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.