Essential Elements of Strong Communities

Communities are complex systems of human people. They can be organized around any number of characteristics: geography, age, religion, creed, level of education, occupation, common interest, and more. I like one of the definitions I found in the Dictionary app on my Mac: “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.” It’s not perfect, but it’s a starting point.

I’ve been a member of many different communities so far in my life, and I’ve even been lucky enough to work professionally with the aim of strengthening and enriching some of these communities for the benefit of their members. In my experience doing so, I’ve recognized a number of elements common to strong communities. Below is a brief exploration of three essential elements that have been on my mind recently.

I’m sure these ideas could be expanded even further, and I might not have them quite right as they’re articulated here, so please let me know in the comments if you have anything to add!

1) Shared Values > Shared Identity

A value is a type of belief that includes an attitude about the world.

This may go without saying, but values are different from identities. However, because of community dynamics, the two often go hand in hand. For simplicity’s sake, many communities are named for identity markers, but upon closer inspection, it’s clear that values are what give the community its shape.

For example, we may reference the LGBT community, implying that LGBT identity is the organizing characteristic of the community. I don’t think that’s quite right. There are many straight allies who feel very much a part of the LGBT community, and there are also queer-identified folks who see themselves as outsiders from the mainstream LGBT community. This means that shared identity is a sufficient condition for group membership, but it’s not a necessary condition.

2) Norms: customs of community

Communities may have explicitly stated guidelines (e.g. No hate speech) but they also have norms that are just as important. Norms are not laws, they’re not even as strict as “rules.” Think about driving. Sure, we have plenty of traffic laws on the books. “Rules of the road,” they’re sometimes called. But we also have norms. They’re not codified in law, but they’re just as important for preventing chaos on the road. Many of them are based in values of politeness and mutual respect.

Norms include customs, traditions, etiquette, and interpersonal conduct. They determine how we treat one another and what we expect from each other.

Norms change and evolve over time, just like values. The difference is that while a value is a kind of belief, a norm is a pattern of behavior. It’s something we do.

One example of a norm within the LGBT community is to ask for PGP, or preferred gender pronouns. This norm carries with it the shared value of the community that gender can be self-determined or self-defined, that a person’s gender might not fit neatly within the gender binary, and that all of us should show respect for the preferred gender pronouns of our community members. It also implies that we shouldn’t make assumptions about a person’s gender just by looking at them. Our values are manifest through norms.

Do you expect visitors to take off their shoes when they enter your home? That’s a norm. Do you have an expectation or pattern of behavior related to attribution in sharing content on social media? That’s a norm.

Developing norms contribute to the formation and maintenance of a community’s culture. The health of a community’s culture is a direct result of the degree to which that community’s norms are fine tuned to benefit the members of the community in an optimal way.

3) Language: a common tongue

This doesn’t necessarily refer to a shared written or spoken natural language, though there certainly are communities based on those. Icelandic, for example, is spoken by just over 300,000 people worldwide. This may be a sufficient condition for the recognition of a community based solely on its members speaking Icelandic.

But let’s explore an example to illustrate how the common tongue of a community is separate from that community’s spoken language. The phrase “Tap that” will mean something entirely different within the community of Magic: the Gathering players than the craft brewing community. Further, the same phrase may carry a third meaning among executives involved in petroleum extraction, and a fourth among UX designers. The phrase is in English, but depending on the context of the community in question, a different meaning is conveyed.

In the context of community, language is specialized and nuanced, and includes dialects with unique lexicons specific to those communities.

Are you fluent in the language of Twitter? If so, words like “retweet,” “@reply,” and “DMs” mean something to you. You may even remember a time when “retweet” wasn’t a feature, but instead referred to a specific syntax employed when sharing the tweets of another user. All this is part of a shared tongue unknown to those outside the community.

If the phrases “contributing to core,” “bikeshedding,” “ovo- lacto-,” ‘for the animals,” or “what’s your twenty?” mean anything to you, it says something about the communities you are a part of.

Shared values, healthy norms, and a common tongue with which to communicate.

I’m sure there are additional elements that when amplified can contribute to the strength of communities. Another I’ve been thinking a lot about are the tools we use, and the ways in which members of a community bond over the creation of and use of their tools. Can you think of any other essential elements of strong communities?

PS: I don’t claim to know everything about the communities of which I’m a part, but I’ve done my best to articulate my understanding of our various shared values and norms. I recognize I might not have described everything just right, but I hope readers will be charitable in their interpretations of what I’m trying to get at with the examples I’ve chosen. By all means, let me know your thoughts in the comments.

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