Community, Community, Community

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Essays

This is becoming something of a trend for me, which I take to be a good sign for $TWTR: I posted a provocation that I had discussed with someone offline — I don’t remember where — and waited to see what conversation it would spark. I said:

The thinking behind this provocation came from a realization that the network effect seemed to apply particularly to ‘scaling’: that getting big fast, and staying big were two necessary features of it. And as an investor whose thesis weighs heavily on the assumptions around the network, getting big fast and staying big are obviously good things. But community seems different, no?

A community reminds me of the fable of Goldilocks and The Three Bears: my wife and I do not, alone, make a community — too small. The 30 people who live in our apartment do not make a community — too random. The 10,000 people who graduated from our college don’t make a community — too big. It seems there is a unique affinity level, size, and density that is the special recipe to make community. And if a network just grows big and stays big (particularly if its growth and size are a big part of its value), then surely networks break communities, right? 

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Sarah Judd Welch, founder of Loyal, an agency focused on helping communities flourish, jumped in on the thread, and indulged me in a very interesting conversation:

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I thought Sarah’s answer was great, and her later point about the Catholic community hit home very nicely for me. A Catholic only really knows the people in her parish — and even then, only a segment of them. She not only shares faith traditions with them, but also the fabric and minutiae of their daily lives, by virtue of being near each other. That isn’t to say that the greater Catholic community isn’t a community. After all, should I go to a church in another city, I could still do what I would do in my home church and be accepted, whether or not I knew anybody. Same goes for the other ‘scaled communities’ Sarah references. In fact, one of my favorite things about Lyft and Uber driver communities is that a driver can just turn the app on, and so once they are part of that network, they don’t need to get a new job every time they go to a new city.

But my question is this: if communities must fragment at scale, which is where I netted out after this discussion, then there is necessary tension between community and network effects, right? So is the only way to resolve it to intentionally break networks into smaller, denser, affinity groups as they grow, to ensure that the magic of community remains intact? After all, as Facebook has demonstrated, the magic isn’t something that will always happen naturally, but needs to be instrumented with conscious product decisions, and ways for people to create the more local segmentation. Even within the Catholic parish, to go back to that example, there is CCD, and the young couples group, and so forth.

While I feel like I’m part of a “tech community” and even a “venture community”, it is also madly amorphous and really I’m only in community with a small group of people within that community — most of it is geographic, but thanks to Twitter (again) that is less true — and I sometimes I actually feel very little affinity to the greater community.

This nuance is nowhere more stark than in my upcoming move to New York. While I imagine I will be embraced, and I’m incredibly grateful to the people who have already reached out offering to hang and to be friends, I also can’t help but wonder if I’ll have search to find my local ‘parish’, where I’ll be in community, just the way I like it.

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