Reflections on joining a community

Posted on April 17, 2013

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I’m in the lobby of a hotel in Portland, Oregon, as delegates for Museums and the Web 2013 start arriving. It’s two years since I first attended this conference; the first conference I had ever been to in my life and a major career catalyst for me. Sitting here, I naturally find myself reflecting on the changes that have happened in my life since I first came into this community. I’ve often described the sensation as “finding my tribe” but, to be honest, at that point the museum tech community wasn’t my tribe. I didn’t share the language or get the jokes. I hadn’t met anyone in the sector, so I stood on the edges of a community and looked in.

That this situation has changed so significantly in such a short period of time often leaves me wondering what it was that allowed me – an outsider – to find myself and a place within this sector. What is it that makes a community and gives it meaning? And how do newcomers find their way into a community? In 1986, David W. McMillan and David M. Chavis George proposed a definition of community that included the following characteristics:

The first element is membership. Membership is the feeling of belonging or of sharing a sense of personal relatedness. The second element is influence, a sense of mattering, of making a difference to a group and of the group mattering to its members. The third element is   reinforcement: integration and fulfillment of needs. This is the feeling that members’ needs will be met by the resources received through their membership in the group. The last element is shared emotional connection, the commitment and belief that members have shared and will share history,  common places, time together, and similar experiences.

This seems like a pretty usable definition, except that I didn’t have any of these characteristics when I first came along. I didn’t feel like I had membership in the group, although I quickly became interested in becoming a member. Nor did I have influence or shared emotional connections. What I did have, however, was the good fortune of meeting people who both implicitly and explicitly invited me to become part of their discussions.

The implicit invitations could be as simple as allowing me to sit at a table with people whom I hadn’t met although they had long-standing and existing relationships; the openness of people to have a conversation and share something of themselves and their thoughts with me. The explicit invitations came from people like Koven Smith, who invited me to be part of his panel on the point of museum websites at MCN2011. I became a member of the group because I was invited by existing members to join their conversations, and given the opportunity to learn and contribute. In so doing, I started to have an understanding of the shared language and became to have an emotional connection that started to tie strongly to the community.

But inviting one person to be part of a conversation or a community isn’t particularly hard. The community borders can stretch and morph as small groups enter and exit whilst still maintaining their stability; the shared conventions and language. But is it possible to invite a significant number of new people to join an existing community and still keep a sense of internal congruity? Or, in other words, is it possible to grow a community at scale or even to have community at scale? I’m not sure that it is, but I think it’s an interesting problem for museums to be thinking about. Are museums naturally limited in the size and scope of their communities – those who have an intimate relationship with the institution and the people who are associated with it?

I’d love to know your thoughts. When have you joined a community, and what made that possible? And do you think it’s possible for large numbers of people to join a community in a short period of time, or does that threaten the self-defining nature of the community itself?