The name of the game around this online space is community. Well, it’s some other things too, but mostly it’s about community. Creating them, building them, sharing them, participating in them…if it wasn’t for communities, it wouldn’t be much fun out here on the Interwebz, in my opinion.

Community these days seems to be a tricky thing for some. I feel that the concept of community is way over-analyzed in this online world. People are trying force communities into existence, then keep them afloat through tactics that are sometimes questionable.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not out to slam those whose job it is to build and manage communities. People like Scott Monty and Keith Burtis are excelling in this area right now. Why? Because they get it. They do it well because they understand how communities work, and how they need to work within them to make them succeed. What I’m saying is that communities can’t be forced.

Whether you want to create, join, lead or participate in a community, there are a few fundamental principles to abide by. I’ve been involved in communities all my life. Perhaps it comes somewhat naturally to me because I grew up in small, isolated towns. Perhaps it’s because of the influence of my parents, who were both active participants and leaders in the communities in which we lived. Perhaps it’s because of my experience working in community television – where it’s ALL about being part of a community. I suspect it’s a combination of these. Regardless, here are a few things I’ve learned about how to succeed with communities. I’d love to hear your tips in the comments too.

You can’t force it to be the way you want it to be. I know this is the third time I’ve said it, but communities cannot be forced. They can be facilitated, to be sure. Most communities begin with an idea. That idea gets spread around to a few people, and they tell two friends, and so on. Before you know it, you have lots of people communicating and collaborating and making things happen. The key is that communities are created by unique, individual people. Those unique voices are what creates the dynamic of the community. Different voices? Different dynamic. You can’t change that. The community evolves into what it will be. You can guide it along the path, but ultimately, you can’t (and shouldn’t) control everything about it.

To lead, you must listen. The brilliant thing about communities is the way the participants shape the community. Communities never work when they are top heavy. When the leaders are the ones dictating the way the community should run, what the community should talk about, and what the community should accomplish, then people lose interest really quickly. A community works when all of the participants have an equal opportunity to have their ideas and opinions heard. This takes listening, and listening closely.

Danny Brown does this exceptionally well. Since he started the 12for12k project, he’s been listening intently to the ideas that people have put forth to him. He’s accepting of people’s opinions and thoughts, and is happy to work with community members to help make their ideas come to fruition. He’s doing more listening than talking. And as a result, he’s doing more leading, and his community is succeeding in amazing ways.

Once a community evolves, it won’t need you as much. Every year at the community TV station, I’d get one or two more new studio shows put on my plate. New shows were a lot of work.  I was responsible for creating them from the ground up – building sets, designing the lighting, finding hosts, creating the elements (opening, titles, etc.), and figuring out the concept and content. I was also in charge of finding my volunteer crew and training them.

At first, I’d be doing everything. I’d be writing the show, coaching the hosts, training volunteers on how to set up the studio, light it and do all the technical production. When I wasn’t training someone to operate cameras or clip on microphones, I was editing all the pre-taped segments. The first show day was usually about an 18-20 hour affair. I would have to answer about 5000 questions a day and fight about the same number of fires. At the same time, I’d also have to make sure I was paying individual attention to my hosts and crew. I’d have to make sure they were feeling happy and challenged and engaged.

Building, designing, creating. Individual attention. Answering questions. Happy, challenged and engaged. Kind of like a community manager, eh?

Each week, we’d do another show. And each week, the community (i.e. the crew) would become a little more independent. Eventually it got to the point where I only had to roll in about an hour before the show went on, and roll out an hour after. My 18 hour days were now 3 or 4 hour days. The community had taken over. I was now just a guide, a facilitator – a listener. I would provide coaching when needed, and fight fires if they occurred (but my community even got good at that!). The show continued to improve, got more viewers, and most importantly, the community was strong and vibrant.

Don’t feel bad if your community doesn’t need you much after a while. It means you’ve done your job. And, hey, it frees you up to go build another community!

There you have it – my tips on building healthy, strong communities. But I want to hear from you. Many of you are experts at this, too. Please add your thoughts to the comments, I’d love to hear what you think.