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Elusive Online “Community”

Friend and Indaba Music co-founder Jesse Chan-Norris (jcn for those who know him in the virtual world, @jcn) would not allow the team at Indaba to refer to our website as a “community” for quite some time after launch. At least 2 years if memory serves.

Why? Because “community”, he said, was hard.

JCN outlined a hierarchy worth sharing (I am not sure he ever fleshed it out to this degree, but I’ve attempted to capture its spirit):

Level 1: Directory. This is what it sounds like. A listing of people or things with some meta data attached. Limited communication or other functionality.

Level 2: Network. Multiple virtual representations of people or things with meta data attached with the ability to communicate and/or interact in some way with one another.

Level 3: Community. All the features of a network, with the addition of actively expressed and shared interests, values and a collective sense of ownership and responsibility for the space.

True community requires a lot of time and hard work to develop – online or off, and the Indaba team has shed its share of blood, sweat and tears building its community of musicians. My friend and another Indaba co-founder, Mantis Evar, has been largely responsible for this effort – at first attracting musicians to list themselves in our directory, then spurring them to interact with one another inside a network, and finally setting an example of mutual respect and a shared love of music that others now follow, forming a true community online.

I think Mantis would say (although this is not a direct quote) that one of the reason communities are so hard is that even once you have built them, they require vigilant monitoring, maintenance and support. Someone has to set the example, and continue to set it over and over again. It takes highly involved and active leadership to maintain values and standards in the context of a community like Indaba’s, with its hundreds of thousands of individual personalities from all over the world who often do not agree with one another.

Why Community?

Whether or not a particular business really requires a true community to thrive depends on that businesses specific attributes and context. In many situations, having shared values and a common sense of ownership really does increase a product’s revenue potential. We knew community would be important at Indaba, because music is inherently social, collaborative, and perhaps most importantly, requires a degree of trust – both in a creative and critical sense.

On the flip side, many web companies believe they need “community” simply because it is a hot buzzword, without truly understanding the actual benefits that will accrue. As JCN and Mantis know all too well, community is a really, really hard thing to build, so it only makes sense to prioritize if the benefit is clear. In that spirit, if you happen to have Hulu Plus there a highly applicable scene in this episode of my favorite show, The Office. Ryan attempts to explain why the new Dunder-Mifflin paper website needs social networking features.