The Power of Community

FAKEGRIMLOCK bread or bacon?

My First Live Band in 20 Years

When I was young, I saw a lot of bands play live.  A whole lot.  So many that I eventually blew out my ears.  When it got to the point where my ears would ring for several days after a show even if I wore earplugs, I decided that I had to stop going to see bands.  So the last band I saw live was the Fleshtones in 1993.

Until last week, when I went to see Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra.  They were awesome (this review of their Sydney gig two nights later captures my thoughts pretty well), and my ears only rang for a little afterwards.

One thing that really struck me was the huge connection that Palmer has built with her tribe.  The only other people I’ve seen that have anywhere near this level of connection are Kathleen Hanna when she was with Bikini Kill, and Ian MacKaye with Fugazi.  Palmer trumps them both.

The best thing about it was how diverse the crowd was.  There was enormous variety in age and dress, and pretty much everything else.  And they were all happy and open to listening to everything that was played.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything like it.

Like Kristin Hersh, Amanda Palmer is rewriting the business model for music, and she’s doing it based on the strength of the community that she’s built*.  One thing that seeing a show again reminded me of was just how big a part music has played in my life.  When people are passionate about music, building a community makes a lot of sense.

My First Trip to Los Angeles in 15 Years

That last show that I saw was in Los Angeles while I was living there.  Nancy and I moved to New Zealand in 1997, then to Brisbane in 2000, and I haven’t been back to LA since 1998.  Until a couple of days ago.

I’m heading up Silicon Valley to do some work next week, but when I saw that there was a WordCamp happening in LA this weekend, I changed my departure dates so that I could stop in here for a few days and learn some more about what’s happening in the world of WordPress.

And, unsurprisingly, it’s another story of community.  WordPress is an open source project, so it is built on the work and effort of that community (just like the WordCamps are).  In a fantastic keynote speech, Chris Lema talked about the power and quality of this community, and how it is what built WordPress.

Once again, the crowd at the conference is diverse, welcoming and a lot of fun.  It’s that connection to community all over.

Building a Business Model Based on Community

Here is a quote from Charles V that sums up the issue with community:

By idolizing those whom we honor, we do a disservice both to them and to ourselves… we fail to recognize that we could go and do likewise.

We can go and do likewise.  When the media is everyone, there are new opportunities.

To build a business based on community, here some things to think about:

  • You need to stand for something.  Here is how Fake Grimlock puts it in his, well, awesome book ME, FAKEGRIMLOCK THE BOOK OF AWESOME:
    FAKEGRIMLOCK bread or bacon?
    And here is what he said about it on Fred Wilson’s blog):










    You should read the whole post – it is a blueprint for building something that people will care about.

  • How can people participate? Amanda Palmer posts Art of the Day in her forums.  And she has forums – both are ways for people to contribute their own talent and thoughts to the community.  WordPress is built on the idea that people should be able to contribute – that is what blogging platforms power.  But they go further.  If you see a way to make WordPress better, you can contribute code, or build a plug-in.  Communities are built on participation.
  • You probably need to be open.  This is closely related to the point about participation.  It seems like the people and organisations that are most successful at building community are open (Apple may be the exception here, but they are the exception in a lot of things…).  Palmer gives away a lot of music on her site, and WordPress is open source.  But they don’t give away everything.  The free things lead to things that you can pay for.  You don’t have to pay – you can participate in both communities without paying anything at all.  But if you wish to, you can.  As Palmer says in her TED talk (see below) – the issue isn’t how to make people pay for music, it’s how to let them.  You can start that process by being open.

Community isn’t for everyone.  1Direction and Microsoft have both made tons of money by being bread, not bacon.  But as we shift more towards an attention economy, there is a lot to be said for building communities.  I’m glad that I’ve been able to be a small part of the Amanda Palmer and WordPress communities.

Communities are powerful, but they’re also more fun – that’s where the real power lies. It’s not just our idols that do great things – we can go and do likewise, powered by community.

Amanda Palmer’s TED talk:

And the WPWaterCooler gang on community:

*I know there has been some controversy over her kickstarter campaign and some other issues recently.  But I haven’t seen any of the complaints come from within her tribe – it’s all outsiders.  And there’s not a little misogyny involved in the attacks.

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Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

8 thoughts on “The Power of Community

    • Thanks for the link Kevin – that’s a good post. It’s an interesting question. I do think that they ecosystem view has merit, if you are thinking about policy. But I agree that the emphasis needs to be on the connections between people if you are going to be successful. Definitely an interesting topic…

  1. Good post Tim. However, I think there is a crucial point worth adding. Strong communities are not defined by how they are connected to an idea (that’s a cult). Strong communities are defined by how they are connected to each other.

    I think that where many people go wrong when trying to build a community is that they spend so much effort trying to connect them to the center, they forget to forge bonds among the community itself.

    – Greg

    • I agree Greg. I think that both Amanda Palmer and WordPress have done a pretty good job of not just connecting people to the centre. The WordCamp thing is explicitly designed to do that – there were a few Automattic people at the event, but their profiles were low, and the focus was on building the community.

      It’s harder when you’re a musician, I think, but Palmer (and Kristin Hersh too) has done a pretty good job. The message board on her site is thriving – that is where “art of the day” is featured, which all comes from others in the community. She has a few other things (like a tumblr page) that also focus exclusively on the work of others.

      So both communities are trying to avoid that hub-and-spoke structure.

      On a smaller scale, this is one of the reasons that I’ve tried hard not to “run” the Brisbane Innovation Network – because if I did it would encourage that hub-and-spoke structure. That has slowed growth for it, but that approach might be starting to pay off now.

  2. Yes, that’s true. I wasn’t arguing or trying to undermine your point. However, I do think that where most people who try to build a community go wrong is that they try to put themselves at the center, which inevitably ends up becoming pretty sparse. To buid a community you need density!

    • I didn’t take it as undermining at all Greg. It’s an important point that I wasn’t able to fit into the post, so it was good to have a chance to expand on it in the comments. And you’re absolutely right about people putting themselves in the centre – I’ve seen it, and done it myself too, even though I know better!

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