Communities don’t just happen

There is much written about communities, especially around students. Seth Godin uses the ‘tribe’ metaphor and says ‘we need you to lead us‘. I wonder if leadership plays out differently where leader is to a greater or lesser degree, a designer or the game maker, not your hierarchical superior.  If we are seeking Godin’s view of leadership, is education trying to turn gas into a solid.

There are some tenants needed for effective community. MMOs, Virtual Worlds and Open Source more often demonstrate understanding that to work members/players must have a shared pool of knowledge. They must follow and abide by common practices. They must have a history (either self-evolved, or presented though a back-story). Members must share a vision or mission goal for the whole communities future. Members must work together on projects so that the community to creates strong bonds between groups and individuals. They must also be able to negotiate outcomes.


A strong community is desirable over a collection of people using a portal, because members are less likely to want to break the bonds made between them. Portals have users, who have no bonds. To the portal makers, when the level of community-friendlyness extends to attempt to undermine the goal – it’s a warning sign, that there is trouble. Messenger or Twitter  in schools for example undermines a weak community – but strengthens a strong one.  See Shelly’s post about Latin Tests on Twitter and Laurel Papworth on banning social media in schools. Please don’t yell ‘duty of care’ … as clearly public education policy is medieval  in comparison to private and Catholic on this – BOTH have the same legal obligations.

There are levels in which a ‘community’ must pass in order to succeed. Leadership requires a specific design, revealed to members as they pass through these levels – but is always adaptive to it’s members needs. Leaders do get lucky from time to time – but also unlucky when things fall over or fail to work as planned. In a weak community, it shatters all momentum but in a strong one members will accept a bad day on the grid, lose a game or not get that code to run … a strong community rallies where as a weak one stumbles.

Strong community cannot be built though artificial means. Unless you have a leader you want to follow and who’s design you believe in – you don’t join. No one wants to join a crap community. Consider how easily many newcomers to technology give up (the reluctance problem) when leadership is less than compelling. We don’t believe, therefore look for the exit.

In Halo, we get killed, in Second Life, we all get logged out and in Open Source, things crash – but we try again, we learn from it, and make it better next time.

These levels probably have shades of gray, but I see them like this – and I’m sure you can swap out the examples).

  1. community of communication (twitter, messenger, facebook, myspace, bebo, workmail)
  2. community of interest (nings, wikis, games, forums, second life)
  3. community of practice (collabatoriums – sourceforge, indie games)
  4. community of commitment (advocacy, guilds, networks)

Any group which gets to the last level here is a force to be reckoned with. There is an almost spiritual bond between it’s members – who both advocate, maintain and defend it. The Church is a great example. They have the community thing down to a fine art, but the Minister for Edumaction – I don’t think so. So we are left with using policy to force group creation. Policy is supposed to protect the organisation and members but does not create community. When members cannot succeed or operate without being in the group, they never become a strong community as the policy is the bubble that defines the operational limits, regardless of the groups increasing abilities and interests.

We can’t replicate what we see happening in conference lounges between networked friends or in Warcraft inside systems defined by policies designed to prevent it. Open Source for example didn’t start with a policy but and idea and people who rallied around it to form community. We can’t realistically expect a ‘revolution’ because Rudd wrote a policy. We can expect compliance and performance pressures.

A great community is one which is communicating and working intuitively on their need to strengthen and defend members and values, as well as achieve operational and strategic goals. There are thousands of these online today. People who are  not just saying they believe – but truly believing. From Car Audio to Steam Punk Photography, there’s a community for everyone and an opportunity for everyone to make a new one. It stands to reason that there is increasing opportunity to learn in places that didn’t exist a decade ago.

Seth Godin calls these people ‘true fans’. How many of them are there in your work place? … or do you have people determined to prevent it – fearing some perceived loss? Culture, ideology, philosophy and many more behavioral intelligences play a much greater role in adoption that skills in how to use a computer. Participation in groups at the higher levels is entirely voluntary, so of course will join communities of their choosing, not their employers. We simply don’t hang out in the employers portals in the same way students won’t hang out in our creepy treehouse. Level 1 and 2 you can make me do, level 3 and 4 is up to me.


Communities, like game players, need to learn to level up. Players in MMOs or communities in Second Life such as Caledon operate at the higher levels. Members have the skills, bonds and committments to continually strengthen the group performance for as long as they choose to voluneer.  Leaders in these spaces are able to design for strong community from the outset. This is the missing ingredient in many districts, administrations and patriarchies – they don’t know how to do it. Its not in the MBA, wasn’t in the Masters and probably not the subject of their PhD. Anyone who is talking about building communities can’t be in it for the money, the power or the glory in my view. They are in it because they want to be, and that they want to participate in ways that the leaders have designed. Open Source is perhaps the best example of this leadership and community. Not using it in schools, locks students out of a culture that has tremendous value for them and society.
























2 thoughts on “Communities don’t just happen

  1. Dean, For me this was an intuitive and thought provoking post. I am pitching a professional development idea to my administration next week based on a community of like minded teachers who volunteer to participate for no other benefit than challenging their own practice and learning from (and with) others. I am surprised by the level of interest in the idea. I had thought I would get a few people interested (in a staff of 120 at my workplace) however early indications suggest I underestimated the extent of what you refer to in this post as forced communities through policy, which staff here I am interpreting are fatigued from.

    I’m especially grateful for your differentiation of the “process” of community, or levelling up. I have pursued reading about communities of practice as this is what I am basing the PD idea on, but at no stage had thought as clearly on community formation as you have presented here. This almost provides a scaffold of community development here akin to the premise of group formation (forming – storming – norming – performing). What it also does is provide me with steps in a process that should be easily seen and allow me to facilitate levelling up where necessary.

    A great read, thanks for taking the time to write it.


  2. Pingback: Re:Reinventing Project Based Learning «

Comments are closed.