Three things that community is not: Or, why community is not a toothbrush

It is remarkable how many people with careers in community management don’t actually have a clear idea of what community is. Without a clear working definition, there is a tendency to simply do some stuff that involves some people, slap the word ‘community’ on what they’ve done, and call it a day. As if simply calling something a community is enough to make it happen. Like magic.

If only community was that easy.

I talk about the concept of community at length in my book, and at some point I’ll write a post exploring the implications of the term and it’s history for technology companies, but for now I’d like to briefly share three things that are frequently called ‘community’ despite not having very much to do with community at all.

We all (or at least most of us) brush our teeth daily. Does that mean that we all belong to a community of tooth brushers?

Of course not.

The fact that we happen to share a number of habits and behaviors with other people doesn’t mean that we form a social group in any meaningful sense. I do not belong to a community of tooth brushers just like I don’t belong to a community of Microsoft Word users. It is only once something (including the mundane) takes on a special meaning to me that is shared by and with others that a community is formed.

This, of course, doesn’t stop a lot of businesses from conveniently conflating ‘user’ with ‘community’ for the sake of inflating their numbers and claiming that far more people are enthusiastic about their brand than actually are.

Here’s a sad story. Shortly after arriving in the USA, I hosted a Thanksgiving Day dinner. In conversation with a lot of other graduate students, I had discovered that very few had plans for the day. I thought that was unfortunate, so I invited everyone over for an authentic American Thanksgiving. I made my first Turkey, bought wine, and cooked a bunch of other Thanksgivingy stuff. My apartment was clean and smelled like turkey. The table was set.

But no one actually showed up.

Just because a company has a community website or a forum doesn’t mean that they have a community. Just because you’ve built it, doesn’t mean they will come. And just because they come, doesn’t mean they will stay.

A lot of software companies offer certifications, and a lot of employers require their employees to be certified. This creates a group of people who share an interest that, by itself, is similar to tooth brushing. Except that the behavior is performed by obligation: “Use this software or find yourself a new job”

Obligation doesn’t breed passion, and it doesn’t genuinely invite groups of people to come together in pursuit of a common goal. This can happen to be sure, but it is just as easy for groups of people to run around crazily in different directions despite wielding the same piece of paper.

Community is not impossible in any of the above scenarios. A shared set of behaviors and a place to communicate are certainly necessary conditions for community to emerge, but they are not sufficient. It is not also impossible for an employee to take a skill that was learned for their job and to make that a part of their identity as a genuine interest.

The point is that true community needs something else. It needs a catalyzing idea that a group of people can get behind so that they actively cooperate in pursuit of a common set of goals.

Community is like marriage. If you set out to get married, it’s fairly easy to do. But you are not likely to achieve a strong relationship if simply getting a marriage certificate is your number one priority.

If a handful of executives decide one day that they need a community, spend money on a b2b social networking platform, and hire a bunch of community managers, they will end up with a b2b social networking platform and a bunch of community managers. Community is not something that can be ‘managed.’ It is something that is catalyzed and inspired by an idea.



Engaging communities at the intersection of humanism and technology.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Timothy Harfield

Engaging communities at the intersection of humanism and technology.