to the best customer insights. This is really why people really are seeing community as a moat.

The challenge is for everyone to start seeing the opportunity in this and to (re)design our businesses around conversations. What if our customer research happened in every day conversations and we passed on these stories to whoever needs to hear it?

Knowledge and relationships is for everyone

We must not underestimate the power of knowledge, experience, and world views that people have. Once we see that, to build community, more people need to be contributing to these conversations, we will see that it is clearly unfair to expect the ‘community professionals’ to sustain the burden.

We all need to be contributing. With conversations. With ideas. With experience. With building relationships. As community professionals we can’t be expected to be a part of every conversation or every relationship, but it is entirely reasonable to expect others to help us understand to open our minds together.

As professional community builders we need to educate people to have better conversations and community. Big vision is important, but equally valuable is the need to show people the tactics, one at a time.

What does the future hold?

The future for me is contributing to conversations with a community mindset. We can all have this mindset. It should not just be left to ‘community builders’ to deal with. These conversations build trust, which then enables the whole team to learn and take action.

As community professionals we need to:

  • learn from the past
  • explore
  • lead
  • ask for help
  • teach
  • innovate
  • open our mind
  • understand that most people building community are not professional community builders

I’ll happily admit I don’t have all the answers, this is why I’d love to explore this in more detail and with people who are building communities in real life.

Join me for a one-hour exploratory workshop

I’m hosting a one-hour workshop on what it means if we are all community builders.

Join me! Register for free.

💫  Orbit is Hiring Engineers in US/EMEA

Orbit helps grow and measure thousands of communities like Kubernetes and CircleCI. We're a remote-first company with a product-driven, empathetic engineering team that enjoys the occasional space pun! Check out our careers page for open opportunities.

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