Communing with Communities…

Where I live, there is a community market. The community market includes a community fishmonger, a community butcher, a community greengrocer and a community florist; on Saturdays only, especially for the strong north London French community, a community fromagerie who only sells French cheese, and for the chauvinistic Covent Garden community, a community Neals Yard cheese merchant, whilst on Sundays there is a community antiques market – for the aged community, presumably.

I have no idea what any of these have to do with the community, except that people locally may shop there – as may anyone else. Perhaps a local market for local people wouldn’t resonate so much. Or neighbourhood market; or frankly, just “market” – because that is of course what it is.

Community” is a word I have problems with; I have been thinking about writing something about it – and my lack of understanding – for a while; but it is having difficulty coming out; this is the best I have done, so far…

Community is something I have discussed a lot – often with Francesca, for whom community is a particularly powerful concept, and more recently with people at BarCamp Scotland – indeed, a lot of the things I hope to discuss here were raised in conversation with @btocher, @lynncorrigan, 0olong, Cairmen, Peter Ashe and others at BarCamp, whom I thank!

One of the problems with “community” is that the word means so many different things to different people that it actually means nothing. I don’t think this is just semantics: people use the word because it does have powerful associations. When I first got a mobile phone, the service provider welcomed me to the “biggest mobile community in the World”, as if possessing a mobile phone was all that it took to create a romantic, nomadic lifestyle. The director of the department I used to work in used the word community as he vainly tried to control loosely connected work groups. Politicians talk about “community leaders” – a job I never saw advertised. This Government is particularly fond of community: there is the Department for Communities and Local Government, headed up by Hazel Blears (and I bet her idea of community is miles away from mine – if I had one…); they talk about !community justice” (which sounds like vigilantism to me – the posse is coming to a community near you!) and “community policing”. Schools have become “community learning centres”. The media talk about the “gay community”, the “black community”, the “Asian community”, the “Christian community”, and “Muslim community” – indeed, pick a religion – all manner of communities, as a shorthand for broad heterogeneous groups (and that sounds like stereotyping to me…).

And frankly it is all meaningless.

Perhaps it is just me. I was a teenager in the 1970s and a student in the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher’s version of conservatism took its grip over the country. Thatcher famously said “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families”, and maybe there’s no such thing as community – just people living, working and playing together.

Or perhaps it is just that I lack the genes that make me feel part of a community: I have of course been parts of things other people see as communities – neighbourhoods, schools, colleges, academic and professional practices, large corporate organisations – but growing up in a large city and subsequently living in three or four other large cities, maybe the sense of community left me: I see aggregations of individuals. People I know who come from small towns or villages certainly seem to have a stronger sense of community. Maybe that is what I call “friends”?

Or maybe everything can be seen as being part of a community: because Homo sapiens is a social animal; perhaps society is community. (Was @virginia875 right and it is just semantics?)

The context around community matters a lot. In Wikinomics, it is proposed that the value of contributors to (ugh) “Web2.0” is in part created by the sense of community created through collaboration, openness and sharing. There has been a lot of talk of how successful interactive, social media create a sense of community – such as Wikipedia, flickr, LiveJournal or Facebook. Thing is, of course, I am an active participant on these sites: I post photographs to groups on flickr, I belong to various communities on LJ, I remorselessly poke people on Facebook; none of which engender a sense of community in me.

Some of the strongest feelings around community seems to stem from those engaged in open source computing or other networks on the web. Talking to some who have been involved in online communities, they felt a community requires collaboration, participation – and hierarchy – this last, I believe, because the people I spoke to had been involved in moderating their communities, although they thought that even unmoderated communities had an implicit hierarchy. In society – at least in the Government’s eyes – there seems to be an implied hierarchy, too: one in which the establishment – their establishment – is on top.

Here are some of the things that others have suggested that create a sense of community:

  • shared values

  • shared meaning
  • shared interest
  • emotional attachment
  • shared commitment
  • shared assumptions

All of which sound like a shared culture to me: so what is the role of culture in establishing a community?

In the offline world, community seems most to be used around a specific locale – a neighbourhood, like my local market – or a “special interest group”. I am not sure that either of these have these shared attributes: they can have, but it isn’t a given. Just because I live somewhere, it doesn’t mean I have similar values to my neighbours (indeed, I wouldn’t presume to say what their values were).

And everyone has a different, changeable definition of community.

3 thoughts on “Communing with Communities…

  1. Pingback: Lord Layard on Happiness « Patrick’s Blog

  2. Pingback: Social Media in Enterprises: my take on a broadbased discussion « Patrick’s Blog

  3. Pingback: Community and Co-operation: talking about #Tuttle at #Tuttlecamp « Patrick's Blog

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