What does “community” even mean? A definition attempt & conversation starter

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Salad community, anyone?

“Community” has a definition problem

As someone who works with communities on a daily basis and has studied hundreds of them over the last couple of years, I sense a lot of confusion. The term is used as a catch-all phrase for anything that has to do with a collection of human beings, from the very tangible to the very abstract.

1) Most “communities” are not real communities

I get the sense that the term “community” is really hot in the advertising/marketing/sales/startup/event space, because it alludes to more than just a transactional customer-company relationship. But most of the “communities” I come across, are in my opinion not actual communities. I hear the word being used, when really the authors mean a series of monthly events, a Facebook page, a group of customers that has loyalty towards a specific brand, a yearly conference, all customers of an e-commerce brand, social media followers, everyone who uses Twitter, people who happen to vote the same way, etc.

2) The dictionary definition is vague and outdated

Here is how the dictionary defines “community”:

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We need to update what “community” means

With the traditional definition being somewhat outdated and the term being used broadly by marketers, brands, entrepreneurs, event organizers, social media managers etc. in so many ways, I think we are missing out on the true power that “real” communities can have.

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  • “that care about each other”: this is in my opinion the absolute core of a community. The individuals in a group are not just random strangers, they have relationships with each other. They give a shit about each other. They care more about the people in this group than about the average person they meet on the street. This is where the magic of a community happens. When people care about each other, they develop trust. And trust unlocks collaboration, sharing, support, hope, safety and much more. While most organizations in the world optimize their performance towards external goals, communities optimize for trust.
  • “feel they belong”: communities address one of the most fundamental human needs: we want to be loved, we don’t want to be lonely and we want to know that we belong somewhere. Real communities give us this sense of home, this sense of family, this sense of “these are my peers”. This is my tribe, this is where I belong. In this group, I am being accepted for who I really am.
  • “together”: a community gives people a sense of shared identity. We are together. The sum is bigger than the individual parts. This shared identity matters, because it takes the group beyond individual, 1:1 relationships. It turns strangers into trusted peers through a proxy effect: even though I don’t know you, I trust you more than the average person because we are part of the same community, we share the same identity. Many of us express our interests, ambitions and goals through the people we spend time with — communities become part of our identity.

What about a community having a common goal / purpose?

I see a lot of community definitions that are a version of the following:

How do YOU define “community”?

I’d love for this to be a conversation starter and would LOVE to hear what “community” means to you. If you leave comments or message me, I’ll make sure to collect all the answers and report back. Thank you!

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Get in touch

Have thoughts and feedback on the writing above? Or are you looking for a speaker for your next event? I’d love to hear from you — message me at fabian@together.is — thank you!

Together Institute

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

Fabian Pfortmüller

Written by

Grüezi, Swiss community builder in NYC, author of @CommunityCanvas, co-founder Together Institute, fabian@together.is www.together.is

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, fabian@together.is www.together.is

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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