This is my latest post on the Stanford Social Innovation Review opinion blog.
Read the original post and conversation here.


I’ve talked about issues and ideas over the last year about the use of certain tools or platforms in the social technology for social impact sector, from Causes to Ideablob to Ning.  These conversations have moved through a version of the stages of grief: outrage, doubt, fear, wonder.  We’re now, as a community, emerging into a great place and ready to figure out what we do now.  How do we create a better way of building?

Through these discussions, I find myself creating the never-ending pro and con list, or if-then clauses.  Yes, we know where we want to go (kind of); but we are also very much here right now.  Looking at our tools, I can’t help be stop for a minute to examine what they are doing to define our communities and what “community” even means.

Here are four of the biggest examples I see as to how some of the most popular tools at our disposal for “community building” online are actually not community-centric tools at all.

Numbers do not equal Activity

Many tools—whether it’s a page, a group, or a network—focus on numbers.  The number of fans on your facebook page is one of the core features on the landing page, the number of Ning network members is the same, and again with Twitter, etc. I can’t think of a tool that doesn’t put that number right in front of you.  But, I could have a million in my “community” without a single one of them “doing” anything.  Sheer numbers don’t mean activity.  And activity is what makes a community grow and thrive.

Opportunity for Community Builders:

Use the functionality options you are given (even if extremely limited) to put activity (even activity numbers if you have to) at the forefront.

“Market” does not equal “Community”

The reliance on advertising is becoming more and more visible throughout the social media space, most recently in Ning’s move to require all network creators to pay with the exception of educators (with an emphasis on using ads to offset payments). As digital citizens we are not against advertising and promotions online, per se, but have come to accept them as part of the space where we live, work, and hang out (just like offline).  But, offline, we can create community spaces that are free from advertising.  Many of the tools popular right now don’t provide that option (obviously unless you want to pay for it).  But, your community may want to feel like it’s a community – not a market.

Opportunity for Community Builders:

Look for tools that provide the options your community wants when it comes to ads or other non-community content. (Don’t be afraid to just ask them what they want!)

Owners do not equal Leaders

Pretty much every tool requires someone to “host” it or own it: to be the first administrator, to set it up, to pay for it, etc. But there are very few communities online, at least that I’ve experienced, where that person is one of the “community leaders.”  Most all communities have various roles that members self-select or grow into.  These roles may include welcomers, trainers, supporters, creators, moderators, and leaders. By it’s very nature, a community does not have an owner—all the members are owners.  Many tools create opportunity for the owner to stand in the spotlight, without much attention going to the other, more appropriate, roles.

Opportunity for Community Builders:

Look for ways to spotlight, recognize, and thank the community members who are taking an active role to lead and support the community who aren’t automatically spotlighted in the “owner” profile.

1 Community does not equal All Communities

The inherent problem with adopting many tools is that the options, functionality, and flexibility are limited. But, not all communities function, need the same options, or even want to operate online in the same way as others.  This also points to one of the big issues in strategic development: it isn’t just about knowing where your audience is, but know what they want to do – those may not always match up and it may be the case that a catalyst (you?) can step in to help provide the space where they can do what they want.

Opportunity for Community Builders:

If you see a tool/network not being used by your community the way it has done with others, don’t assume that people aren’t getting it or need training or help – maybe the tool just isn’t right for the community’s goals. Strive to be a catalyst (a spark that creates but doesn’t own) for finding and creating appropriate spaces with the appropriate tools.

Many of our current tools require us to operate as spider networks, with a traditional hierarchy and distribution of responsibility (aka power), instead of starfish communities where we can be share and distribute responsibility, and develop in an agile, organic way.  A spider network may be appropriate for some groups and communities.  But, is it right for yours? What are your tools deciding about your community?  What have you done to redefine “community” for your network?

(For more on the metaphor used above, visit The Spider and The Starfish.)

New on SSIR: How Our Tools Define “Community”
Tagged on:                         
  • Some people think they can just implement a new technology and like magic they instantly will have a thriving community. Not so as we’re discoving. The use of technology has to be aligned with the needs of the community.

    In addition, we’re seeing the lines of community blurring. The walls of the traditional white label and private social communities like Ning are giving way to pervasive community interaction such as Facebook’s new open graph project. Community members can now interact with their community regardless of where they are on the web.

    Bigger than that, for a cause-based organization, its important to measure the effectiveness of moving online supporters into real world action. That’s the problem that I’m currently working on….grassroots technology that moves the community into action.

    Joe Hamm

    • Thanks for joining in here, Joe!

      I think that part of what you are saying about the fact that social media are now linked and connected – we can post to twitter from eventbrite, share our travel plans from dopplr to facebook, comment on a blog post from email and then get calendar reminders from google to our phone – actually contributes, or could contribute, to the issue you raise about moving communities to action. What are the modules, widgets, or other functionality that we are enabling/providing to our communities that will help us to help them take action? What tools best let the community members navigate their online space with our message the way they want to; and in doing it the way they want, how are we building opportunities to take action that match their interests?

      Would love to hear more of how you’re tackling the issues and any ideas you have or experiences you want to share!

  • Conversation getting started about How Our Tools Define “Community”… (thanks @brohamm) Interested in your thoughts!

  • Amy – Excellent summary of some of the challenges of building community in an ever-changing online environment. You start with the premise that the tools need to be chosen based on the goals of the community (a big plus as many organizations don’t start here 🙂 In an environment of relatively stable tools it is then not too daunting to be guided to the tools that best serve one’s direction. But in the current online environment where the tools are in a constant state of flux, matching tools to goals is a whole different level of challenge. Experimentation and transparent, analytical shared learning such as you are doing here will help us all to develop effective strategies for this evolving situation. Thanks for the lead your are taking!

    • Bonnie –

      Thanks so much for your praise – thank you.

      I really appreciate you taking the time to highlight the difference in selecting between a stable group of variables and trying to make selections when the variables are changing constantly. It makes an organization really reconsider the timeline of investment. I think this is an excellent reason for organizations, groups and campaigners to be strategic in the way they create messages, campaigns and online programs so that they are not based on just one tool or platform but can coexist on many at the same time and in the future (what better reason to continue to have a website, eh?! You need somewhere that you know won’t be going away!).

      Thanks again

  • Pingback: June #4Change Chat: Local Community Organizing « 4change()