As part of #WorkingOutLoud, I’m sharing a new draft of the chapter on ‘Community’ from the upcoming Social Age Guidebook.
I position the ‘Social’ Age as being built upon the foundations of the ‘Digital’ one.
Not in any sense to indicate that we are through the Digital Age, but rather that we are firmly into what it has enabled: radical social connectivity at scale, the rise of distributed Communities, and the disruptions in power that this effects.
‘Community’ is a term to describe our various structures of social connection, and comes in many flavours: some Communities are formal and established with codified rules and clear leadership structures, whilst others (most in fact) are socially defined, and lack either written rules, or a hierarchy (although they are governed by rules, socially held, and leadership, held beyond a hierarchy).
The context of the Social Age has amplified and expanded our range and type of Community connection, making the global local, making the asynchronous immediate, and moving beyond oversight or formal control.
Technology connects us in diverse ways, but it’s our mechanisms and modes of social organisation, and the potential of those connections to channel influence and power, which really count.
Simple connectivity is not enough: we can be connected and yet still socially dysfunctional. We can be connected and yet isolated or blind to new truths.
But, if we learn the skills and behaviours of these new spaces, if we are authentic in our actions, if we earn our Social Authority and reputation based power, we can become both connected and effective. Existing as part of a multitude of high functioning social Communities, and hence transformed.
The practice of Social Leadership is substantially about the core skills and capabilities of that social connection, the ways that we create the conditions for these Communities to thrive.
If the old world was about optimisation, mastery of logistics, automation, and control, then the new one is about compassion, fairness, co-creation, and complex collaboration at scale, and is effective quite often by cutting diagonally through historic barriers and hierarchy.
The old world was about formal mechanisms of organisation and effectiveness, and the new one builds on that, to include social mechanisms of innovation and effect outside of, beyond, any formal system.
So what exactly is different?
If we look at the broad context of the Social Age, we can see certain key trends. The first is the notion of ‘Radical Connectivity’, in ways that are democratised, fluid, and almost all of which operate beyond the oversight, or control, of any formal power.
In network terms, we are connected with high levels of redundancy: it’s hard for our network to break due to the failure of one single technology, and equally hard for any formal power to disrupt or deny the Community by disrupting or removing one specific technology, as our Communities flow between different spaces.
In my own research in the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK, people described using 17 different technologies on a daily basis to collaborate, only one of which was owned by the NHS.
Essentially, it’s easier than ever for us to build wide networks of loose social ties, and to maintain these in the face of opposing forces. It’s easier to find people, remain connected to people, and be effective with those people, than ever before. The democratisation of social organisation, and the network effects at scale, are behind almost every signifiant social shift, and the evolution of underlying power itself.
Historic barriers to social organisation can broadly be described as ‘technological’ (we were unable to connect across long distances, or with large groups beyond being physically co-located; we had no hidden collaborative or co-creative spaces at scale), and ‘geographical’ (we could not easily locate people at a distance, or travel to be connected). Together, they also reinforced similarity (sponsorship of connection through network) whilst today we can adopt fluid identities and anonymised spaces to connect beyond existing networks.
Today, both those barriers are gone: we can easily communicate, and easily connect. Which means that whilst historically the barriers to connectivity were communication and distance, today, they are political and cultural: we are likely to be separated by ideas, or through the imposition of barriers by others.
On the positive side, this democratisation, and proliferation, of connectivity, has led to the phenomena whereby communities emerge around ideas ever faster: in a more direct democratic phenomena, ‘ideas’ can aggregate support in short order, and with that aggregation, can confer immediate authenticity and political power.
Essentially, if someone (individual or small group) can curate a compelling narrative, then they may aggregate support around that narrative fast. This can lead to social movements such as #MeToo, or #TakeAKnee, and proliferates through near synchronous media such as TikTok and Twitter.
It can also lead to politics by the mob: proliferation of ideas (and concurrent Communities) that are united not by consensus, but through opposition: in some ways, radical connectivity may drive radical opposition.
In my own work, exploring both Communities and Types of Power, this is close to the conclusion that i’ve drawn: that the two dominant modes of Community are ‘consensus’, and ‘opposition’.
In other words, some of our emergent Communities are united in their shared values and purpose, and some are united almost entirely in their disagreement with some other state. But that latter group may have no internal consensus. Our single point of unity may be that we disagree with something else.
Again, referring to my own work and evolving understanding of social systems, this all comes down to the structures of social organisation, and mechanisms of power, by which the social system operates.
It’s complex. Probably unknowably complex. But we can learn broad principles: for example, if we understand that some Communities are ones of consensus, and some of opposition, then we can reflect on the type of Community we need, and the ways by which each operates.
In the context of the Social Age, we see the emergence of multiple powerful social Communities: some that provide a space to vent and moan, some that provide purposeful direction, or meaningful collaboration and support. Not one, but many. In my research in 2018, people described ‘belonging’ to at least ten different Communities in a meaningful way. We are members of many spaces, some visible, some hidden.
So what does this mean? It must mean that the skills and capabilities to be an effective member of a Community are increasingly important: to understand our role, and the broad range of roles, to understand the power behind a Community, to understand it’s purpose, to know how to support, enable, grow, or share the story of, any given Community. To interconnect between disparate Communities.
Again, i look back on my work from 2014, in the first edition of the Social Leadership Handbook, and find it to be quite naive: at that time i considered Communities are largely one dimensional and looked at a dozen or so roles that we played within them. My understanding, substantially through the Landscape of Trust research, has now shifted significantly. I see ‘tribes’ as the trust bonded structure, and Communities as collections of, or meta levels of organisation of, tribes. This is the way i (currently) understand how Communities of opposition exist. We are trust bonded within our tribe, but bonded differently in the Community.
But some aspects of that 2014 work still stand: we need to master the skills of the Social Leader. To fight for fairness, to promote equality, to master the skills of co-creation, to be expert Social Storytellers, and so on.
The context of the Social Age means that emergent social Communities, things that exist well beyond any single technology, will form, and have a view upon, almost any aspect of change. And the aggregating nature of social technology means that these Communities will carry real political power. Indeed, we could say that to have a Community behind you IS to have power.
Social Leaders are effective within the arms of their Community: if we invest in it, if we hold true to it, and if we understand the mechanisms, and limitations, then we can be more effective than we ever can be alone.