Imagined Communities

Building a community now is a hell of a lot like it was 100 years ago.

Building a community anywhere, online or off, is very much an artform. Unique solutions are required for unique situations, and difficult problems require creative answers. You can’t build a community using a one-size-fits-all solution, right?

No, of course you can’t. But you can take a look at the last hundred years’ wisdom on how offline communities are shaped and start to piece together some coherent theory; community building blocks, if you will. The concepts behind political ideologies, nations, nationalism: read them now and they very much make sense in a web context.

I must admit, I never read any more of Benedict Anderson’s 1983 publication Imagined Communities for my Politics A-level than I had to. That’s not to say it wasn’t interesting; I just had other stuff on that week, and whilst I’ve already dumped a lot of my fifteen years of education out of my brain, Imagined Communities has stuck.

Mr Anderson was writing about nations and nationalism, but the key concepts seem just as relevant now applied to the web as they did thirty years ago, trying to explain the Cold War. A brief summary from Wikipedia:

An imagined community is different from an actual community because it is not (and, for practical reasons, cannot be) based on everyday face-to-face interaction between its members. For example, Anderson believes that a nation is a socially constructed community, imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group.

Any web-based community is, by Mr Anderson’s definition, “imagined”: there’s no (or at least very little) face-to-face interaction and said communities tend to revolve around common interests rather than common heritage or location, the things which have traditionally driven communities.

That’s not particularly groundbreaking. Where It starts getting juicy is at the idea that “a nation is a socially constructed community”. This is suggesting that communities don’t form naturally; they need some prompt, some catalyst to get them started and then to sustain them. And guess what? Exactly the same thing is true of web communities. If someone doesn’t take the initiative, start and nurture them, they simply won’t exist.

Anderson then goes on to explore how the rise of print media was responsible for nation building in the early 1900s, and there’s very little imagination required to draw parallels with the rise of social media as a driver of community building in the 2010s.

In practical terms, that means one of the very first things that needs to be done when attempting to build any community is attempting to get the metaphorical foot in the door and connect people to relevant social channels. Those social channels are only requiring casual interest and commitment, but they can be used to do so much more: build trust, affinity and conversations — the things you’re going to need in any community.

The next, crucial stage is to provide the emerging community with the tools it needs to self-actualise and self-perpetuate. Anderson saw this as further media outlets emerging, but that’s not always going to be appropriate or realistic; the aim is to ensure the “conversation” becomes more than a one-way thing, and that community members start doing the talking themselves, independently. Blogs, forums, sub-reddits; however this is achieved, the important thing is that the infrastructure is in place and the community is given its own space to grow.

You know you’ve made it when people who haven’t “met” identify as part of your community. This is the “people who perceive themselves as part of that group” that Anderson describes, and is the point at which nurturing the community becomes managing and even regulating the community; “your” community isn’t really yours anymore — it belongs to the people who are part of it.

None of this is particularly revolutionary, but when trying to build loyalty and a community around a product, service or whatever, it’s all too easy to assume these things come naturally and can be taken for granted. That’s not true. Communities are social constructs, and someone needs to be doing that constructing to take them anywhere.

Still intrigued? We should be friends.