Is the word "community" losing its meaning? |

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.



About the author

Chris Grams - Chris Grams is the Head of Marketing at Tidelift and author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Building Successful Brands in a Digital World....