Last week, I started and finished the book Deepening Community by Paul Born. Born focuses mainly on offline communities and traditional community building (i.e. around neighborhoods or families), but his work extends beyond these traditional realms. We can certainly apply most of what he discusses in online-offline worlds.
The most valuable thing I learned from the book was the difference between shallow, fear-based, and deep communities. These three types exist on a spectrum of depth, engagement, and impact on the world. I created quick run-downs after being so inspired.
Shallow communities run rampant through the online world. When people use “community” and “social media” interchangeably, 9 times of out 10, this is what they mean. This community exists to serve the individual, rather than the group. It’s likely that everyone in the community gets some sort of resource (more tangible than social capital or reputation) from being a part of it.
Fear-based communities have existed in many important instances in history: the Nazis, the Mennonites, etc. Those are the obvious examples. But what about in the world of branded communities? We are not exempt. You know those startups that are so afraid of their competitor beating them that they end up focusing all of their attention on keeping up (defining what they are NOT) rather than building something sustainable and defining what they are? That’s a fear-based community. Many internal communities at companies may also be described in this way — little engagement, clocking in and out, crippled by fear of failure.
Then there are deep communities. Deep communities create shared values, work toward a shared vision of the world, and build stories together.
What are you building?
Reading through the descriptions of these community types, I realized that so many companies are attempting to build shallow customer community because it pays the bills – it brings people in and coming back if you keep on paying to get your ads/tweets/Facebook posts in people’s faces.
But what we should all aspire to build are deep, enduring, world-bettering communities. Companies like Airbnb, Lyft, and Coursera are doing this — they’re motivating their communities to create a better world together. They’re creating missions around their brands that will stand the test of time. This is not easy. It takes the work of entire teams, neighborhoods, cities, CEOs. No one community manager can do it alone. They’ve got to lead and to be lead by others with similar dreams.
But, at the end of the day, we are all community builders, and we can deepen our communities together.