There is so much hulla balloo espoused about “community” online. Build a community. Participate in a community. I myself am a huge advocate of community. I blog about it, I speak at conferences regarding collaboration within them. I even sit on the boards of local organizations that are communities of marketing professionals (AZIMA) and entrepreneurs/hackers (gangplank).

But what does it really mean to be part of or participate in a community? Well first there is the agenda. Every community has one and if you don’t see it you have your blinders on. Every community also has it’s “leaders” or those that guide the ship along it’s path. Every community has it’s rabble rousers and vocal members. And don’t forget each community also has it’s ego’s. Every community also has it’s rules.

I am an ask forgiveness later type of person in that I take stock of the community mission/goals and then on my own accord do what I feel like being careful to stay within the apparent rules, but by no means do I wait for someone to tell me it is okay before acting. However by not following the unwritten “rules” or cow-towing to the “leaders” most of the time I tend to piss a few people off.

Some rants and observations:

A few months ago I took it upon myself to give a “voice” to a growing insurrection within Gangplank. A few members including myself were not terribly keen on the (perceived) direction the organization was heading. In general terms some thought the “be dangerous” mantra of Gangplank was under siege as the organization was growing up and becoming a bit more gentrified or “soft” as some said. The transformation was a necessary evolution of a grass roots organization to participate in a larger dialog but a few of us were not ready to give up our “fuck the man” attitude. Gangplank became what it is because it charted it’s own course and it (seemed) to have lost it’s way when (by appearances) more concern was placed on public perception than on core values. So long story short I took it upon myself to make a statement, well a few statements… and they were not received very well. Water under the bridge now, and I think my actions while impulsive at least brought some light onto the situation at hand and created some dialog internally to address the issues.

Take-Away: As a community member, even in a pseudo-leadership position that I am in it’s kinda up to you/us to at least try to steer the ship in the direction we want it go. Your efforts will not always be warmly welcomed but as long as you have the greater good in mind it should all work out.

This next example is a little bit more abstract.

My company is heavily involved in the WordPress community. When I say community in this example there are really two that I am talking about; the greater 30+ million WordPress user community and the very small, very political community that consists of WordCamp organizers, “Official” WP people, and business owners (plugins, themes) in the space.

On the greater community side we do what we can to disseminate information, educate users, convey and reinfornce the values of the community to new comers, and be a good citizen.  The greater community uses the software in some form, and for the most part goes on their merry way publishing online.

But the inner, smaller, community… not sure I have ever been involved in anything quite so politicized before. You got person A talking trash about person B privately then praise them 2 seconds later publicly. You got an unwritten set of rules of what you can and cannot do that seem to morph on a daily basis. You have plugin and theme developers actually scared to speak up and voice dissent for fear of a public lashing. Months after the fact the site is still featuring the very public, and very nasty spat between two members. The issue has been resolved and by all accounts everyone has certainly moved on, yet it remains broadcast for all to see. Reminds me of a severed head on a stake planted in the town square to remind others what happens if you don’t toe the line. We have done things which in our eyes would expand, coalesce, and strengthen the community, yet ruffled feathers of the command and control structure.

And just when you think you had enough some really awesome and amazing people step up to reassure you that you are in the right place. The good far out weighs the bad – by a good measure. Of course not everyone is going to see eye to eye and they shouldn’t. There would not be any evolution if everyone walked lock step to the same tune.  I have met some amazing people and have been fortunate to work with some amazing and talented professionals in the space. To that end I have actually made it a core part of our business to work closely with others in the community. I dont want to be in the plugin, theme, or services space so we partner with those doing it instead. This kind of intermingled ecosystem is a good thing for the community at large and certainly a good thing for us.

Take-Away: You are going to hit political road-blocks no matter where you choose to participate.  Step around them or break thru them if your care enough to do so. People are people and are going to act like people. You can let the system beat you down.. or get creative and work thru it to at the very least accomplish your goals without causing too much ruckus or at the highest order fight the fight to push your version of the agenda.

Final point:

Why the fuck does everyone have the need to “own” it? If there is more than 1 person involved the word “my” should not be in your lexicon. If there is already something like foo going on, why be so keen on owning your own fooey? Just jump on board of foo and make it better. Add your energy to propel the train faster and farther rather than starting in the coach house fabricating your own version of the train? You are not important, and either is your ego. I have witnessed first hand people try to take ownership of an energy, a movement, or a community that they have no business trying to claim.

The flip-side: If this does happen.. and someone else decides to do your “thing” across town or across the interwebz for valid reasons and is decent about it, you have an obligation to help and support them.

Take-Away: If you care at all about community, support that which is already there rather than attempt to fracture off your own plot to play king.

There is a broad line between whining and constructive criticism. Don’t be the guy the throws stones from left field, be the guy that shows up and participates and offers critical feedback. Derek calls Gangplank a “showupacracy”, decisions are made by the people that show up and participate. You have no say in setting the agenda sitting on your couch.

Community, community, community.. for all it’s political games and its awesome energy it is not going away as our world becomes more digitally interconnected. I guess it comes down to how you choose to participate.

2 thoughts on “Community”

  1. Uncanny, we literally had this same conversation over coffee at Startup Weekend last week. At the table were two people neck deep in startup today and one who successfully sold a business and is now looking to get back into something interesting. The conversation started with…

    “We should put together a group, a sub-community, that works on creating a methodology for great startups…”

    The idea sounds great and I trust the people at the table to dive into it with them. Then the realization that I cannot even if I wanted to sunk in. I’ve spent 3 years building a startup that is just now gaining momentum, my team mates gave up plenty to make this real. If I have enough time to work on an open ended idea from the ground up, I must have nothing on my plate. Its hard to realize but even the smallest opportunity at my startup must take precedence over this proposal. I owe it to the team.

    Three hours later over drinks, after a conversation with someone just getting into the local community, things came into focus. As people’s situations change we are forced to constantly re-define our community. There is a community for people with ideas, there is a community for people with projects, there is a community for people with startups, there is a community for people with businesses, and so on. Are they mutually exclusive, absolutely not, but they do bring differing degrees of value.

    But isn’t that betraying your community to suddenly flake out of a group just because your needs have changed? Not at all, a community is a group of people that come together to address a common goal, your goals have changed. Of course if anyone needs it you’ll help, but theres a difference between helping and being expected to pull everyone along.

    There is a community of us here that are product startups. We work in the same space. We have the same problems. We can help each other so much more effectively. One day that too will pass, but those will be better days. In this community we don’t own it, we’re peers with common goals.

    Sorry for the long comment Joshua.

  2. Pingback: The black cloud of [C]ommunity | Joshua Strebel

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