Offline community is where the power happens

It was with great interest and some amusement that I read a piece by Andy Ellwood in Forbes titled (ironically, I think) Could Offline Communities be the Next Big Thing?

Occupy Monopoly
Offline community action via Flickr user Conskeptical

After all, it was only a couple decades ago that the public consumption Internet was just getting rolling. Up until that time all “communities” were, you know, happening in real life – that’s what we now call offline. But the thing is that community – civic groups, clubs, political interest groups, just neighbors getting together – was languishing at the time.

People were, as Robert Putnam described, spending a lot of time bowling alone instead of collaborating in and around their community.  This, Putnam argued, sapped citizen engagement and weakened democratic institutions (which may be continually weakening for a variety of reasons – discussion for a later day).

Ellwood’s piece in Forbes profiles several examples of offline communities strengthening entrepreneurship in the United States and abroad. Startup culture is driven by people supporting one another. It’s just about impossible for one person alone to move from seemingly brilliant idea to functional company. You can read blog posts and connect online but real progress needs time and trust of the sort that happens in person.

There is a lot of talk about online communities in the nonprofit world. Rightfully so. Engaging and supporting your social media, email, and supporter communities is important. But real changes to behavior, community decision making, and public policy require we invest in offline networks (see this recent story from the Greenpeace Mobilisation Lab about Washington Bus for a great example of offline/online working together). Offline community – it’s where the people are. It’s where empathy, reliance and trust mix together in that mystical recipe for power.


Book Review: Lindy Dreyer & Maddie Grant’s Open Community

Lindy Dreyer and Maddie Grant have have a cool little book out called Open Community that’s worth picking up if you haven’t yet. They published it late last year and it’s very useful and super relevant, and definitely worth a read if you are interested in using online tools for community-building. “Open community,” to Dreyer and Grant, is a community with some sort of shared interests that engage with each other online. It tracks closely to the “networked nonprofit” idea that Beth Kanter and Allison Fine describe in their book of that name, and it actually complements the Kanter and Fine book nicely.

Where Kanter and Fine aim to map out a bigger picture story about what it means to be a “networked nonprofit,” Dreyer and Grant focus on a narrower question: how to use online social media tools to support your community-building efforts. They don’t dive into the use of specific tools, but that’s sensible since anything they might have written about the specifics of using Facebook, for instance, would likely become outdated quickly. Instead, it’s filled with practical advice about how to approach the use of those tools. Getting to know your members, understanding the relationship between your homebase and your outposts, and between your formal and informal outposts, removing the hurdles that keep your community from engaging online, and the critical importance of listening and soliciting feedback from your community are examples of the ground they cover.

It’s very pragmatic, readable, and to the point, and while it’s ostensibly focused on professional associations it is clearly applicable to any nonprofit or interest-based organization, as well. As a bonus, their cartoons are terrific (including, for instance, “Hey, remind me – what’s the keyboard shortcut for creating a vibrant, productive online community?”).

Reading it reminded me of an interview I did with Bonnie Shaw of BYO Consulting a couple of months ago about her work on the relationship between on- and offline communities. A conversation involving all of these folks could be a lot of fun: Beth and Allison on their transformative model for social sector organizations, Lindy and Maddie on the specifics of building online community, and Bonnie illuminating how both can help strengthen communities in their on- and offline manifestations.

By the way, you can keep up with Dreyer and Grant on their SocialFish blog, which is worth adding to your RSS feed.