Is the word "community" losing its meaning?

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Poor words. As they get more popular, as we give them more love, we also keep trying to shove in new meaning to see if they can take it.

In the technology industry, this happens over and over. Take "cloud computing," which used to mean something pretty specific and now means essentially "on the Internet" as far as I can tell. Outside the technology industry, take "news," which also used to mean something, and now is a muddy mess of news/editorial/advertising.

We've even been accused of muddying the term "open source" here on (a debate I love to have—there are smart opinions on both sides: protect the core vs. extend the audience).

So when I read a recent post by Gartner analyst Brian Prentice entitled Defining & Defending The Meaning Of “Community” – An Open Source Imperative, I was familiar with the lens he was looking through already.

Brian's argument? According to his post, community used to mean "a collection of people whose defining characteristic is shared participation." I might add "and a common purpose or vision."

But now the word community is often being used to refer to any ol' collection of people. From the article:

"This is exactly where things are starting to get unstuck. Increasingly it is fashionable to use to the term community to represent the sum total of all relationships a company has..."

He has a point. Many companies talk about their community of customers, partners, developers, etc. But in reality, how many of these cases actually describe communities using the definition above? Do these communities really have shared participation and a common purpose?

In many cases they don't. There are two simple tests you should consider using to tell whether a group of people is a community or... well... just a group of people.

1) Do the members of the community work with each other or just with the company?

2) Do the members of the community share a common vision or purpose?

If the answer to either of these questions is no, I'm not sure I'd call it a community.

One more point: those who've been following my posts for a while know I often take issue with the idea of companies forming communities with themselves at the center (read more here, here, and here).

My view is companies doing things the open source way will become humble members of communities rather than building communities around themselves. The distinction is subtle, but important. So I become a bit skeptical any time a company talks about "their" community.

What do you think? Is the word community in danger of losing its meaning? And if so, what should we do about it? I'd love to hear your ideas.



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gdk's picture
Open Minded

I think of open source communities as software-domain specific examples of "communities of practice" -- a term coined by sociologist Etienne Wenger, whom I consider to be a sort of undiscovered patron saint of community development. His work was definitely influential in the writing of The Open Source Way (

There's no way to reclaim the word "community", of course. We can only work to define it in specific contexts.

The Wikipedia page ( is actually a great summary, and well-annotated. I wonder if Wenger wrote it himself. :)

Colonel Panik's picture

Since the first couple of families in prehistoric time
decided to share some territory there have been
problems with groups of people.

Communities are tricky. Utopian communities,
intentional communities, Hippie communes,
religious, agrarian, software, hardware, or any
other group of people working together.

Group efforts take a skill set that is not part of
most of our lives. The job of community is as
hard as if not harder than whatever task the
community was formed to deal with.

Because of the power a community has, it is
worth the effort, always.

Lauren Klein's picture

Thanks for your inspiration this morning, I'm now working on my own blog to build off some of your queries at:

David's picture

Maybe a community could be defined as group of social animals that "CLEARLY" understands their relationship to each other.

David's picture

Can a community exist without mutual understanding of the definition?

freestuff's picture

To me 'open source' means free software. Wordpress is the best free open source software around. I tsure bears paying Microsoft for some crash prone program.