Defining Community

So the nagging thing about community is… what exactly is it? I feel compelled to ask, since the term gets tossed around quite a bit in the blogosphere and elsewhere. The term “social networking” was great back in 2002, but community seems to better capture the current ethos of getting together to do something meaningful. Or when referring to an online community, at least complaining about something meaningful.

Dictionaries yield a wide range of definitions for the word community. Let’s start by assuming we’re talking about a community of people (as opposed to a community of property). Most definitions seem to imply a distinct and uniquely identifiable collection of individuals, with the exception referring to society as a whole, as in “effective justice systems benefit the community”. This is meaningful in so much that it helps us define what community is not, such as, say, a herd of elephants. Although I suppose even that is arguable.

Within this “identifiable, distinct group”, our definitions become more interesting. For example, a community can refer to people of a specific physical region or government (the local community). Since community can represent more than locality, things get complicated quick, so I need to get visual. See figure (1) below.

Aside from locality, communities can be defined by their interaction, like a discussion group community. A community can be a segment of society, like the homeless community, or a group with shared interests, like the software development community. If you think about community as a series of interconnected circles, with what’s in a circle is community and what’s outside a circle is not community, you start to build a fairly interesting picture of how communities can be defined and how they might even share multiple characteristics. Potential overlaps between communities introduce interesting twists on the power of such combinations. Take for example, a special interest group also bound by their online interactions like a Dean for President internet community, or a regional segment of society, like, say rural Alaska’s gay community. But why stop there? How about an intersection of all aspects of community, like Boston’s republican homeless software development discussion group community?

Dictionary definitions, for all their permutations seem to miss a good deal of implied meaning in the word community. There are community actions and community goods, retirement communities and planned communities. You’ve got a feel-good sense of community and community service. I guess the only thing communities probably aren’t is something bad. Certainly, people can have bad opinions of a certain community, but no one would use the label community to refer to some overtly negative grouping of people. For example, you’re unlikely to find the following passage in a novel:
“...and over the hill came the torch-weilding, vindictive community demanding payback for wronging their unique blend of social identity and special interest…”

By and large, there just seems to be something warm and fuzzy about communities. Community feels like a good thing. Setting aside the groupings and the angles and the overlaps, when I close my eyes and imagine the perfect community, I see everyone with a big smileyface default profile.