Nearly 11 years ago, I outlined a framework to calculate the costs of building a proprietary community. The conceptual and operational aspects (1, 2, 4, 5, 6) still hold. Good content at number 3 is the opportunity: to differentiate, weave a good narrative, and establish a path to value.
But there are some fundamental questions I had missed. Do we build a net new community, or do we invite the existing community? Should the loci of human connection move from people's existing communities to yours? What's the cost to society of this shift to private clubs in human energy terms?
When social energies are committed elsewhere
Henry Chester said, “Enthusiasm is the greatest asset in the world. It beats money, power and influence.” Enthusiasm moves the indifferent to change in ways that money, power and influence can never do. If you want to see unbridled enthusiasm, watch a six year old on his first day of learning.
His hand is up, his body is leaning forward, his imagination is alight. But look at that same child midway through the semester, and you'll start noticing a change. He's hesitant and tentative because he's learning he needs to have the answer that matches the lesson exactly. And his questions have become rare.
Rare is also the child
in her quest for learning.
Rarer still is the child whose appetite for learning and curiosity survive primary and middle school. But it's a lonely journey. Because everyone else is super busy getting good marks; their time committed to gaining entrance to private schools.
We replaced the word enthusiasm with engagement to signal attention paid. Social media even assigned numbers to engagement: retweets, likes, shares in lieu of comments, because they're easier. But comments is the space to build relationships, even as they're a pale version of conversation.
Conversation happens when people come together in incidental activities. Enthusiasm ensues from individuals and creates social energy. But leisure time where people young and old can weave a sense of community and social cohesion has nearly gone extinct.
Attention plays a role in fostering creativity and enhancing mindfulness, which in turn creates well-being.
It's intuitive to think of attention as a scarce resource. But thinking of attention as a resource could lead to commodification, because it suddenly becomes something to mine and extract, if we don't pay for it.
Consider reframing the idea: you and I have exactly as much attention as we need at any given time. If you ever think you don't have enough, consider whether the problem lies elsewhere. What we focus on, how we work, and other obstacles to our own sense of agency, including force of habit.
However, if you consider attention more broadly, but also in the intimate construct of a relationship as you'd cultivate in a community, scarcity is not an issue. Suddenly, more is possible. Rather than thinking of attention as a resource, when you and I shift to total immersion in the moment, like in a good conversation, we:
- increase capacity
- notice more
- acknowledge constraints
- discover surprising associations
- make more space
Ivan Illich provides some clues to help us make this shift. There are valid alternatives to economic thinking, where value is always about the power of turning things into money. Because that has been the main thinking for a millennium.
Illich said: “I would like to resuscitate some of its old breath to designate the activities of people when they are not motivated by thoughts of exchange.” Non-market actions provide a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, creating “value in use” in the original Aristotelian meaning and understanding.
So we may become responsive to the right things
You may have noticed a fork in the (reimagined) community lifecycle image above: One path leads to adapting, one to dispersion.
When you and I trade energy for visibility, we create pockets where ego drives us to want the commodification of attention. That is in exchange for something. Value in exchange or turning everything into money (not everyone, not all the time) is one of the key reasons why in social media, “everything is amazing but nobody is happy.”
Instead, when we acknowledge that value in exchange is not all there is to value (and values), that's when reality can take over again. We don't have to confirm, nor conform, to ways to know and control the world, we can relax into being moved, feeling alive, and adapting to the situation at hand.
The best communities blend a healthy dose of improvisation and compassion. You don't have to be perfect or optimized in them—you can just be, and become. There's a personal and intimate quality in the experience and joy of conversation. A connection is good enough, it doesn't have to turn into “goods.”
Taking things offline
makes community real again.
This is easier to do in societies that are more horizontal in their individualism. Capitalism is more pronounced over society in America and Great Britain, to a certain extent. Jeffrey Sachs explains it well at minute 23:22 in his opening remarks at the 20th Anniversary of the Center on Capitalism and Society, Columbia University.
The American system was created during imperial periods. England, and then the U.S. were used to dictating the terms. They, in turn, exported this system globally through their influence. American values and norms are vertically individualistic: they emphasize independence, but also competition.
What it hard to grasp from this vantage point, is that American culture is actually an outlier. Bad ideas taken to an extreme can and do create a massive culture failure. The rest of the world doesn't have to suffer the same social dispersion.
Solidarity and concern for other human beings can and do liberate enthusiasm. Community gets real in relationships. We adapt our attention to as much as we need, one conversation at the time.