Step 1.1: What does “Community” really mean?

what-is-a-community

If you’re wondering what a community is, or what community really means, you’re in the right place.

What does “community” really mean?

Here at Disciple, we work with a range of communities on a daily basis and we’ve noticed that many seem to be confused about what the term truly means.

The term has become a catchphrase for anything that involves a group of human beings coming together, so it’s no surprise people aren’t clear on its true definition.

Traditionally, the term referred to a group of people living in the same place. Historically, communities were formed based on where we lived; our village or neighborhood are good examples of this, but we’re no longer living in a time where the place or area we live in, is the only community we’re a part of.

The rise of technology has shifted our behavior. We’re now able to choose the communities we want to be a part of and use communities as spaces to express our identities. Communities can exist for different reasons and around different themes. They may be focused on meditation and yoga, on autism support, or on being a fan of a specific musician or artist.

Successful communities all have one thing in common: a clear purpose, but before we can truly examine the purpose of a community, we must first take a step back, to look at and understand the definition of what it means in today’s world.

The true meaning of  “community”

The wealth of options at our disposal today have resulted in the growth of many different types of community, from social groups comprised of people who share common interests, to organisations full of driven activists sharing common ideology and goals. Yet despite the sense of community that these groups and their members enjoy, the word ‘community’ can still seem contentious or vague, so much so that defining community – and capturing all the nuances therein – becomes a difficult task. For example, to say that a community is a group of people, and add no further detail, leaves a lot to be desired. What is it that links these people? Is it just one thing, or is it a combination of several factors?

There are hundreds of definitions. In fact, the dictionary defines community as any of the below.

community
Is it any wonder that people are confused?

Our definition, based on our experience is, a group of people existing in a place that shares; a purpose, a sense of belonging, and who communicate with each other.

So let’s break this down:

Place

With this definition, we have the idea of a place – physical or virtual, a purpose – that could be an interest, lifestyle or brand, belonging – i.e. they feel like a member of the community, communication – that is that they must communicate and interact with the community to be part of it.  A community has to have a clearly defined sense of place. It’s a “where” -where we meet physically, where we meet online, where we go to find out about. Part of the community’s identity is the concept of that place.

Purpose 

This should be something you will have in mind to shape your community. There will be a common point of interest that draws members together – purpose. For example, this can be a hobby such as vegan cooking. If you want to build a community around this, there is the opportunity to create recipes, find out new techniques, and encourage members to try new recipes.  Defining a purpose helps you to decide how you’ll grow, what content you’ll create, and how you’ll communicate. Every element is shaped by its purpose. It also allows you to clarify what you want out of the community as the host.

Belonging 

This is the idea of feeling as if you are a member or have been accepted into a group. It gives a feeling of being special – an outsider and insider, or them and us, feel. There is a deep emotional need to belong and to be a member of something bigger.  Communities meet those needs by becoming part of our wider identity, that forms the elements of identity. From the symbols and rituals of the Freemasons and church to army drinking songs or biker patches. This is created through distinct branding, inside jokes, expert knowledge, videos on specific topics, and unique visuals.

Communicate 

Two-way communication is at the heart of community. The community is not one way, it acts as a member channel to the host/brand, and also between other members. They feel that they have a voice and the right to be heard. They will naturally criticise, support, encourage, share, and contribute.

Why community matters

Gaining a clear understanding of what a community is, why you want yours to exist, and why people should be members will make it far easier to make yours into a reality.

So going back to our original definition of a group of people existing in a place that shares; a purpose, a sense of belonging, and communicate with each other. We can use this to examine elements, such as purpose, choice of platform (i.e. place), and to form our understanding of management in order to encourage belonging and communication. 

Are Facebook Pages and Facebook Groups a community?

At Disciple, we tend to think that Facebook Groups and pages only partially form communities. However, there are different views on this and the definition isn’t black and white. After all, a group about Startup Marketing on Facebook has a purpose and allows members to communicate by posting or commenting. But do members feel a sense of belonging and is there a feeling of place if it’s on the Facebook platform? Another wider question is about the ownership of the community, especially with limited branding and when pages now have to pay Facebook if they want content views.

One thing that separates Facebook Pages and Groups from being true communities is that they exist only as long, and in such a way, as Facebook allows them to. At any moment Facebook could eliminate an entire group or even the entire Facebook Groups social media platform, kicking hundreds of millions out into the digital cold of cyberspace.

Don’t think it could happen? Consider this: late in 2020 Yahoo, with little notice and without seeking input from subscribers, completely eliminated Yahoo Groups. Snap! Just like that. Overnight millions of groups and 115 million Yahoo Groups members had what they thought were their communities wiped out.

Bringing it all Back Home

What does community mean? It’s a big question. The takeaway from the above example is that a group is only a community if it controls its own destiny. Since Facebook Groups belong to Facebook they fall short of being true communities because neither members nor group founders have ultimate control.

Disciple is different. Disciple returns control over the fate of your community to you, where it belongs.

  • Your fully customisable branded website or app reinforces your community’s identity.
  • Every decision regarding content moderation is brought home to you.
  • No one can make a decision in a distant corporate office to shut you down.
  • And no one can exploit your community members’ personal data for their gain.

Imagine being a resident of a small town and waking up one day to find some outside entity had plastered billboards of their choosing all over your town. You had no say in the matter and no way to remove these intrusive, unwelcome eyesores. Would that make you feel a sense of community? Of course not.

It would be a stark reminder that said community was not really yours to begin with. And that’s essentially what happens with Facebook newsfeeds that are typically bloated with irrelevant paid content that drowns out your content and your message.

So, what does community mean? It means a group of people controlling their own destiny. It means making your own decisions regarding content and direction. And it means being insulated from the capricious actions of 3rd party players. All these things and more are bedrock characteristics of a Disciple virtual community.

Read the next article: Establishing a purpose for your online community

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Pooja Kanabar in
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