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Thursday, 24 October 2002

Something to talk about: the birth of a community

Yesterday, Meg wrote a great piece about online community, distinguishing the tools that a community uses from the actual community itself, spurred by recent developments in the UKBloggers mailing list. I've been following the list discussion about what to do now that the GBlogs portal has closed down and, like Meg, was stunned by the number of people who didn't seem to Get It, so much so that I sat down and started ranting (probably incoherently) about what online community, or even just community, is. On reflection, what I was really doing was defining what online community wasn't (it's not lots of things). Fortunately, I never got the chance to finish the rant because a well-timed lecture interrupted me mid-invective and by the time I'd sat through about an hour's worth of learning about booleans, nested ifs and switch/case statements in Java, the will to rant had been drained from my being.

What I decided to do instead was hand it over to Tom, and pointed him at Meg's article. Tom IMed me a couple hours later after having splurged about community participation and what it means to be a member of community.

The sin that Meg latched on to was the conception that the UKBloggers community was a 'project', and that once one tool had been shut down, whether this constituted a failure of the project. Meg quite accurately pointed out that the community was never a project. (Successful) communities frequently never are--they pre-exist. The example that I'll give is to go into the history of the UKBloggers mailing list a little more than the paragraph Meg gave and give some parallels.

Way back in 2000, Caroline had decided that she was going to be around in England in the summer and vaguely expressed a desire to meet up with anyone who felt like meeting up with her. Back then, the number of blogs in the UK was tiny. We're talking small--at a high estimate, less than thirty.

What you've got with such a small number of people, all doing the same thing, in a small (relatively speaking) geographic location (leaving aside arguments that geography doesn't really matter on the web--to which I say you can never ignore geography, and that's probably a distressing thought to ks3 pupils), it's pretty much a given that in the context of weblogging, they're going to known about each other. Linky-linky-lurve, remember. In fact, it's not just because we were all blogging. It's what people do. You do something. You enjoy doing it, and it's new, it's exciting (yes, apparently some people do or did find blogging exciting), inevitably, you're going to want to find other people who hold similar interests. There were a few of us who knew each other, in that vague "oh, I've read that person's website, maybe we've exchanged a couple of emails" online manner.

Would anyone say that a community existed? Possibly. Maybe not quite just yet. What you would be able to say, though, is that there existed an arbitrary set of people, say, people who write blogs and live in the UK, who were on the tentative cusp of actually starting to talk to each other on a regular basis - they hadn't yet got organised. One way of illustrating the difference might be taking an apartment complex full of people, and describing them either as a) the people who live in the complex or b) the people who get together every so often for association meetings.

What with Caroline deciding to drop round for tea, as it were, a bunch of the UK webloggers decided to email amongst themselves--a closed CC list, no less!--and see if anything could get organised. There's that key word again--organised. At this point, no GBlogs existed. There was no mailing list. There was a closed carbon copy list of email addresses and, all of a sudden, a bunch of people who had something of worth to talk about (to them).

Shortly after that, though, I set up the UKBloggers mailing list on eGroups and pretty much everything after that is straightforward. For various reasons, Caroline wasn't able to make it down to London, but we (that is, the bunch of people on the mailing list who lived in the UK) decided to meet up anyway, because there was an interest in meeting, and talking to, all these other people who were doing the same thing, exploring the same medium.

Those with a sense of humour might take heart that the sixth message to the embryonic community was "Why London?", in response to the suggestion that the first meet be held there.

There were a bunch of meets. Mostly they involved vodka and jelly. At some point, the organisation grew to the extent that various tools, like Gblogs, started popping up for the community to use--if I remember correctly, Jen probably still has a really long list of things that we were planning to do that we worked out over IM and scribbled down in a pub in London.

The point is: a tool does not community make. The community existed already, the tool just enhanced it, facilitated its growth. We moved to an eGroups mailing list from a bunch of CCs because the list was getting unwieldy. Coincidentally, eGroups also made it easy for other people to join, and there were a bunch of tools that would be useful to communities that eGroups provided. In this case, a pre-existing community spontaneously moved to take advantage of a new tool so that it could grow and be more manageable. Communities like these--like UKBloggers, like Cloudmakers aren't planned. They happen. They happen when there's a body of people who have enough of a desire to talk about something common to all of them that they actually do start talking about it. The failure of a tool, the closing down of a resource doesn't mean that a community instantaneously dies: it's still there if the people still have something to talk about to each other.

One more thing: communities aren't static. The UKBloggers list is in no way now the same as when it started. The focus is different. The tone is different. New members have joined (in droves), and old members have left (in slightly smaller droves), and a bunch of people are just resting and lurking. Does the UKBloggers list have anything worth talking about? This isn't a question that you can answer externally--so long as the members think they have something worth talking about, they have something worth talking about. Communities are born, grow, die, sometimes they even have children. There's a de-facto set of everyone in the UK who writes a weblog. The UKBloggers mailing list is a subset of that--just because you write a weblog and live in the UK does not necessarily mean that you're a member of the UKBloggers community

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