What is community, really?

Faith Bosworth and Adam Hyde Dec 19, 2019

This is the second in a series of collaboratively written posts by Faith Bosworth and Adam Hyde.

Community is a word that gets bandied about very easily but not everyone shares the same understanding of what it means. For Coko, “community” is a cornerstone of our work; we wouldn’t be where we are today without community. We have been building community right from the start. The intention came naturally, but that is not to say that it is easy to do. Building community is hard work.

Former Coko / Editoria Community Manager Alison McGonagle-O’Connell doing community facilitation the right way.

When people talk about community-building in publishing, and in many other fields too, the idea of creating community seems to rest purely on events. As if just bringing people together will magically create community. People come to a conference, they get a name badge, they stand around awkwardly trying to get to know people. They attend some sessions where software developers and marketing people talk at them about community. They eat some snacks, drink some coffee, and they go home often feeling unsatisfied, and maybe even that it was a waste of their time. They don’t feel involved, they don’t feel part of something.

This is not what we mean when we talk about the Coko community.

In the Open Source community, the community is based on its members’ contributions. This is a strength because from the outset there is the potential for everyone to feel a sense of value, involvement, and co-ownership for what they offer. The problem, however, is that “contribution” tends to be defined very narrowly. Contribution is based only on production, and so a meritocracy emerges where the biggest baddest programmer in the room is the one whose voice counts. This leads very quickly to a toxic environment and allows for people comfortable with wielding power to become total bullies, and for everyone else to tolerate it because there is no space for individuals to shape the community which they are part of. We have seen this manifest in the most extreme way in the Linux community.

That is also not what we mean when we talk about community.

When we talk about community at Coko, it is more about the feeling people have when they connect with other community members, something that we try to create. So in the Coko community, whether at a meetup discussing feature proposals, or simply in a Mattermost channel chatting about whatever random news there is in their country, there is a sense of shared humanity and ease with each other. When it comes to having discussions or getting feedback from the community, people meet in good faith, knowing that everyone cares about what they have to say.

Coko the organisation acts as community stewards and we can break this role down into a few key tasks we need to get right. The first is getting the right people to the table. So, for example, at a PubSweet community meet-up we invite representatives from all the organizations building against PubSweet to be there. In Editoria meetings, we invite everyone that is using, or interested in using, Editoria, to be there. From that point, our job is to create a good environment where everyone feels respected and valued for what they bring to the table. Everyone there sits in a circle, everyone introduces themselves. We build an agenda together, and gather input from the group and figure out which topics warrant a full group discussion and which can be tackled in smaller specialist working groups.

Our job is also to manage whatever comes up when we gather and keep everyone at the table. People do disagree with each other and people ask hard questions of us too. There is no space for us to get defensive or stubbornly hold onto our own views and push our own agenda, we have to be open to criticism and inquiry. It would be very easy for one of us to take the mic and keep it, telling everyone how it is but we would be losing out. Our projects are better off because they are shaped by the diversity of experiences of community members, their views and their honest engagement in the projects.

The last task is to maintain that community feeling between events, whether it be casual chats on Mattermost or keeping up to date with others’ projects, to try to maintain that sense of connectedness and being in something together, remotely. People continue to work together too, without that much direction because they have a sense of ownership from early on in the process.

When it’s done right, over time, specific people should be able to step away and the community should continue because no one has put themselves at the center and everyone has a sense of responsibility and ownership for what has been built.

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Faith Bosworth and Adam Hyde


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