The future of community: a future for communities

15 October 2020
15 Oct 2020
West Lafayette, IN
10 mins

For the last year or so, but especially since this summer, I’ve found myself almost consumed by thinking about communities – how the best ones are created, and how they can scale. But I also started to realize the possibility space for interesting communities to have an impact on the world is much larger than I expected. Conversely, I think most of the money and effort being directed toward improving the status quo of community building is misdirected by a myopic view of where that impact will be, and what problems we need to solve together for that impact to be fully realized.

The possibilities

My conviction in the importance of intentional community building rests on two assumptions:

  1. It’s becoming radically easier to create and scale new communities
  2. People are increasingly turning to intentionally nurtured communities for personal and professional growth

There are only two factors that limit the potential for interesting communities to arise: the availability of people searching for new communities to join, and the ability for those people to gather and do interesting things together. Both of these things are on the rise.

First, there are more ways than ever for people in search of belonging to do things together, and the trend is accelerating. We are seeing new communication services designed for people to interact with each other, rather than just the void of social media. From new services like Rume, Gather.Town, Icebreaker and Among Us (which I’d put in this bucket) to old guards like Discord and Zoom who are continuing to innovate, there’s a renewed focus on helping people connect with, not just update, each other. Atop these tools, there are also lots of initiatives, companies, and accelerators trying to help more communities bootstrap. Commsor and People & Company have emerged on my personal radar to help new community builders navigate the cornucopia of tools and platforms, and I’m sure there are more. It’s becoming radically easier to create and scale new communities.

Second, people are choosing to spend more of their time in semi-private, intentionally grown places and groups than in the ruthlessly public Web or in complete isolation. As I’ve noted before, as the public Web and social media become too crowded, the entertainers and creators who can grow an audience are building their careers in public, but the rest of us are collecting in smaller, more private spaces like group chats and personal servers. We’re starting to see that the potential of the Internet to connect everyone, everywhere, is a double-edged sword, and we reap the most benefit for our personal lives when we wield it intentionally to nurture smaller communities rather than opine into the void. People, especially young people who notice this trend most acutely, are increasingly turning to smaller, intentionally brewed communities and away from the public social media. Community groups like this are going to make big strides into how we all grow personally and professionally and find belonging in the next decade.

Community is a burgeoning space, with lots of energy and enthusiasm and a growing need. But I don’t think we’re ready yet. The matches are primed for ignition, but in search of a spark.

Before the revolution

What do we still need in order to spark the community space to really see the profound impacts it can have on the world? Here, again, I think we’re still missing two critical components.

  1. The tribal knowledge on how to bootstrap and scale powerful lasting communities is not evenly distributed – there are few experts, and everyone else is left to make the same mistakes over and over.
  2. The tools at the disposal of most community builders are crude, disconnected, and sometimes even disincentivized against community growth.

The space of community builders and founders feels strikingly reminiscent of the broader startup ecosystem before widespread startup accelerators and incubators like Y Combinator. At the time, the “best practices” for how to found a startup weren’t evenly distributed to all to-be-founders. Ideas like product-market fit, minimal viable products, and how to build a pitch deck weren’t readily accessible to a lot of builders who would have been great founders, so founders spent a lot of redundant energy making the same mistakes and running into the same failures on their own. This bottlenecked the number of great companies being founded.

In the early 2010’s, a combination of increase in capital going into early stage venture, combined with the prevalence of early stage funding and success stories, meant there was much more support for early stage founders. More importantly, best practices and knowledge about common mistakes to avoid as a founder became accessible. There was a startup canon – every founder eventually hears “do things that don’t scale.”

It’s easy to underestimate the profound impact that this democratization of know-how had on the vitality and success of the startup ecosystem. But it made a difference. Accelerators, founders, and investors sharing success stories and failure lessons all helped change this.

“Community” today is in the “before” half of this inflection point. There are master community builders who know how to use the tools we have to build great, lasting communities to scale, and many other community leaders are making the right mistakes and learning through them. But there’s no “community gospel,” no canon for community founders. The best practices for community founders are not distributed evenly.

The critical thing about the inflection point in the startup world is that knowledge spread became superlinear. When we depend on former founders and builders to spread know-how in their course of their work, they can only bring it to new companies and initiatives when they begin something new, or work with new teams. But when we take those experts and build out accelerators and blogs and videos and freely shared materials for the rest of the industry, that knowledge can be spread and shared much more widely, much more cheaply.

In the community world, especially this early, most experts are busy building their own communities and scaling them out. But I think there’s an open space for someone to bring the expertise and war stories of those experienced community builders and share them out for the rest of the world founding their own communities today. We’re seeing the beginnings of this trend, but as long as there are community builders re-discovering the same lessons on their own, there’s much more work to be done.

As we begin the work of distributing this knowledge and experience more evenly, I suspect we’ll run into the next bottleneck in community growth: there’s a startling lack of imagination and focus in the tools community founders can use to build their microcosms. Let’s try to understand what we’ve been missing.

Going beyond platforms

When I tell folks I’m interested in building better tools for community builders, almost without exception, I get the same follow-up question: “What’s wrong with Slack?” “Do you really want to compete with Discord?” The ones who don’t are usually the ones who have tried to scale up communities, and run into the same problems over and over again.

The work of building a great community goes much farther beyond simply moderating a Slack group. A great community needs regular events and meetups. They need ways for leaders to step up and invent their own traditions, create their own events, and run their own sub-groups. Leading a community requires making it easy for members to become advocates. It means helping members connect with other members. The work of a community builder mostly happens outside of a single communication platform, and often between platforms. And in this space, the tools at the disposal of most community builders are crude, disconnected, and sometimes even disincentivized against community growth. The best community-building tools should know about best practices for how to grow great communities, and then provide one-click access to adopt those best practices into any community. It should allow communities to mix in their own personality into the tools they use, without imposing the way the community should be structured.

As a trivial example, imagine you’re organizing a new writing workshop for a community of indie authors. You’ve gotten a great headliner author to come and speak, and you know exactly what kinds of members from your community are interested in the author. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of tasks a good community manager would need to do:

What makes this more complicated is that an experienced leader can hand off this list to a new community manager, but the details matter, and the details can’t simply be dictated in a list of instructions.

I think there’s a wide-open space for us to build much, much better tools for community leaders. A community leader’s most important job is to be the model community member and contributor – all other concerns should fade into the background of their work, and we are far from it today. Community tools should have the best practices and know-hows of good community management baked into its design, and it should work across platforms and across the online-offline barrier, because great communities flourish across platforms and the online-offline barrier.

Community tools need to grow beyond platforms. This is obvious when you talk to community leaders and listen to how they work, but most people who are building community tools seem too focused on owning the communities that grow from their tools, not helping them flourish out in the world. I think we can do much better here to support communities and their leaders.

The possibility space of community

We used to be limited in the communities we can belong to, by the facts of geography. When I was helping bootstrap a startup for poets in early 2017, bemoaning the lack of poets in the suburbs of the American Midwest, I caught a flight to Boston with the team to find poets we could speak to.

Because of changes in communication tools and culture in the last few years, we’re not limited by geography today. Our limits are now self-imposed, in our ability to bootstrap and grow great communities. And if we can work through those self-imposed barriers, I think the future of communities is bright. The possibility space for great, life-altering, lasting communities is wide open.

I’m often struck by the audacity required of community leaders to ask people to be a part of their community. We, humans, aren’t infinitely scalable. We have a small and finite amount of space in our lives for the people who matter. By asking someone to join our communities, we’re asking them to find in that small space some margin to spare for us, and in turn, we hopefully promise them more than just “value” – hopefully, we promise them belonging, kindness, and love.

This is the work of community builders, and I think they deserve better tools, better support, and better stories from which to draw their own efforts. I’m excited to see what we build for these leaders in the next decade, and perhaps join to build something of my own, too.

Communities are micro-economies

Multidimensional tactility

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