Leigh Blackall wrote on the FoC Mailing List:
"If we were to go back to a traditional understanding of community and ignore for a moment what Wenger has brought to the word (i.e. "Community of Practice"), how might we think of an online community differently? Would it be different if we had children and teenagers in the community for example? In this sense, how many of us have really been a part of an online community? "
I'm not sure that having an age range makes sense to me as criteria for defining community, but I do agree the term is used far too loosely these days - sometimes in ways that feel strange, even false, to me.
I went to an online community "unconference" last year and was stunned to see a bunch of new hires from big companies who wanted to learn about setting up what are essentially online Q&A forums, but they were calling them "communities". It's not that I don't believe it's possible for a community to form out of a group like that, but it's far from a given, and it seems like a shallow public relations ploy to define them that way right off the bat.
I found it was relatively rare to find folks at that conference whose interests matched my own more personal experience of community as a group of people defined by mutual sharing, participation, and care-giving or fellowship.
From my youth in the communal back-to-the-land movement to the online communities that make up such an important part of my personal and professional life now, I have had the privilege of being part of several, so my answer to Leigh's question is a wholehearted "yes, I have". I personally find the basic definition of community applicable whether the community is convened online or off, but I'll use one or two current online experiences as examples, since that what we're talking about.
The first is Brainstorms, founded by virtual community pioneer Howard Rheingold. I'd been a sporadic but ongoing part of one or two ongoing areas of online discussion there, called "conferences" by Brainstormers, for a couple of years and was continually amazed by the collective knowledge and generosity I found there. There was an incredible willingness to help even noobies find their footing and (in my chosen conference, "life online") respond to all sorts of issues ranging from which digital camera to buy, what happens when blogging exposes you to problems at work, to finding companionship for exploring what's most worthwhile in Second Life.
It was clear there were some behavioral norms among the group and many who were stepping up in leadership roles. I contributed to the conversation and felt I was part of something very cool... It was all very enjoyable, but to be honest I didn't know the half of it!
One day about a year or so ago, I noticed an announcement inviting everyone to one of the community's regular get-togethers in the bay area. Curious, I joined in the wiki correspondence and signed up for some of the planned activities. I was looking forward to meeting people I'd been speaking to online and connecting with new people, but I was completely blown away by how powerful the experience of community was right from the beginning. I spent a solid week with people I had never met before - most of them I'd never even spoken to online. We met in each others homes and in public places; hiking, walking, sight-seeing, eating out, eating in, cooking, buying books, drinking coffee, reading our poems for the annual bad poetry contest, and talking talking talking. By the end of the week I not only knew firsthand what a thriving community Brainstorms really is, but I was part of it in a whole new way.
The next example is BlogHer, a community of women bloggers started a few years ago to "find out where the women bloggers are". There is distributed leadership in this group as well, and the inexpensive annual conferences are supported by a great number of people, who also contribute to a year-round online conversational forum .
Many of the conference presentations are chosen by the group, and in some cases even the contents of a session will have been blogged and options proposed and commented upon before they're offered.
This is a group of women who know each other and care for one other in many ways; its collaborative impulse goes beyond that of an association, and the active mutual support extends long after the conferences are over. Several mailing lists are always spawned after a conference - I'm on one for Girl Geeks that started after the 2006 event and is still ongoing. After a call for women speakers at various other events repeatedly went unanswered, some of us on the list shared our anxiety about public speaking. So after ascertaining it would be helpful, one of the more experienced women in the group offered to bring her public speaking coach out to California for a group training.
After this year's event a number of women who blog about art and beauty and take a consciously positive approach to life decided to go deeper together and link to each other's blogs, engage in cross-blog conversation, and participate in each other's projects. Friendships are being born right in front of our eyes, and while they're specific and personal, they're also held within the context of the larger group.
I know everyone doesn't use the same definition I do for what constitutes community, and even within groups that I consider communities there is no universal agreement. For example, there is one man in the online group mailing list I referenced in my last post that's been together for over 13 years now who constantly pushes back against the idea of it being a community. He just doesn't find the kind of "commonality" or intent towards "communion" there that would characterize a community in his eyes. He's always been uncomfortable with the presence of "lurkers", and doesn't understand how there can be community when everyone does not participate.
He has never come to any of the infrequent but fabulous in-person gatherings we've held over the years, and I can't help but wonder if that is significant in his sense of lack within the group. The in-person component has been a part of each of my examples in this post ... and face-to-face interaction of some kind is certainly something I would recommend if you want to bond a community, but I don't think that's absolutely necessary. Beyond the characteristics I mentioned at the start of this piece, I've found that other defining elements of community are the impulse to care for one another, and the sense of shared leadership or responsibility towards the group that constitutes some level of commitment.
But enough about me - what makes a group of people a community in YOUR eyes?