An Online Community is More Than a Place

Community minus people = empty (Photo by marilynpratt)
Community minus people = empty (Photo by marilynpratt)
I often hear of or talk to Optaros prospects who want to “build an online community.” That’s great, and I certainly don’t want to discourage them, but I think the phrase risks greatly oversimplifies what’s involved in building a community.

It suggests than an “online community” is something you build like you build: a web site, or a portal. It suggests that the community is the site itself. (It’s a strange kind of synecdoche, in which the web platform where some community interaction takes place is taken to be the actual community itself).

But a community is not a site – it is a group of people who interact with each other. And an online community isn’t a web site, it is a set of people who interact with each other online.

In his report from the Online Community Unconference East 2009 (which I was unfortunately unable to attend but have heard good things about) Bill Johnston list as one his three key takeaways the importance of thinking about your online community in the context of a broader eco-system:

One point that I have evangelized for many years is the fact that online communities generally don’t live in a single location. Most successful community strategies engage the entire ecosystem of touchpoints that members (or potential members) find valuable. This ecosystem can be made up of destination community sites, but relationships are also forming on blogs, social networks (Facebook, LinkedIn), mass social media (YouTube, Flickr), and even offline at meetups or user group meetings. Conversations at the OCUE this year generally spilled beyond the boundaries of a hosted community destination, and most folks were thinking about how to prioritize various opportunities for engagement in their community ecosystem.

Absolutely! The community is the people, not the site.

Just as a company needs to learn to think of its digital footprint across the assembled web – all the interactions consumers, partners, and employees have with the company’s products, brand, and content – online community managers need to think about all the ways in which the members of their community interact with each other across the Internet, not just the interactions they have on the official community site.

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