Adam Fields (weblog)

This blog is largely deprecated, but is being preserved here for historical interest. Check out my index page at for more up to date info. My main trade is technology strategy, process/project management, and performance optimization consulting, with a focus on enterprise and open source CMS and related technologies. More information. I write periodic long pieces here, shorter stuff goes on twitter or


The first rule of community

I have a personal mailing list for my very close friends, to which I often send a few messages a day. If I stop for a day or two, it’s not a problem. If I stop for a long period of time (a week, a month) without telling someone, I have a strong belief that many of those people will check in to see what’s wrong. This is a major aspect of community for me, and it’s missing from every other piece of online interaction I’ve ever had, including this blog. Part of it has to do with the requirement that everyone on the mailing list is someone I’ve met in person and decided to include – I do not invite people whom I’ve never met physically, and I do not accept solicitations to join the list. But it’s a very strong driver for me, and it’s the reason I still maintain the list even in the presence of so many “better” ways to communicate.

There’s really only one rule for community as far as I’m concerned, and it’s this – in order to call some gathering of people a “community”, it is a requirement that if you’re a member of the community, and one day you stop showing up, people will come looking for you to see where you went.

Incidentally, this quality has been lacking from some real world organizations as well, and it’s become a very strong barometer for me to tell just how welcome I feel with any given group of people. If I left and didn’t come back, would anyone care enough to find out why? It’s a very visceral question, and perhaps a difficult one to ask. But I think it’s an important one, as we move into these so-called communities where all of our interaction is online, and fluid.

I quite enjoy my participation in a number of sites, flickr and ask metafilter among them. But I have no doubt that if I suddenly go away, not one other member will really care, with the probable exception of the people I know from offline. From time to time, they may wonder, “huh, haven’t seen Caviar in a while” (and the use of handles instead of names is probably a big contributor to this), but it’s unlikely that anyone will track me down to ask why, if they can even find out a way to reach me. They’ll probably just assume I found something better to do, or switched to a different site. And therein lies a big piece of the problem – the loose ties go both ways. That guy who disappeared may have just found something better to do, or switched to a different site, but maybe he died, or just didn’t feel welcome anymore. If we don’t have the presence to find out these reasons, or even the capacity to tell when such an event has occurred, are we really building a useful analogue to the binding offline communities that exist, or is it all just a convenient fiction?

I’ve blogged before about some of the problems with online communities, but I think this is a bigger point. That post focused more on how to get online communities to be more outward facing and less insular. This is more about how to get online communities to be more inclusive and meaningful. I must admit that I’m only at the beginning of an answer, but I welcome any ideas on the subject. I’ll avoid the temptation to suggest that we should probably meet for drinks to discuss it.

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7 Responses to “The first rule of community”

  1. Trudy W. Schuett Says:

    I think you’ve got part of the answer right in your post. I’ve been online a long time, and I’ve always felt more engaged in groups where people use their real names. I can relate much better to Dave or Mary, than I can to helloKitty99.

    If I was going to launch a group online, real names would be a requirement. I used to host in-person book discussion groups at a bookstore in pre-internet days, and anyone who refused to give their name was thought to be a bit odd. Why shouldn’t the same rules apply online?

    To take it a step further, if we know that Dave has a furniture store in Anytown, Texas, and Mary is a sheepherder in Wyoming, then we can have a better sense of who’s in the discussion and why they might care about a particular group. Of course there will always be those who are using the internet to exercise an alter ego, or experimenting with an alternate identity, but mostly, people don’t mind sharing who they are.

  2. tish grier Says:

    you’ve hit on a very interesting connundrum, Adam, and one I think those of us who’ve been online a *long* time have realized…

    but there’s another curiosity to this. I find that, often, the folks who trumpet the loudest about the merits and importance of online community are folks who have taken it one other step and have met one another f2f. In my own vetures among the bloggerati, I’ve found f2f to be a powerful component to gaining recognition (not *just* one’s writing–esp. if you’re female. in the eyes of many blogger males, we perceived as less than “serious.))

    yet I think online reflects offline in this sense: think about the guy you have a conversation with at a bar. You might know *of* him, but you can’t say your really *know* him. You can only say that if you meet him outside the bar as well as in it. Same with online. You can say that you know *of* someone via their comments and such–but the f2f meeting at a conference or other circumstance raises the significance and meaning of the relationship.

    Online interaction also seems to reflect the way we socialize in late adolescence: and how many of us notice when so and so from “the group” ceases to show up? There may be a few of us who get concerned and call–but it’s rare when the entire group really cares, and is often content to find out second hand. Such is, in my expriece, the case with life onine. Perhaps, then, it’s a matter of gaining maturity (or is it just that online will always be the domain of those of a certain age group and will always reflect their social customs?)

  3. Caitlin Burke Says:

    Even in a strong online community, some people are more hooked in than others. I would consider MeFi a very good example of a community in which, if you disappear for a while, people notice (MeFites came looking for me! :) ), but it’s so large that I’m sure that experience of MeFi is not shared by all 25,000 account holders, or whatever. Same with Flickr – these sites encompass dozens to hundreds of smaller groups (in Flickr’s case probably even more) of people who take a particular interest in part of the site, and who know (and care about) the regulars.

    I agree that face-to-face interaction is an important part of what makes online communities strong, but there is no precise mapping between “people who feel connected via an online community” and “online community members who have met face to face.” I would suggest, rather, that it’s the communities that encourage and enable regular face-to-face involvement that enjoy the kind of attention that you (rightly) praise, indeed that the mere fact of the regular face-to-fact interaction happening and being talked about in the online sphere contributes to a higher ‘reality index’ – which is probably associated meaningfully with stickiness and attentiveness.

  4. adam Says:

    Caitlin – of the people who contacted you, did you know any/all of them offline? Did you know them from another community site? I’d love to hear more about your interactions with the MeFi community, and about why you’ve had this experience. I’m conceptualizing some of these ideas into the foundation of a few pieces of community software I’m working on.

  5. George Says:

    This is a good point, but I believe a problem of the early stages of online communities. As they progress, more and more people are using their real names and things are starting to map back to reality such as offline events, etc. The real issue in my mind is the “static” … for example, I am more inclined to notice no movement with a “friends” account on Linkedin, then on Myspace. Why? Because they are validated friends and collegues. On myspace, when someone has a 1000 friends, its just impossible, its clutter, its a means to an end to show how popular you are.

    For me, the software needs to progress to help bring together “like-minds”. I believe Netflix is a perfect example of this. Their recommendation engine and how it ties into “Friends” is excellent. It shows me how close in taste I am to my friends, therefore helping with recommendations. Its good to know that through usage, So-and-so is 80% similar to me. If they make a recommendation, I must watch that film.

    I believe this can be applied to community websites. Creating blobs of like-minded people through activity, tastes, preferences, etc, which helps me see the people I really want to be exchanging with. Then as we get closer, we become friends and “friends” are real and trackable.

    To me, people don’t leave communities because they found something different. They just stop participating because it is no longer relavant. As long as relavance is there, participation continues. And when on netflix, i get a message saying, “so-and-so hated Gone with the Wind, but you loved it. Want to discuss it with them?” then I am urged to continue because it is not only relavant to my tastes in films, but more so because so-and-so is a friend and friday night we might get a beer to discuss our love/hatred for Gone with the Wind.

  6. Emma Says:

    But, is community just about exchanges with people who are ‘like’ you. Is friendship? When I think of a real-world community, like a small town or an intential commununity or a workplace, or a churchc, those places where people would notice if you disappeared — I also think there is an element of being ’stuck together’ – either by choice or by chance. And that means with people that might not be exactly who you would choose to exchange with if you had a complete choice or some great matching algorithm. You end up stuck with them, and then you get to know them, and bond beyond your similar interests.

    Someone I met once (at a job no less, no one I would normally have met in my self-selected communities) had this thesis about California (where I was living at the time). He said that Californians were less accessible, more guarded, less community-oriented because the weather is so nice in Cali. His hypothesis was that the bad weather in other regions of the country forces people to rely on each other more and thus creates in people the predisposition to be more community-oriented. In California no one had to depend on anyone in ice, tornadoes, snow, etc. So the culture was more isolated, alienated. Now I personally think there are a lot of contributing factors to the California culture, but it’s an interesting point. How does the ability to choose and construct your entire environment lend itself to the attitude of “ok I’m bored, moving on” that seems to prevent long-term bonding in online communities? (or even real-time communities these days). Any self-chosen community is going to have the element of “Ok, I can re-choose and leave”.

    In sum, I think this is a larger sociological issue of our times. Not sure how to solve it. I struggle it with myself as I find myself joining groups, and then moving on when they don’t perfectly match my expectations, and then feeling like oh, why don’t I have stronger connections to things? Perhaps it is a developmental thing–perhaps at a certain point in development you realize that to develop true connections you have to put up with people who are not there *just* to entertain you. I dunno. Just some thoughts.

  7. Artichoke Says:

    You might enjoy Teemu Leinonen’s recent post in which he explores the connections between people required for asking good questions. It seems to me the “close peer group” criteria that Teemu identifies below is just the sort of criteria that would develop the community you identify as one that would come looking for you to see where you went.

    To work with real problems and solutions you need close peer-groups. You must feel free and comfortable to ask naïve and hard questions So, from whom to do you ask these questions? With whom do you come up with possible solutions to the problems?
    (1) From your mother and father, from your best teachers, your close friends;
    (2) from the feeds in your PLE and the blogosphere?
    To put it in the fashionable terms of “networks” you basically ask (good) questions from and with the people with whom you have strong links. In his theory of social ties, Granovetters (1973) gives the following factors for strength of a tie: amount of time spent, emotional intensity, intimacy (mutual confiding), and the reciprocal service associated with the tie.

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