Key to understanding communities: the centralized to distributed spectrum

All communities exist on a spectrum — and why I think this spectrum matters so much.

Image source: Paul Baran, On Distributed Communications Networks, 1962

If you have spent time with me in the last few months, you have probably heard me talk about the graphic above. I draw it almost at every meeting I go to, because it informs so much of my thinking on how communities evolve and what makes communities powerful.

At the core of my excitement for the model above stands a simple insight that has emerged over the last few months (with a lot of help from Sascha): Communities exist on a spectrum. Groups of human beings come in so many different variations and shapes that it is hard to define the one thing they all have in common. Yet all groups exist on a spectrum, or rather a set of spectra, that differentiate them. Identifying these spectra will help us compare different kinds of communities and ask questions about what makes a community “better”, or “more powerful”.

For me the spectrum above is so crucial, because it visualizes simple answers to the following questions:

  • How is power distributed in the group?
  • Who holds what kind of control and influence in the group?
  • How is the group organized and structured?

I believe the answers to these questions have a significant impact on the characteristic and quality of a community.

Centralized Communities

  • All relationships and power flow through a central node, which can be an organization or individual.
  • The network / community is owned and controlled by the central node.
  • Most gatherings, conferences, events, retreats in the world fall in that category, whenever one organization or person are bringing people together
  • Most people’s personal networks are structured like that: Fabian’s network are all the people I know and they are connected through me as a central node.
  • Better to get specific outcomes done
  • More control
  • Better format to create consistency
  • Better model to get started with larger groups
  • There is very little shared identity
  • Relationships and trust don’t scale beyond 1:1 relationships and serendipitous encounters.
  • The overall model isn’t sustainable without the central node and doesn’t scale much
  • The group heavily depends on the central node. If the central node disappears, the network disappears.

Decentralized Communities

  • There is a central node where all relationships come together. That central node empowers its relationships to become small centers of gravity themselves and create sub-groups.
  • Crucially, the sub-groups aren’t usually connected with other sub-groups (unless serendipitously), but only connect through the one central node.
  • Also, the members of the sub-groups might not necessarily be connected within each other, but only through the sub-group node.
  • The central node has most of the power, but not all of it, as it delegates some of its power to the sub-groups and these build somewhat independent groups themselves.
  • Scale: the network can reach further and become bigger by enabling nodes to create their own sub-groups.
  • Diversity: the network broadens its offering.
  • Less dependency: less energy is required from the central node.
  • Some shared identity, depending on how much the sub-groups connect within and among each other.
  • Transfer of trust is still pretty low within and among the different sub-groups
  • Low shared identity as a whole
  • If the central node were removed, the network as a whole is still likely to collapse, but some individual sub-groups might continue to exist

Distributed Communities

  • There is no more central node. Every node is connected through a web of relationship to every other node.
  • There is no more central power or control. Every node — at least in theory — co-owns the group and can co-create the group.
  • The Sandbox community in its current evolution
  • The New Zealand based collective Enspiral
  • The hacker activist group Anonymous
  • Shared identity: very high shared identity.
  • Trust can — in theory — scale and travel throughout the group.
  • High incentive to co-create and feel co-ownership.
  • Long-term sustainability and resilience to shocks.
  • Hard to control, no more natural leadership, messy. Leadership always needs a mandate.
  • Hard to organize and focus on one specific goal.
  • Hard to build in the short-term, takes a long time to develop and strengthen.

In reality many communities somewhere in between

Most communities I come across don’t fit perfectly in one of these 3 categories, but rather they have certain elements of this and certain elements of that. In particular, I find the fluid space between Decentralized and Distributed very exciting and want to pay more attention to it. There are two patterns I see in that space:

  • What if in a decentralized model people know each other within the sub-group and act like a distributed community within their sub-group? I imagine a lot of chapter organizations working like that, for example YPO, or Alcoholics Anonymous. They might not have shared trust and identity with everyone, but definitely within their sub-group.
  • What if in a decentralized model there is significant cross-pollination between the different sub-groups? We saw that in the evolution of local Sandbox chapters: over time people travelled and moved to other cities, therefore creating cross-connections between the different cities. Step by step the different sub-groups become so connected among each other that a distributed community is emerging.

Very curious to hear what you all think about this framework — as always, very grateful for any thoughts and feedback!

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Together Institute

Hi there, we are Together Institute, we exist to help…

Together Institute

Hi there, we are Together Institute, we exist to help people and organizations build more meaningful communities. Here is where we share what we learn and think about.

Fabian Pfortmüller

Written by

Grüezi, Swiss community builder in NYC, author of @CommunityCanvas, co-founder Together Institute,

Together Institute

Hi there, we are Together Institute, we exist to help people and organizations build more meaningful communities. Here is where we share what we learn and think about.

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