Communities and Networks

I’m a big fan of Dave Pollard’s blog, How to Change the World.

Communities and networks are concepts we often use, but do we really know their meaning?

Here’s an older post/meditation by Dave on the topic, which you may want to read in full.

Dave Pollard:

“If you look at the origins of the words ‘community’ and ‘network’, neither describes a group of people. A community is defined as a place shared equally . Each sharer is a ‘member’ (= a part, in the sense of both distinct and co-dependent, belonging). Implicit to the concept of community is deep mutual love and trust. A network is actually a fabrication of knots (nodes) designed to trap, rather than connect. Our use of the term to describe n-to-n connectedness of a group of people through multiple degrees of separation is novel, I suspect because such connection does not occur in nature. That’s not to say nature is hierarchical — it is, rather, organic (= instrumental, ‘how things are done’). Communities and organisms are ‘tight’ and integrated, while networks, as we now use the term to describe certain groups of people, are ‘loose’ and confederated (= in treaty together).

These definitions put the lie to the hierarchical corporate wishful thinking behind formally defined ‘communities of practice’ (practice = to become capable) and ‘organizations’, as the former are not communities and the latter are not organic. Likewise, the so-called neighbourhood ‘communities’ in which we live are settlements of convenience, groups of houses, not communities at all. Those with wealth and power consistently misuse these terms, perhaps in the hope that if you lie to people often and long enough they’ll start to believe it’s the truth.

Real, self-selected and self-managed peer-to-peer communities of practice do exist impromptu in and between corporations and other hierarchical constructs, principally to work around the inherent dysfunctions of these constructs. They are antithetic to the power structure of the hierarchy, but they are tolerated because they work and prevent the hierarchy from seizing up entirely ( e.g. in a true hierarchy, bad news never travels up, so management is always oblivious to what’s wrong, and consequently usually makes poor, uninformed decisions). And so we muddle along.

What management establishes as ‘communities’ are in fact workteams (= pairs of livestock) and workgroups (collections of individuals assigned to work on a common task). Since they have no self-chosen bond of membership, they are not authentic communities.

The de facto authentic communities in corporations (and in our society as a whole), being self-selected, are ‘open’ or ‘closed’ at the discretion of their current members. Whether or not they are more effective if they are mostly open or mostly closed depends on the nature and purpose of the (real or virtual) “place they share”. They may choose to admit new members if they are too small or lack diversity (if diversity is something they perceive they need and want). They may be closed if they are happy (rightly or wrongly) with their current membership.

The danger of an ‘open’ community is that, if there is no scrutiny of and agreement on membership, it can become unwieldy or unable to pursue its purpose. When intimate knowledge of the other members is lost, with it goes the love and trust that are essential to its existence. It then ceases to be a real community at all, and just becomes a group of people with some affinity, a ‘club’ (= thick mass).

The danger of a ‘closed’ community is that it can become a cult, an isolated echo chamber whose cohesiveness depends more on what members hate or distrust about ‘outsiders’ than about love and trust and common purpose of its members. It can also become a hierarchy, dominated by a few members who exploit that isolation and distrust, and hence no longer in any sense “a place shared equally”.

So a community that becomes too open or too closed ceases to be a community. You can’t prevent this from happening. Communities are complex dynamic entities and they evolve. When communities cease to be of value to their members those members withdraw and/or the community collectively disbands.

What about ‘networks’, then? If we were to be honest, most of us (except perhaps for aboriginals and those living in intentional communities) are probably members of just a few small real communities, or even none at all (This absence of community probably accounts for the emergence of the family as the principal, improbable, unit of social cohesion in our modern society). But we are all ‘members’ of ‘networks’, right? We have hundreds or thousands of names in our address book, our rolodex, our club roster, our ‘friends’ lists (and now some social software even allows us to select ‘top friends’ — hierarchical communities!)

We all want to belong. And given how fragmented our society has become, there is no question of the importance of the ‘weak ties’ that ‘networks’ offer: They are probably the means through which we will get our next job, find our spouse, and make some of the most critical decisions of our lives. They are comforting and useful. And when the small groups with which we make community fracture, these weak ties can sometimes become a ‘network’ in the true sense — they can catch us when we fall.
Unlike communities, which are held together by love and by place, these ‘networks’ are really just ordered lists of people who may provide us with future opportunity or insight (and in return, we invest in them to provide opportunities and insights to the people in them). But they are largely illusory — my guess is that many of the people we consider to be in our networks do not consider themselves so, and many others who consider themselves part of our networks are not to be found in our lists. If it is not perceived to be such reciprocally, then, how can it be considered in any sense a ‘network’?

This is perhaps why there is no long-standing English word for such a vast list of fragile connections — it is not something that occurs in nature, but is rather an artifact of our modern, socially fractured (yet technologically enabled) civilization. People in our ‘network’ are not even ‘acquaintances’ (that word means literally to know perfectly). ”

He concludes:

“The implications of all this, I think, for everyone:

* We need to be careful of how much time and energy we invest in our ‘networks’. Better, I think, to invest most of that time in communities we belong to, and in finding new people we want to live with and make a living with in authentic community, and nourishing those communities. Otherwise we can easily spread ourselves too thin. Networks are potential, communities are kinetic, real. They do things.

* When someone in our ‘network’ should be in our community, we instinctively know. I’ll bet you could easily pick out, from all your address books and contact lists of people in your ‘network’ you barely know, a half dozen or a dozen that you really want to know well, people you know you could love.

* When one of our communities languishes, or gets too ‘open’ or too ‘closed’, we should let it go. Things happen for a reason, and nothing lasts forever. As Neil Young says, “it’s easy to get buried in the past when you try to make a good thing last”.

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