Design by Mansi Gupta

I recently had a conversation about community with a passionate friend. She felt that in 2017 there had been a lot of buzz around “community” and she asked me if I thought community was a short-lived hype or a trend here to stay.

Well, I think both 🙂

Here is my perspective on where “community” is at the beginning of 2018, in a nutshell:

  • The term “community” is being over- and abused by the marketing industry and is losing its meaning.
  • At the same time, humans are more disconnected than ever and are hungry for genuine relationships and places of belonging.
  • The initial excitement of the past decade that technology would solve the disconnection problem is dissipating. It’s starting to become clear that current technologies are often making things worse, not better. People are getting suspicious of Silicon Valley’s intentions and arrogance.
  • The solutions to stronger communities might instead be found in decentralized, hyper local formats with a strong offline component and augmented by digital tools.

1 — The term “community” has been adopted by the marketing world & is losing its meaning

Even salads have communities these days…

Advertisers, marketing, sales and branding people have started to realize how powerful communities can be. Some brands see the potential of building platforms where customers help customers. Others see an opportunity to replace words like customer and audience with the word community, hoping it will make them look more human and approachable.

There are some exceptions where brands genuinely use communities to provide a place for their audience to connect in meaningful ways. However, from my perspective, most brands ultimately are not committed to the humans in their communities, but are driven to increase sales, conversion and retention. In the end of the day, they are forced to prioritize their shareholders’ short-term profits over their customers’ long-term wellbeing. Having looked at many brand-driven communities, I have found very few that had human success metrics. And even in places where the actual community managers have the best intentions, they are often not backed up by shareholders who share the same vision.

All of this is concerning as it mixes commercial interests with bringing humans together to help them connect in meaningful ways. So maybe it is time we develop better language to differentiate between commercial communities, and human-driven communities. Severin Matusek described it nicely in his outlook on 2018: “ As communities become increasingly popular the word is getting used in (too) many different contexts: from buying a bottle of milk to engaging with customer service. As such, Community is the new Digital: the word’s meaning becomes so broad that it will disappear as a meaningful differentiator. It’s going to be replaced by a more nuanced vocabulary.”

2 — Humans are as disconnected as ever before

2017 has been filled with data about how pervasive loneliness is in our societies. Just in December, the BBC reported about the work of the Jo Cox Commission in the UK and their results are startling:

  • Loneliness affects a lot of people: “A study by The Co-op and the British Red Cross reveals over 9 million people in the UK across all adult ages […] are either always or often lonely.”
  • Loneliness has a real economic cost: Research by the Eden Project finds that “disconnected communities could be costing the UK economy £32 billion every year”, including £5.2 billion in additional health services (equal to the cost of building 70 new Specialist Emergency Care hospitals ), £205 million in increased demand for policing (equal to the median yearly salary of 6584 police officers), and £12 billion every year linked to loss of productivity. (All numbers via Eden Project).

Over in the US, the data points in the same direction:

  • The former US Surgeon General is calling it a “loneliness epidemic”, pointing to data that over 40% of adults in the US are reporting feeling lonely. At the same time the country is more politically divided than ever before.
  • Both the UK report and the former US Surgeon General point to the fact that there are serious health consequences to loneliness: “Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity” (via Harvard Business Review).

Every challenge has a flip side that points to a massive opportunity: a lot of people are hungry for genuine relationships and new structures of belonging.

3 — Technology probably isn’t the answer

Photo via this amazing story: ‘Tinder for orangutans’: Dutch zoo to let female choose mate on a tablet (The Guardian)

For many years, when I told people that I work with communities, the conversation automatically turned towards Facebook and digital social platforms in general. Many people held a general assumption that these new technologies were making us all more connected.

But last year society’s relationship to technology shifted notably. Silicon Valley’s actions are being looked at more critically. We are starting to better understand how these technologies are cleverly designed to capture our attention and time. Notably, different Silicon Valley insiders came out and warned that “our minds can be hijacked”, describing how tech giants are intentionally designing their technologies in addictive ways. Different articles (like this one in The Atlantic) warned from a mental health crisis not solved, but rather created by social media.

Facebook received quite some attention when it changed its mission statement last year to focus more on communities. But will the publicly traded corporation eventually steer away from its ultimate success metric, the advertiser revenue dollars, and instead focus on the health and depth of its users relationship? I remain highly skeptical. For me, Richard D. Bartlett’s article is a good summary how cultural attitudes towards Facebook are changing: “I feel enraged, but it’s not just because Facebook’s hyper-targeting of sponsored content is designed to trigger my basest instincts. The currency of likes makes me feel I’m being trained in vote buying: I feel encouraged to publish things that will win me favour. We’re normalising a form of public discourse which is optimised for virality, not meaning. The dopamine hit of that notification badge is more addictive than any substance I’ve encountered.”

Lastly, there is a ton of hype these days on how blockchain will support human connections. I definitely believe in the technology’s long-term potential, but so far I have seen mostly romantic projections without any substance. A lot of experimentation is needed to find out what will actually create meaningful value for human relationships…

While the final verdict on the effects on these technologies is still out, there is a growing feeling that technology might not be the holy grail that will help us feel more connected.

4 — The answer is probably small, simple, decentralized, local and mostly offline

The longer I work with communities, the more I’m convinced that the solutions to humanity’s disconnection lie not in all-encompassing global technologies, but rather by going back to the places where humans have always found belonging and relationships: in small, local groups, clubs, neighborhoods, associations, schools, book circles, dinners, community centers, potlucks etc. Of course, all of these formats have an online presence, but in the end of the day what makes the experiences valuable are the human relationships, not the software they are using to enhance them.

There are different development that I get excited about:

  • Hyperlocal formats like Tea with Strangers, 1 Million Cups, Creative Mornings, Citizens Circle that are very simple, repeatable (and therefore scalable) and mostly driven by volunteers. These concepts work not only in the New York City’s of this world, but also in rural villages.
  • I’m so curious to see new forms of gathering emerge that speak to a younger audience that is hungry for spirituality and belonging, but doesn’t feel at home in traditional organized religion, such as Sunday Assembly.
  • Initiatives to bring a stronger sense of community to physical neighborhoods and urban planning, like the Neighborhood Playbook.

What community initiatives do you get most excited about?

I’d be grateful to hear your feedback and thoughts! Join us for a conversation in our group for fellow community builders.