6 min read

What the hell is a community?


David MacIver shared an interesting meme recently:

Dog: Pls benefits of being in a tightly knit community??? NO inconvenient burden of duty towards others!!! ONLY rewards of community
And by recently I mean weeks ago. I'm not the most up to date on these things. 🙂

It got me thinking: What the hell is a community?

Community is a term I see a lot. I read references to Bowling Alone. (Haven't read the book, though.) I read about the ways (nerd) communities break down. I read about how communities construct a sense of purpose and I read about (the idea of) communities with norms of excellence.

I have no idea what a community is.

II. In which I go through too many examples

Is a friend group a community? I have friends. Some of them form groups. Is that it? I think no. It at least doesn't seem to match the sense of the pieces I've been reading.

Is a neighborhood a community? This seems a more likely candidate – "the neighborhood community" is a common phrase – though in practice there are problems. What if nobody in the neighborhood ever talks to each other? What if the neighbors only ever talk one house to another? What if they throw parties but never use the word community? What if they're social enough but don't do anything to help each other? Surely neighborhoods aren't all communities, though specific ones definitely could be.

Is a bunch of people talking on Twitter a community? TPOT (postrat Twitter?) looks kind of like a graph-based definition might, in terms of connections (replies, retweets) more or less resembling a clique. But on a basis of "care" or "duty" – seems unlikely, as a public-ish Internet 'community,' but maybe? I'm not involved enough to know, myself.

Are a bunch of roommates a community? That seems more promising somehow. There is a sense of something they share – their common space which they have to coordinate around. Getting back to neighborhoods, I suppose they could be a community in the same way.

Is a professional group (like "the ACM" or "Linux Users Group") a community? At that scale, probably not. At the scale of a local group or chapter, maybe? There seems to be something about meeting in a specific, shared, community-controlled space. If it meets in a library or a cafe, that feels less community-like.

Is a mailing list a community? At this point, probably yes – I'm thinking in particular of open-source software mailing lists based on software too old to have gotten on the Discord/Slack boat. Think of your own examples, but my mind goes to Emacs. IRC seems like mailing lists in this regard. Although mailing lists might be lacking the "community control" aspect, depending how they work. But they must have some way of keeping out spammers and disruptive posters, otherwise nobody would use them. Spam floods would make them completely unusable.

If mailing lists are communities, does that make a Discord server a community? You have a space, the server. It feels more substantial than a group chat. You have community control, in theory. Yet many Discords are public spaces, and public spaces don't feel very community-like in general. On the other hand they do create a space where communities can form. Through my lurking I've seen subgroups of Discords that seem to operate this way, often using smaller private Discords on the side (the Pom Squad?).

Is a church a community? That seems like a yes, generally. You've got a community-controlled space and shared norms. You've got social connections between members. This goes for e.g. temples, mosques, sanghas as well.


Actually, I lied. I have some idea of what one sense of a community might be. I think I've seen communities with norms of excellence. I say I've seen them because I haven't participated in any consistent, engaged, or long-term way. I've lurked. I've hung out. I've seen people behaving in ways that sure seem to match that pattern. But I've never made the effort.

I come back to this question a lot. What I really want to know is why. Why would you want to participate? Why would you want to be part of a community? Why might I? It sure sounds nice as a word. But there's truth to the dog meme, too: Community seems like a lot of work. Why bother?

It probably pays to take a closer look at what exactly these rewards of community are. Whatever they are, they must be part of the answer. For that, it seems worth looking at both the general features I noticed and the rewards of specific communities.

General features first. Social connections seem important. In the "Platonic ideal" community these are many and tight – think of a small church. Also important: Shared norms and a way of enforcing them. These two features feed into each other to some degree.

How do those play into rewards? Social connections would seem to be their own reward/curse (as the specific case may be). They can have rewards outside the community, too. For example: Getting a sysadmin job via someone you know from attending your local Linux Users Group. As for shared norms, it's less clear to me. They can't just be a matter of improving social connections, because they frequently have extra-social "effects of interest." For example, shared norms of excellence around e.g. fighting games should have the effect of making participants better at fighting games, and I think we see this in practice. There are plenty of examples of communities successfully achieving such extra-social effects, from sports to research to writing communities.

Now for specific examples.

A community of roommates. Obvious benefits – less conflict and better relationships if you can coordinate on norms and build social connections. Maybe you coordinate on how often to clean the toilet and who's going to do it when – so the reward a cleaner living space. Maybe you hold community events – a movie night, D&D, a shared dinner once a week, whatever – so the reward is the event. These are the rewards of the community.

People talking on Twitter. What are the rewards? Social connections, of course. A space to talk about (and maintain?) your unusual interests. A space to develop ideas. Potentially a job, or so I hear from TPOT – which is downstream of social connections. Hearing about and organizing interesting events. Sharing and receiving useful information, like a visualization technique that helps with your aphantasia. These are the rewards of the community.

I suspect the case for Discord is similar. Discord seems to have more community-oriented features like event calendars and voice channels, which maybe make it better at this. It's oriented differently to text. But it doesn't seem like the rewards are fundamentally different – more so the mode of engagement.

The rewards of a professional group like a LUG seem much the same if more focused. There's some extra benefit from the explicit professional focus: The group will probably hold events and seminars focused on relevant skills, and the group helps members develop connections with each other, i.e. others in their field. And professional groups are commonly in-person, which means potentially stronger social connections.

So, okay, I've sold myself on communities having benefits. The question is the cost.


What does it mean to be in a community?

The phrasing here seems wrong. "To be" is passive, not describing any particular action or pattern of relating. "Being" is binary: You are in or you're not. Neither of these describes how we relate to communities. "Inconvenient burden of duty toward others" is not a thing that makes sense if "being in a community" is passive. And communities rarely have well-defined boundaries – there are always the edge cases. "Being in" is a poor phrase for this.

In fact, I think this is the wrong question entirely. I could try to answer questions like, what is the everyday experience like, what are the activities. But that's not what I'm interested in here. I'm interested in two questions:

  1. What is the "price of admission"? What is the "membership fee"? In other words: What are these duties in the inconvenient burden of duty toward others?
  2. How do you get in?

I put the cost question first for a reason. I want to know what I'm signing up for so I can show up if it's worth it or "not be there" otherwise. But it's not clear to me what the/a general process of answering this question looks like, or what to expect from answers. I'd find it useful to know about costs in some typical examples. I'm also not sure about the specific communities I'm interested in. I haven't tried to answer the question for such communities, but this feels like the sort of question you have to answer from the inside – by doing. Maybe to answer the first question, I have to answer the second.

The second question is maybe also something you have to answer by doing. By attempting, anyway.

But see, now I have a problem. Entering is an ill-defined problem, because the boundaries are ill-defined. And worse, I don't know the costs involved, so I don't know if any of this is "worth it."

A question for another day, I think.