shutterstock_132095333Community. It’s the buzzword du jour of many a social media guru. Like many other things in the online world, community has become commoditized. There are myriad posts on how to acquire, grow, and influence a community online. “Community Management” is a profession that didn’t even exist 5 years ago. I feel as if we’ve lost sight of what it really means to build and nurture a community. It’s just a catch-phrase now, with a misguided perception that community=popularity=clicks=sales. In other words, if you can build a big community, you’ll sell more widgets. And since we’re all in a hurry to sell more widgets, people are trying to find ways to fast track community building.

There are some things you just can’t fast track. Community is one of them.

I grew up in two very small, isolated towns – Inuvik, Northwest Territories, and Masset, Haida Gwaii, in British Columbia. When I first moved to these communities, I knew no one. At first, I spent a lot of time by myself. Then, I had one or two friends. As time went on, those friends introduced me to other friends and our community grew, in a very natural way. The relationships grew and became stronger only with time and time spent. And because of the strength and confidence that comes after being part of a community over time, I was eventually the one introducing other new people into the community.

Social networks have a capacity to build communities like never before. We can seek out like-minded people not just in our home town, but any where in the world. We can connect with these people, share our experiences, and build profound relationships. Often, connecting to a person means you naturally are able to connect to the people they are connected to, and so on. Community happens quite naturally when it’s not forced. Somewhere along the way we’ve lost that natural feeling. Community in the online world, has become about acquiring people who are influential, so they can help you spread their messages. “Community building” has become quite self-serving, and at times very disingenuous.

This morning, for fun, I downloaded my archive of Twitter posts. I went back to 2007 when I was just getting started on Twitter and re-read some of my first posts. Once I got over the initial humiliation about how openly I professed my love for things like Blackberry, Second Life and James Blunt, I discovered something quite fascinating. My initial journey on Twitter was mostly made up of “broadcast” type tweets. This was partly due to the limitations of the tool at that time, and partly due to the fact that many of us were still trying to figure out what to really use Twitter for. But as I scanned, something interesting emerged. My tweets started to be less about myself and more about other people. I started to converse. Where at first, the people I followed on Twitter were only people I’d previously met in person, as time went on, I was including other people in my group, whom I’d never met. I noticed that a little community had very naturally emerged, and not only was I talking to individuals, but the group was expanding because we were introducing each other.

What started out on Twitter as me feeling like the new kid, not talking to anyone, eventually evolved into me chatting with a few friends. Then through those friends I met a few other people, and so on. Eventually, I was the one introducing new people to the community.

Sounds familiar, eh? Just like those small towns that shaped so much of who I am today, online communities evolve in a very similar way.

Sadly, many online “community builders” are doing so because they really only have a mission to sell more widgets. They search for influential people around the topic of their choice, then employ “best practices” to “successfully engage” with those people. There’s nothing sincere about it. There’s nothing organic. There’s little to no serendipity. To me, it defeats the entire purpose of what true community really is.

Of course, this isn’t true in all cases. There are lots of examples of people building great, genuine communities. Two that come to mind are the United Way Ottawa and Spin Sucks, both of whom work hard to really foster individual relationships and allow those relationships to help the community become stronger as a whole.

So where does one start to build strong communities online? Well, it’s the long way around, but it starts with you, and the connections you can make, individual to individual. Then from there, being open to finding and meeting new individuals of interest. Over time, if you keep reaching out, growth will start to happen. Individuals will connect you to other individuals, who will connect you to others, and so on. You have to stay open to serendipity, and not discount the value of face-to-face meet ups. It all combines to create the whole. Does it take time and effort? Absolutely. But the slow build is what will ensure your community remains strong and viable into the future.

I’d love to hear more examples of strong online communities. What are you seeing?

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