A MOVEMENT VS. A COMMUNITY. IS THERE A DIFFERENCE? DOES IT MATTER?

Yes, a huge one. And yes, a lot. Yet I’ve recently heard people using the two terms synonymously. This is a mistake, because if you don’t understand that the goals and the means of the two types of organizations are very different, you’re unlikely to succeed in building either.

In short, the differences are these:

  • The goal of a movement is to effect significant social change through the means of mobilizing millions to take action.
  • The goal of a community can be to learn something, do something, and yes, change something, but normally on a smaller scale and through the means of a smaller number of people with more intimate relationships doing a multitude of stuff together.

Here’s a rough summary of the differences with a brief explanation of each following:

Here’s a brief explanation of each of the differences:

Goal-Movement:

Movements exist to make significant social change, often when the government is unwilling or unable. Equal Rights for Women, Civil Rights for Blacks and, more recently, Equality for LGBT are examples. I’m on the Board of AllOut, which is a global movement for LGBT equality. It will not rest until the ghastly statistic of 76/10 is 00/00. That is, the 76 countries where it’s illegal to be gay and the ten countries where you can be executed for being gay change their culture and laws for the better.

Goal-Community:

Most successful communities are explicit about their goals or purpose, which tend to be about learning something (e.g. Spanish) doing something (e.g. hiking) or supporting each other (e.g. dealing with diabetes). They can also be about change (e.g. eating healthier) but it tends to be change on a smaller scale: to meet a personal goal (like losing weight) or improving a local environment (e.g. cleaning up a river).

Means-Movement:

The huge goals of a movement are achieved by mobilizing huge numbers of people.

It’s only when significant numbers of politicians’ constituents or companies’ customers demand change does intransigence turn into reluctant compliance. For example, when AllOut presented half a million signatures gathered within three days from around the world to the Ugandan Parliament in April 2011 did they decide to abandon debate of the infamous ‘Kill The Gays Bill’.

It’s not just about huge numbers. It’s also about Action. Your goal when running a movement is not for members to have ‘conversations’. Your goal is for them to take action together. Signing a petition, making donations, having house parties, marching en-masse. These are actions that effect change because a multitude is leveraging their mass by doing the same thing at the same time.

Means-Community:

When you’re amongst ‘like-others’…others who share your values, worldview, interests or needs…that’s when you can get support, pursue your passion or make some change more effectively than simply doing it alone.

‘Conversations’ (you can probably guess I don’t’ really like this word) can help deliver the benefits of community. But your goal should be to increase the numbers of members who do significant stuff together and contribute content. Read here for more about this.

Benefit-Movement:

It’s power. Millions of people acting together with common cause can make history because of the leverage of a multitude. Few governments or companies can withstand the power of well-organized population acting in concert for a justified cause. And few things can make an individual feel so powerful: being part of something bigger to make a change that could never be achieved alone.

Benefit-Community:

The Big Benefit of community is Belonging (beyond the benefits of learning, doing and supporting.) Read here about the ultimate benefit it confers: self-actualization, which it does by creating a safe space amongst like-others to become yourself.

Interaction-Movement:

There tends to be less interaction amongst members of a movement than a community. How can a million ‘good friends’ talk, do and meet together? That being said, strong grass-root action groups often fuel the most successful movements, where close ties are made between members who talk and meet often. It’s been noted that the American Civil Rights movement was largely mobilized by local Churches. Even today, online movements find sustained strength by acting both locally and globally.

Interaction-Community:

Without rich and frequent interaction via forums, chat, video chat or meeting up face-to-face, communities won’t deliver their benefits. Read here about the importance of interaction and intimacy within communities. And about how relationships and friendships grow as a result of rich and repeated engagement between members.

Shared-Movement:

Movements tend to bring together people who share a common cause or activist agenda.

Shared-Community:

Most communities exist because of shared interests or needs. Members tend to be unified by, say, their passion for zombies or desire to learn how to knit. These commonalities may evolve through frequent interaction to share a desire to become friends, colleagues or even partners.

Relationships-Movements:

Modern movements…that is, those organized online…tend to have little interaction between members. The focus is to act together vs. with each other. However, local or sub-groups within a movement can obviously build the cause’s strength as well as give the opportunity for more intimate relationships between members. Obama’s 2008 election that used these techniques also employed many local events and house-parties.

Relationships-Community:

Successful communities are the ones that have many members with strong ties to each other. Read here about how rich and frequent interaction leads to a feeling of mutual responsibility and support, which leads to strong social glue.

Size-Movement:

I’m going to say it: size does matter when it comes to movements. At AllOut we’ve grown from 2000 to 1 million members around the world in 18 months. Leveraging that motivated population has helped us achieve huge milestones in a short time.

Size-Community:

You can have a successful community with four people or forty thousand. Although once you get to above c. 150 people (the Dunbar number…the number above which it becomes increasingly difficult for an individual to know who everyone is and how each person relates to every other person) ties are likely to weaken. Read here about what happens then and about how to maintain intimacy and satisfy needs as your community grows.

 

What is a Community?

I keep being asked this question.

Not surprising really, since I go on about community a lot. And perhaps not surprising because it’s one of those culturally familiar, but rarely examined ideas like fairness, or even democracy. It’s a comforting, but somewhat vague concept, one that’s used frequently by all of us, and relentlessly by politicians (who tend to use it as an easily grabbed motherhood, guaranteed to legitimize any worldview). Unless you’re a sociologist, you’re unlikely to have spent much time thinking about what community really means. And what it takes to make one.

But perhaps it’s time to do it now.

Community is making a comeback. We have a self-confessed Community Leader in the White House. Data shows a climbing desire for more contact with neighbors and more time with the family.

Rugged individualism as a culturally defining idea (whether your preferred symbol is the Marlboro man or the survival-of-the-fittest Gordon Geckos of Wall St.) may indeed be central part of the national character. But it has eclipsed, to our cost, the equally defining, and interestingly juxtaposed idea of every American as a member of a vigorous community…something seen as uniquely American by a French man, no less: De Tocqueville.

Whatever the reason, I keep being asked to define community. So, based largely on the hundreds of interviews I conducted very self-conscious communities (like cults and religions) as well as those that are less so (like chess playing clubs and some neighborhoods) here’s my take.

Communities hold things in common.

They could be needs, like a cancer survivors’ groups or new-in-town social clubs. They could be ideologies if the community is a religion or political party. It could be proximity if it’s a neighborhood. Or a cause if it’s a movement, fighting, say, for the environment or against human slavery. Or it could be interests like opera, Nascar or technology. Whatever they are, their members align themselves with those who share these things in common.

But I think this begs a bigger and more interesting question: does the nature of the thing that’s shared predispose a community to be stronger or weaker?

Is a shared ideology inherently stickier than a shared hobby?

I would argue yes, it is. Beliefs not only tend to trump facts, and values trump policy arguments, but they also tend to beat other kinds of commonality in the ability to generate glue.

An alignment around more government or less government, around a personal God or atheism, or even around being an American or a Frenchman (because they’re particular national ideas that are packed with ideology), is a stronger alignment than being a chess player or even a neighborhood resident.

Of course there are qualifiers to this, which I’ll talk about in a moment. But I’ve seen ideology forming the strongest glue for this key reason: its ingredients…values and beliefs, a shared vision of how the world should be…are also the ingredients of self-definition at the most profound level. Being a born-again Christian or Sufi is normally central to a person’s idea of themselves. So is being a conservative or a liberal. Imagining a world where women and men are equal or race is irrelevant is more self-defining than if you’re an opera lover or you happen to live Manchester.

If people share self-definition at the level of beliefs, values and hopes, that makes for an extremely strong community. If I identify with the group because, in the final analysis, we say the same things about what makes us who we are as individuals, that’s a bond that’s pretty tough to break a part.

There is another factor that cannot be ignored in an analysis of what makes a strong community. Mix in this, and you can take a lower order commonality to a higher degree of stickiness.

The other thing that’s critical to community is contact.

Those communities that have more interaction between their members tend to be stronger than those that have less. Community is a contact sport at the end of the day. There is a ton of data that is in agreement with my own research that rubbing people together makes people sticky.

We found at Meetup that if people attended four or more events, whatever the purpose of the group, they tended to be more committed than those who attended less. And the primary cause of that stickiness was that four attendances was the minimum number of times it took for relationships to form, and for people to say to themselves things like “I like these people. Some of them could be good friends. I’m coming back not just because I want to be a better knitter, but because I want to hang out with Sean and Jessica”.

If you have a community that’s ideologically based and it has frequent contact between its members, then of course that’s the strongest formula of all.

I’m fascinated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) because they’ve cracked this code. They get both right. Their ideology is highly distinctive (so much so that it is seen as heretical by the established Christian denominations). And they have mandated contact between members to a much higher degree than other Christian churches and several other religions.

There are very few paid clergy in the Church. The work of running this global organization, from HQ to a local ‘ward’ is done primarily by its members, massively increasing opportunities for interaction. They don’t just meet at church on Sunday either. There is a rigorously applied program of contact that accounts for most days of the week. For example, whether in Bangkok or Birmingham, Mormon families meet on a Monday night for Family Home Evening. The Relief Society (a Mormon woman’s organization) drops in to give spiritual and temporal assistance. Home visits are undertaken to families to teach the gospel at least once a month.

Can you make communities stickier if they’re founded on lower-order commonalities?

Yes, if you amp-up ideological alignment. And, for bonus points, increase interaction too.

Where proximity was not enough, competing visions for a town’s future created the missing glue between individuals in a town in upstate New York.

My friend Sam Pratt helped lead its fight against the building of the world’s largest cement plant in its historical location. This external threat…or opportunity, depending on your point of view…surfaced ideologies and radicalized populations that had been dormant for decades in this sleepy Hudson River town.

stop the plant

This external stimulus clarified beliefs and crystallized needs within two distinct populations in the city. The more recent arrivals from New York City who had led the revival of the main street with shops, cafes and galleries were not surprisingly, galvanized around the idea of preserving what had been done to reinvent ‘local’ community. In contrast, the population that had been there for generations and lived through the booms and busts saw the plant as an opportunity for jobs and tax income to help pull the town, once again, out of the economic doldrums.

These populations clustered around differing worldviews of what constitutes community, the virtues or threats of globalization, the role of corporations, the localization movement and classic blue and red political ideologies.

The fight was fierce. But the ‘Stop the Plant’ side won, and they won famously. There will be more on how it pulled it off on The Glue Project. It’s an instructive story about how community can work when it has to…and I’ll write it with the help of Sam Pratt. But in summary, the winning side prevailed through a combination of very skillful ideological management, relentless energy and lots of interaction between its members.

So, a community is a population that shares things in common, whether they’re online, offline, local or global and whether the thing that’s shared is an interest, cause, need, passion, proximity or ideology.

I would argue the thing that’s shared is a determinant of the strength of the community, with the proviso that the degree of member interaction plays a huge part in the degree of stickiness.

This is a big and emotive subject.

What do you think community is?