I’m trying to sort out the meaning of three things I’ve read this week. All three have to do with the big question, "What is community?" and "How do you help people form balance in an online community?" From a 10,000 foot perspective the question doesn’t really become "What is it?" or "How do people find balance?" It becomes "How do I manage to maintain an community in a healthy, productive way to become something enduring and profitable?"
Here are the three articles/posts I’ve read that have me trying to connect the dots.
Virtual Reality = Virtual Community = Virtual Relationships by David Garrison
Jobs of the future, #1: Online Community Organizer by Seth Godin
Second Life and Multiverse by Bobby Grunewald
On one side of the discussion Garrison, a youth pastor, is questioning the value of virtual relationships in comparison to online relationships. He says that online communities are morally neutral, yet are often being used in unhealthy ways. That’s a good point but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that all online relationships are somehow more or less dysfunctional that real world ones. My experience in more than 13 years of using online community is that it’s just as possible to form real relationships online as offline. You can be just as fake in real life, you can block people out of your life just as effectively, and dysfunctions in your personality will always evidence themselves in all areas of our lives.
From the perspective of Lifechurch.tv, Grunewald lives out an attitude that online relationships are not only "real," but they can also be redemptive to reaching people for Christ. That’s why Lifechurch.tv, one of the most innovative churches on the planet, operates a campus on Second Life. As the article mentions, a lot of "virtual people" who experience church at their internet campus, eventually reach out and make one-on-one connections with a local church or even one of their locations. In my experience with online communities this is a natural outgrowth. A sign of a healthy online communities is the "meet-up." Converting online friends into offline friendship has been an amazing experience for me. Online communication has some limitations as it fails to capture many of the nuances of language. After all, how much of our communication is non-verbal? How much depends on you knowing me personally so that when you read my words your brain says, "I can see Adam saying that, I know what he means despite his ability to articulate it clearly in writing." And in my role with Youth Ministry Exchange I can verify that nearly 100% of disagreements that occur in that online community have to do with misunderstood context and things that wouldn’t have caused conflict when combined with non-verbal communication.
I had all of this swirling around the grey matter (Is it good? Is it moral? Can it last? Is it enduring and helping the trade?) between my ears when I read Seth’s Godin’s post. In Seth’s opinion, forming, managing, and growing trade-based online communities is one of the big jobs of the future. See, it’s one thing when you feel like the only guy on the block who thinks your idea is worthwhile. It’s another thing when one of the premier business minds out there says the same thing. (Hey, when is this guy going to appear at the Leadership Summit?) See, I think places like YMX are valuable to people in Youth Ministry… but I am just one person and a nobody. When other people start saying that trade-based online communities are important now and will be super important in the future, I start to believe it!
I know online communities are important. (Why else would I operate one?) And I know they can be redemptive. (Why else would we have joined the Gospelcom Alliance?) The hard part of managing an online community is this: Creating an online place where everyone feels valued, feels like they can contribute, and is still narrowly focused enough to effect growth and change in a specific sub-culture or trade. Put that in a bottle and you will make millions.
Questions: When it comes to online communities from YMX, to Facebook, to the now dead and dying MySpace, what is the community value? How does an online community keep out of the grave? How does it keep going and become something enduring for an entire tribe of people?And how do I manage a community for long-term and not short term profit in the way MySpace did?