Design by Mansi Gupta

The community machine

I recently have come to realize a major flaw in the Community Canvas model we have developed: the framework with its distinct boxes and borders strengthens the impression that a community is a mechanical concept with clear parts to it. A very complex machine, but a machine nonetheless.

I see signs of that mental model — of community as a machine — quite frequently. It comes through in transactional language such as “driving engagement”, or “content funnel” and “activating people”. It assumes that there is a beginning, an end and a top and a down to the community machine. It assumes there is a clear chain of causality that drives member activity, from the beginning of the experience to the end. It assumes that there are people producing and other people consuming in the community.

But I’m starting to think that this mental model is misleading.

In reality, communities are much more like an organism

  • The whole organism is alive, because it is made up of cells that are alive. Every member is a cell in that organism.
  • The organism is constantly changing.
  • The organism breathes, moves, has better days and worse days.
  • The organism grows and matures with time.
  • Parts of the organism frequently die, while other parts thrive.
  • The whole organism might die if it doesn’t properly takes care of itself.
  • The organism’s structure is fluid: while at one point there is a lot of energy and activity in one sector, over time that sector gets abandoned and a new area of the organism is developed.

Thinking of community as an organism has consequences

Thinking of community as a living organism makes it easier for me to become aware of some its unique needs. Because it is an organism:

  • it is quintessentially human, a super simple fact that is so easy forgotten and then leads to bad community decisions.
  • it needs to feel safe.
  • you have to constantly take care of it, you can’t neglect it for a couple of weeks and then go back to it.
  • it needs a heartbeat, a rhythm, consistency.
  • Like every organism, it works as an ecosystem, where every piece in it plays a role. There is no active and passive parts

What does this mean for the role of a community builder?

For me, this also shapes how I see my role as a community builder:

  • My role isn’t to find and then implement the perfect structure.
  • My role is in sensing and feeling where the organism is at. This means using all senses, including intuition. Just like a human body, the community organism gives out all kinds of signals that often go unheard.
  • My role is to make sure the organism is healthy. This requires identifying imbalances in the body and restoring balance.

I’d be very curious to hear how other community builders relate to this — does this make any sense? I’m grateful for any feedback and thoughts!