I’m embarrassed to say just how long I’ve had Jono Bacon’s book sitting on my coffee table, as a constant reminder to myself that I haven’t written a blog entry yet on The Art of Community. In the spirit of agile, I’m going to sit here and write a review on the first chapter. Since the book starts off with a high-level overview of community concepts, I’m hoping this blog post will entice you to read the rest, or consider getting this book for someone you know who loves meetups, blogging, twitter, or any other community activity.

Just a quick aside, why I’m beating myself up for taking so long to write this, is because I want to be just like Jono when I grow up. I met Jono at his first Community Leadership Summit. Not only did I immediately realize that Jono is one of those people who “gets community” (and if you’re reading this and know what i’m talking about, go buy this book now!), but also, he’s someone who can empower and inspire other community leaders who also “get community” to go above and beyond. For example, if you’ve ever read Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower – Book 7”, we find out that there’s one special breaker who can enable the other breakers to work 300% better. I’d say Jono is like Ted in that aspect because of the way I saw him inspire myself and others at the Community Leadership Summit. (And if you haven’t read the Dark Tower Series, I swear this reference to Ted is a good thing!)

Thoughts on Chapter 1

I have to say I’ve never read just a first chapter of a book (not even a book by Stephen King) that’s inspired me to write a blog post on it. But I feel compelled to get the word out to my respective communities about this book without further delay.

Community = Belonging

I thought I’d heard it all after nearly 8 years at Microsoft on why do people participate in community, from recognition, common need, identity, response to a crisis, and passion. I thought nothing would ever top “passion”, but then I got to page 5 and read about a sense of “belonging.”

I had just boarded a flight from SEA to PDX to visit Oregon State University’s Open Source Lab, when I read about this idea of “belonging.” I spent the entire 45-minute flight trying to prove this term wrong, that “passion” clearly had “belonging” beat. But I couldn’t. I kept thinking about growing up back home in New Orleans, and how we have a tremendous sense of community there. I thought about going to Mardi Gras as a native compared to a tourist. Natives come together at Mardi Gras because it is about celebrating the community we belong to and celebrating who we are. Or even better, check out the #whodat twitter stream and see the passion of the New Orleans Saints fans going on right now. (Who Dat?! Who Dat?! Who dat say they going to beat dem Saints?!)

Even though I’m 3,000 miles away, I can still feel a sense of belonging to New Orleans. Online communities, like #whodat on twitter, give me an opportunity to express how important it is for me to feel connected to New Orleans.

Or as Jono says on page 5, “If there is no belonging, there is no community.”

Social Capital

This is probably the best explanation I’ve ever seen describing how reputation does not equal community. Way too often, I’ve seen people try to form communities based on reputation. Similar to the “if you build it they will come” flawed notion of community-building, there are folks who think if you reward people with “social capital” they’ll participate more. But as Jono describes on page 7, “People don’t make money for the purposes of just having money: they make money because it allows them to do other things.” Or more specifically, “Most people who work with social capital are not merely air-kissing, hand-wavey, superficial animals who simply want to name-drop and be name-dropped in the interests of social acceptance.” They are participating in the community because of that sense of belonging. Thank you, Jono. Thank you.

Storytelling

When I got to this part in the book (and it’s only on page 8), i thought my head would explode from excitement and wonder. I’d never ever thought in 8 years to ever think about how we communicate with each other in the community. And yet, here it is, such a simple concept on page 8, “[Jono] realized that the mechanism behind communication in a community is stories.”

When I read this sentence, I had about 16 different memories come flooding back in a single moment (which is usual for me. I have a very strong visual memory.) Each memory consisted of various groups of “people I belong to” telling stories for hours. Whether it is me telling my infamous Uncle Jimmy stories (and why I have a honest-to-god fear of plants), listening to someone talk about ASP.NET MVC, or just comparing Hurricane Katrina aftermath stories in a bar in the French Quarter, storytelling is truly how communities communicate.

Communities provide Opportunity

On page 10, Jono describes his first encounter with Linux and how he “smelled the sweet aroma of opportunity.” I can definitely relate to my time spent on the Visual Studio team. When I first saw a concept spec of a “Tip of the Day” for the Visual Studio start page, I could definitely sense the opportunity to do something cool. But I also love Jono’s quote of “If there is no viable path, we enter the world of fantasy.”

And just when I thought these concepts couldn’t get any deeper, I was helplessly enthralled once again by reading “Opportunity is born in a sense of belief.”

For me doing the 382 Tip of the Day series for Visual Studio, my “belief” was that there were others like me out there in the world. Others who knew what it was like to be a community of one (when I was in college), sitting alone in an office working day in and day out on Visual Studio, not knowing about 98% of its features. It was that belief that make it possible for me to write a tip every day for 1.5 years.

Community Manager

So far in chapter one, I’ve been swinging my legs back and forth, just having the time of my life reading this book, until I saw one word that I vowed to never use in the same context of community: enable.

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

I must pause for a second to wonder whether this is “the Microsoft” in me that is saying this. Sometimes you get so accustomed to working a certain way that you have trouble figuring out whether your instincts are right, or if you’ve just been trained to think a certain way. Go read my Why I Love To Hate Agile post to understand about my performance neurosis.

I guess that same neurosis applies to community, but I’ve never thought about it. I’ve spent significant time among other Microsoft community folks, and I’ve spent some time with non-Microsoft community folks who were running online forums. But, reading this book has probably given me the broadest perspective possible on community. And to see Jono use the word “enable” was a real wake up call. In fact, I had to laugh out loud at myself.

A very long time ago, way before I joined CodePlex, I had a very passionate conversation with a coworker whether community managers are supposed to “enable the community to do something” or whether “enable” was just the word to use when you didn’t know how to actually do it. The argument was the community manager should be able to clearly state what the intended outcome was and what his/her involvement would be. After this conversation, I stopped using the word enable, and thus became sensitized to it.

The root issue of this conversation was about how to measure the performance of a good community manager. I hope Jono explores this later on. Or maybe we can have this as a session at next year’s Community Leadership Summit. I honestly believe there’s “no one size fits all” answer here.

But I digress… yes, absolutely, a community manager enables, just as I described at the beginning of this blog post how Jono is a community manager who enables community managers.

Conclusion

And this concludes my book report on the first 14 pages of The Art of Community. And to think I only have another 350 pages to go before I’m finished with the book. That’s only another 26 blog entries on the subject. =D

The Art of Community
Website: http://www.artofcommunityonline.org/
Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Art-Community-Building-Participation-Practice/dp/0596156715

Cheers!