Photo from Global Sandbox Summit in Lisbon, January 2012

In my work helping organizations build communities, I keep coming across two kinds of people: On the one hand I meet people who immediately get the value of community and instinctively know how powerful well-designed groups are. And on the other hand I meet people who find it pretty hard to relate to the concept of community. They often ask me questions such as: what will I get out of it? Why should we invest into a community at all? What can we expect in the short-term?

While I don’t even need to convince the first group, I almost never manage to persuade the second group. No matter what I say to them, no matter the cases I point to, they remain highly skeptical and often they come to the conclusion that communities are a waste of time and resources.

Why is that? My hypothesis is that the second group has never actually experienced what it feels like to be part of a well functioning community.

If those observations would be true, then the only real way to “convince” someone of a community is through an experience, not through words.

“Community” is an emotional experience

Intuitively this makes sense. At the core, “being in community” is an emotional experience: I feel that I belong, I feel safe, I feel at home, I feel trusted, I feel I can trust you, I feel supported, I feel I can trust people I have never met before in my life. That feeling is nothing but abstract unless it is grounded in an actual experience. It’s like trying to explaining to someone who has never tasted salt what it tastes like. Plus, there is something magical about communities that isn’t obvious at first: the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts. Why would you believe that, unless you have seen it play out in reality?

So much confusion around what “community” means

All of that skepticism towards community is further strengthened by the fact that the term “community” is becoming en vogue and is being used in pretty much every marketing and sales campaign these days, not to describe actual communities, but as a fancy way to say customer or audience. People who have never experienced community see the term being used in a lot of transactional ways by companies trying to sell them stuff. So no wonder they remain unconvinced about the true benefits of community.

Why it matters

For me this matters in a fundamental way. I do the work I do because I believe that communities bring something beautiful to the world. I believe humanity is suffering from disconnection and needs more places of belonging. However, given above I will never be able to convince anyone of the power of community unless I make them experience it.

What do you think?