Some of What I’ve Observed About Online Community So Far

by Paul on June 30, 2009

(This post is an attempt to put together several observations I’ve made about online community in this blog.  Some I’ve expanded on since their previous post.  Others I’ve just summarized.  I apologize for the lengthy post, but I felt it was important to gather these ideas into one place.

These are all ideas.  I’d love to have your input and learn from your observations. – Paul.)

The Fulfillment Triangle

A few months after I ventured out into the uncertain realm of online community, I found a site called Seesmic.  I experimented with it for awhile, probing the Seesmic community to figure out how things worked.  I asked, “What do you think of when you hear the word, “Community?”  What does it mean to you?”

One woman replied (and I paraphrase), “ I don’t really have one community.  I have my home, my family, who love me unconditionally.  But they don’t understand my work, so I have my colleagues who understand and accept me professionally.  But, since I am rather young and a musician, they don’t understand my art.  So I have other musicians I like to hang around who get my art.  I guess I need all three communities to give me what I need, to help me feel complete.”

Her comment intrigued me and later I read an article that confirmed her feelings, at least from an academic level.  (I don’t remember where I read the article.  I’ll update with a citation when I finally remember.)  People have three primary places in which they find community – home, work, and something called a ‘third space.’  When I draw it in my infamous ghetto hand drawing style, it looks like this:

The Fulfillment Triangle

The Fulfillment Triangle

I call it a Fulfillment Triangle. (I thought about calling it ‘iCommunity’ or ‘iTriangle,’ but realized I shouldn’t try to be that creative. Also, it isn’t always a triangle, I can address that later.  For the sake of simplicity, we will stick a triangle right now.)

I think that much of the emerging communities we find online are the result of people trying to connect with a third space more customized to their personality than a local church or Starbucks. (I know some of you are probably cringing right now.  I used ‘customizable’ and ‘community’ in the same sentence.  Some of you may find your blood pressure rising and want to rail against the narcissistic tendencies of online social media, etc.  But I wonder if you’ve ever been the only stamp and coin collector in your youth group who just wanted to connect with a community that would accept you without mocking you because you didn’t care for football or where you wouldn’t be considered such a nerd. Have you ever thought about that?)  Online Third Spaces are the product of the natural propensity of humans to connect with people like them.  Often, this propensity is the reason online community exists in the first place.

From what I can tell from my observations of online behavior, people retreat into the community they feel safest when they feel crisis.  If the crisis is work-related, they might spend more time with the family.  If is is family, then they might spend more time at work or in their third-space.  People often retreat to family, but I’m sure you can think of circumstances in which the family isn’t considered the safest part of their community triangle.

When home and work aren’t safe, people turn to their third space for support.  That is why we often find hurting people online. They aren’t necessarily degenerate, nerds, or socially inept.  They just need a place where people will support them through crisis, just like anyone else.  Their third space just happens to be online.

Also important to note:  you cannot force people to have a third space where you want.  They will go where they feel accepted and there is little you can do about it.  You can create an environment that appeals to some, but you will never have a place for everyone.

Community Cube

As I’ve said before, you cannot define something as complex and fluid as community in one sentence or paragraph.  Additionally, any discussion or definition of community must be descriptive rather than prescriptive.  They need to take into account which part of the fulfillment triangle they are talking about as well.  Community within a family probably looks quite a bit different from community at the workplace or third space.  Also, culturally speaking, certain aspects of community may vary from one community to the next.

That’s why I came up with the Community Cube, an attempt to provide a context to describe the three dimensional and fluid nature of communities without being prescriptive as to what a community should be.  As I’ve discussed before, the six sides are the six disciplines that deal with the various intricacies of human community.  They are:

  • Sociology
  • Psychology
  • Anthropology
  • Social Philosophy
  • Business and Communication
  • Ecology
The Community Cube

The Community Cube

The Fulfillment Triangle Fits Inside The Community Cube

The Fulfillment Triangle Fits Inside The Community Cube

Each part of the Fulfillment Triangle trends toward one side of the Community Cube or another but cannot be completely and accurately defined by any one of the six disciplines.

Why is the Community Cube important?  The Community Cube gives us a tool to help us to quickly move past one or two dimensional arguments about definitions so that we can have discussion that lead to action and engagement.

The Fourth Dimension of Online Community

The Fulfillment Triangle exists within the Community Cube.  Both of these models exist within the fourth dimension of community – Time.  Time, especially online, is a funny thing.  Connection between people happen rapidly online.  Ideas spread rapidly as well.  But don’t let these realities fool you – relationships take time to develop and mature.  Because of the frequency of communication, the internet can accelerate relationship, but it cannot completely overcome the necessity of frequent communication and connection required for anything beyond surface relationship.  Does that discount the existence of online relationships?  Not at all!  It just means that they take time to develop and mature, just like the offline world.

Most people in online ministries grossly underestimate the amount of time it takes to form relationships with non-Christians and disciple them into a relationship with Christ.  They set goals that are accurate if based on the speed of online connection and ideas, but inaccurate if relationship is the goal.

Online Community is still subject to Time.

Online Community is still subject to Time.

What Acorns, Saplings, and Oak Trees Have to Do With Online Community

Let’s look at another metaphor….

Acorns, saplings and Oak trees really don’t look like each other.  They share the same DNA, though.  Given time and the right environment acorns will become saplings and saplings will become Oak trees.  But an acorn looks nothing like an Oak tree.  Acorns are full of potential, but that is all they have going for them if they aren’t planted, watered and nourished.  The saplings in my yard will become trees if I don’t run over them with my lawn mower. ( The Oak tree would win any battle with my lawn mower. )

Most online communities are in the acorn stage.  They don’t have all the characteristics of community, but the potential is there.

Some online communities are saplings.  They look more like community than acorns, but they aren’t quite on the level of an Oak tree.

And very few online communities are Oak trees.  Very few online communities are at this stage.

Each stage is different, obviously.  Each stage has different needs.  Each stage has different things it does well.  You cannot expect an acorn to act like an Oak tree.  You cannot judge an acorn with an Oak standard.  You have to evaluate it as it is so that you can help it move to the next stage of development.  The worst thing you can do is condemn a community for what it is not, in my opinion.

The Cyclonic Nature of Community

I’ve always heard of people talking about life cycles and the life cycle of a community or movement.  While I understand where they are coming from, I don’t completely agree.  It seems more cyclonic to me.  Let me explain.

The Community Cyclone

The Community Cyclone

It seems to me that communities definitely have standard phases.  They grow, plateau, decline, and either die or start growing again.  Moving a community through the growing phase requires an investment of energy and time.  Communities naturally plateau and, if they do not receive further investment of time and energy, they decline.  The natural propensity of every community is decline and death.

Cycles always seem to return you to the same place you began.  The idea of a cyclone is that you never return to the same place.  That seems more accurate for community development.  Even if your community is in a declining phase, it won’t ever return to ground zero (no community) with the proper investment of time and energy.

Younger communities move through the phases faster than more mature communities.  Younger online communities may move through rise, plateau, decline, and rise again several times in a week or month.  More mature communities, on the other hand, may plateau for some time before they slip into a declining phase.  Helping a younger community mature is difficult because you have to invest so much energy helping them through very short phases.  There is more room to breathe in mature communities because the amount of time between phases is long.

This is true for online and offline communities, but the internet speeds everything up.

The Community Cyclone is very important for people and organizations trying to establish online communities.  It allows you to evaluate where your community is and figure out how to help it move through the next phase.  Ultimately, understanding the Community Cyclone helps you lengthen the time between phases and ensure that your community moves quickly from a declining phase into a growth phase.

The Community Cyclone is also important for people engaging existing online communities.  Helping a community grow is one way to quickly engage.  People don’t want to see their community die, but they might not know what it will take to move out of a decline back into a growth phase.  Helping them through these transitions build rapport and allows you to identify the Person of Peace, if one is present.

Why Does This Matter for Those Building and Engaging Online Community?

1.  Understand that you are only engaging one part of a person’s life.  You may be one community out of the three (or more) of the Fulfillment Triangle they use to feel complete.  Recognize this and don’t try to meet all their needs in one place.  It is impossible.

2.  Be careful that you aren’t imposing a definition on your community that limits its potential.  You may be evaluating your community from an Ecological viewpoint, which is often geographically centered, and what you really have is one that trends more toward a Business and Communication evalutation (economy and frequency of conversation between members).

3.  Don’t treat an acorn community (emerging) like you would an Oak tree community (established).  They have different needs and you can expect different things from each one.

4.  Hone your ability to recognize what part of The Community Cyclone your online community is in at the moment.  What do you need to do to more it through it’s current phase and what do you need to invest into the upward growth phase to help it move to the next level?

5.  Are you discipling them in such a way that their walk with God permeates the other communities they need for their fulfillment (Fulfillment Triangle)?

Why Does This Matter for Those Evaluating Online Communities?

1.  Stop evaluating online church and community as if it is all the community someone will ever have.  It won’t be.  It can’t be.  But that reality doesn’t mean that it isn’t community.  Online community is one of the different communities we need to feel fulfilled and understood.

2.  Stop using one sided definitions to prescribe what community looks like.  If six disciplines cannot agree on any one definition, what make you think your evaluation of community is  the only valid way to evaluate community?  What if you let the community in question determine if they are a community and listen to how they define it?

3.  Stop comparing Acorn Communities (potential) and Sapling Communities (emerging) with Oak Tree Communities (established).  Instead, evaluate each community from where it is and help identify strategies to develop communities to the next stage.

4.  Start evaluating how ministries are engaging people and discipling them online.  Help them see that they need to be discipling people in a way that affects every aspect of their life, not just their online community.

5.  Start asking questions that result in action, not discussion.

6.  Understand that not doing online ministry, not engaging online communities, and not developing online expressions of church is not an option for those of us called – by God – to online ministry and Gospel planting. So help us figure out how to do it better – those are the kinds of discussions and debates we embrace.

I will probably update this post as I think of new things.  More importantly, I’d love to hear your experiences and how this compares with what you are doing online.

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{ 2 trackbacks }

Should Theology be Part of the Online Community Cube? : Reaching The Online Generation
July 15, 2009 at 10:00 am
Yes, Online Community Does Take Away from Offline Community : Reaching The Online Generation
July 16, 2009 at 12:58 pm

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Catherine Savard July 1, 2009 at 6:08 am

Thanks for the post. I find do find it useful in thinking about and trying to work out effective online community in evangelism and disciple building.

Chris July 9, 2009 at 12:37 am

Phew! This is a long post and must have taken quite a while to produce. Lots of useful stuff in here and well thought through. I wonder if you would like to add “Theology” to your list of academic disciplines that study what community is about? Theologians have to think through the nature of church and God’s view of community.
One of the things that I wonder about is does online community ever degrade other communities. I’ve noticed that people tend to favour communities at a distance than ones they are actually present in. For instance if the telephone rings they will feel compelled to answer it even if they are currently with others. People also spend a lot of time online where they could be with their family. Not complaining – just observing.

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