What makes it "community" ?

I've got two thoughts - like plates spinning on sticks - about community right now, and forgive me if I let either of them fly off like frisbees as I cogitate on this.

 I was recently asked to give input on community - not in my usual “Yee-haw, evangelize why community is so great a value for a corporation to have” way - but to tell people who want a career track working with online community what should they train/read/do in their jobs to get their community chops.

My first thought on this, which represents a failing of many people who were on the Web early, is to snicker (sometimes inhaling my Diet Coke up my nose and it really hurts). Or hook my thumbs into the proverbial straps of my overalls and say, “Waall young whippersnapper, when I was yer age we walked uphill in the snow both ways, dragging our little HTML text editors behind us on red wagons with square wheels....”

Then I'd wave my arms and say some mystical nonsense to instill awe and fear, about how if you weren't around at that fargone Golden Age, you can never know the meaning of The Matrix.

But upon second thought, I laugh at myself and say, “Naw, it's easy -- if you care, anyone can do it, “ because like the Web in the early 90's, so much of online community is self-taught. It can be hard and sometimes emotional work, no doubt about it, but this is expertise that you MUST gain by doing. 

Often you can only learn the true meaning of flame war through getting singed (“Who is the IDIOT leader of this group anyway?!!“) You learn the ebb and flow of conversation and when not to send that pointed email reply (“ME, you SNARKY mollusk!“). By taking the gamble and starting a group, you can observe the organic changing of the guard within one online community, and master the moderation skills that keep that community on track and spam-free.

Take that risk. Only by helping out can you get a feel for how to keep that spark alive when the talk flags, and yet know when to step back and let other people be stars. Create user guidelines for your online group and see how they fly (or flee!). You'll learn the nobler side of marketing without ever meaning to (I know I didn't): understanding the deeper rewards of “customer reach” (helping out a newbie) and “protecting a brand” (your tribe's identity) by working to create an online space for other people. The more you give, the more you'll get back.

And like anything in coding or technology, encouraging community and creating relationships with groups of people are skills that get easier the more you study the problem. I gave the person who asked me about community a list of books to read (I'll blog on that another time) and instructions that boiled down to two words:

get involved.

Start a group on MSN. Answer questions in newsgroups. Join your favorite band's fan email list. Upload a User Sample on Gotdotnet. Immerse yourself in blogs and argue back. Study the dual problems of connecting with people and connectivity software. And who knows, maybe you'll come up with something brilliant no one has thought about, and you'll be coming up to me smugly saying that You Are The Chosen One.

Just don't do the snicker thing if you are drinking Diet Coke. Especially near my desk.