As mentioned in the introduction, a sense of community has four main elements:
- Shared emotional connection
At the end of Part 3 - Fulfilment, I described community as:
"…a group of people who feel they belong to something, can influence and be influenced by one another, and will have their needs fulfilled by fulfilling the needs of the group."
Over those past three posts we have seen the elements of membership, influence and fulfilment come together and build what sounds like it would be enough to create a community, however, the most important element is that there be a shared emotional connection.
If you’ve read the previous posts, you would know that I lean heavily on McMillan & Chavis’ 1986 paper "Sense of community: a theory and definition". Indeed, it is a seminal paper: according to Google Scholar it has been cited by at least 1344 other papers. I couldn’t find anything else from the Journal of Community Psychology that even came close to that number. It is a critical concept in the discussion of community and I am surprised (and a little appalled) that only one or two of the multitude of online community “experts” use it. Anyway, I’m going to draw on it heavily again but I promise to keep the academia to a minimum.
What is a shared emotional connection?
It is “the definitive element for true community”… and it is quite hard to describe.
When discussing a shared emotional connection, McMillan & Chavis outline seven features:
- The more you interact, the more you’re likely to become close
- The higher quality the interaction, the stronger the bonds
- Group cohesion is weaker when interaction lacks definition and community tasks are left unfinished
- The more important an event is to those participating in it, the stronger their ties will be to one another (e.g. Brisbane population during the floods)
- The community is more important to those who invest more time, energy or emotional risk in it
- Honouring or rewarding someone in front of the community makes them more attracted to it. Likewise, humiliating someone in front of the community makes them more adversed to it.
- Spiritual bond - present in all communities. McMillan & Chavis likened it to the concept of “soul” that united a national black community in the US. As Australians, “mateship” is a similar spiritual bond that ties us together, especially when we are abroad.
To put it another way, the authors summarised it thus:
"…strong communities are those that offer members positive ways to interact, important events to share and ways to resolve them positively, opportunities to [honour] members, opportunities to invest in the community, and opportunities to experience a spiritual bond among members".
You’ll notice that there is already some crossover between this and the other elements of membership, influence and fulfilment. I’ll cover that crossover in the next post.
What’s important here is that each of the features listed above invokes an emotional response, something not mentioned in the other elements. Membership is about identifying borders and overcoming barriers to entry; influence is about the ability to create change; fulfilment is about receiving that for which you joined.
To illustrate that point, I’ll use World of Warcraft as an example.
Membership: I can join the World of Warcraft online community by paying a monthly fee, waiting patiently through an enormous software download, and going through the steps of creating my game character.
Influence: I can make changes to the World of Warcraft online community through a number of ways. For example, consistently selling items in the auction house in large quantities below common market rates could drive down those rates (this isn’t easy, but it’s *technically* possible). I could file bug reports and ask for changes to be made to the game code to make the game more enjoyable (though it’s up to the software developer as to whether those changes will be made).
Fulfilment: It will depend what I was seeking by joining… but I can play the single-player quests and have a jolly good time without ever interacting with another player. Perhaps the need to be fulfilled was just to kill time for a few hours a week.
In other words, I can potentially play the game without developing an emotional connection to the rest of the online community. In which case I don’t have a sense of community and am, therefore, not really a community member.
However, if I interact with other players, if I create groups with them and share quests with them, if I join a guild and go on raids with other guild members, it would be impossible to not develop an emotional connection, one that is shared with other members. Finishing difficult quests together or securing a new piece of kit for a fellow member invokes feelings of enjoyment, trust and pride. A fellow group member may be honoured for their significant contributions to the group, which makes their membership all the more attractive to them. All members have invested time and energy in the group’s success, making them a more cohesive group.
It’s the high frequency of interaction, the quality of it and the excuses to do so (events), that pull people together emotionally.
It’s this emotional connection that all members share that is the major difference between a group of people and a community. Without a shared emotional connection, the other elements are useless.
It’s nearly time to finalise that definition. I already had the word “feel” in there (a bit of a slip-up on my part), so I’ve tweaked it slightly:
"Community is a group of people who, together, share the feeling they belong to something, can influence and be influenced by one another, and can have their needs fulfilled by fulfilling the needs of the group."
That is a community. It doesn’t explain how to build a community but it does give you the environment you should be targeting.
In the next post, I’ll talk about how it all ties together, give it a bit of polish, provide some examples and finally wrap up this new definition of community for 2011.