What do you mean community isn't about warm and fuzzy all the time?


Squirrel with claws by dotpolka on Flickr There seems to be a bit of a misconception that 'community' means being in some sort of love-in state all of the time. The way some people talk about it, I envision 70's hippie communes where everybody shares nicely and dances around and nobody disagrees.

Well, those hippie communes didn't work that way and neither do communities.

There seems to be a wee kerfuffle over in Flickr-land over some recent 'changes' they've announced. Since none of them negatively affect me, I just kind of shrugged it off and kept uploading. In fact, I thought about the limiting of the tags and 'friends': 'thank goodness, all of those spammers I've seen creep in will hopefully be discouraged and go away.'

But as I watched the billowing of the vocal minority rise, a thread on Techmeme grow with the usual suspects as well as a few opportunists, I thought: Yep. There will be a bunch of folks who are upset by this.

Okay...some very real issues arise here.

Number one. Technical stuff. This really isn't a huge issue for most people. Really. They may say it is, but it isn't.

Number two. The emotional impact. This is the real one. Just check out the twitters (although Jimmy feels much better now). It's the 'facing the fact' that Flickr is no longer our beloved startup community...it belongs to a big, fat corporation. That hurts. There is something about this that makes us 'early adopter crowd' feel decidedly dirty.

And this is why community isn't about warm and fuzzy all the time...PEOPLE HAVE EMOTIONS. Hell, I saw it on my blog a couple of posts back when I blogged about Flickr and a member of a competitor that will go unnamed got quite emotional, to which I got emotional, then their CEO got emotional and it just turned into a big puddle of emotional mess in the comment section. We were all so darned full of passion, some throwing their entire livelihoods behind it, that we couldn't even listen to what the other was saying, which went something like:

"When you said that, you hurt me/made me scared/etc."

Whoah.

And we can't escape that. It's impossible. People will surprise you and come out of nowhere, angry and hurt and on the attack. And sometimes you have to make wildly unpopular decisions for all the right reasons and people will still hate your frickin' guts. And that's okay. You have to let them walk away. It's actually the people who don't react at all that I'd worry about.

What did Kathy say? Oh yeah...the zone of mediocrity.

Healthy communities aren't all warm and fuzzy all of the time because healthy relationships aren't warm and fuzzy all of the time! Chris and I are madly in love and guess what? We fight about all sorts of stupid stuff all of the time. My son and I have an amazing, healthy relationship and we are constantly getting angry with one another. My mother still hangs up on me from time to time for saying stupid things. The closer the friends, the more we bicker.

What's happening here is that we are bringing our passions and commitment and personal investment into these conversations and sometimes we are not feeling heard. And, from the perspective of the Flickr team, they can't always listen, 'cause, guess what? They are talking with their passion and commitment and personal investment, too! It's what makes it such a great community as well as an ocassionally messy emotional community.

So, Community Fallacy #1: healthy communities are happy communities.

And then, Community Fallacy #2: healthy communities are democratic.

Heh. Show me a community that is entirely democratic (i.e. the users control the direction, content, etc.) and I'll eat my socks.*

Wikipedia? Nope. There is a very definite hierarchy there...a strict set of rules that are set into action by a small number of community guardians.

SpreadFirefox? Definitely not. It's a meritocracy, like many healthy developer networks. And Firefox, itself,

Facebook? Flickr? MySpace? YouTube? Twitter? These are corporate entities that may have been influenced and informed by their early adopters (building tools to suit their needs), but they are not democratic by any means.

I've been part of collectives. I'll tell you, consensus is the most frustrating process in the universe. Believe me, you can't make everyone happy. In fact, the more you try to make people happy, the unhappier they tend to be. I don't know why that is, but it just goes south without a bit of top-down "this is my vision and the way it's gonna be" kind of leadership.

Yes, leadership. The kind that guides and connects and makes decisions and lays down the law. It doesn't have to be one person behind it, nor does it have to be the same person throughout the life of the community, but they are rarely elected and almost always charismatic and visionary. It's kind of a basic of group dynamics that you need leaders and followers. All leaders will lead to a mess and all followers will lead to a lack of direction. And no matter how politically correct we try to be, forgetting this excludes more people from participation.

Now, of course, the laying down of the law can get a little over the top and heavy handed when looking at many corporate examples, so there has to be a 'lighter' more *ahem* invisible hand when it comes to community leadership...the type of leadership that deputizes alot of people to go out and deputize other people, but you need leadership nonetheless because sometimes there are difficult, but essential decisions that have to be made.

So, right. Community. Let's stop fooling ourselves. We are human beings. We are emotional, self-preserving, often lost and in need of a good visionary or two. It's actually quite patronizing to tiptoe around these issues. Yes, we have choice and we have agency. We are all special snowflakes. But we are all grown ups (I think we all are here, anyway), too, and far from perfect.

* caveat: must be around for a while and growing at a healthy rate. And the socks must be clean.

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