Community building is a marathon, not a sprint

In the grandeur of life and existence, at least we get to decide our own pace. So, why rush? Put one foot in front of the other, slowly, and get to work.
Priyanshu Anand
October 9, 2023

Community building is a marathon, not a sprint

In the grandeur of life and existence, at least we get to decide our own pace. So, why rush? Put one foot in front of the other, slowly, and get to work.
Priyanshu Anand
May 13, 2022

The Earth is 4.5 billion years old.

The first-ever humans who looked like us - the Homo Sapiens - didn’t evolve until 130,000 years ago.

Now, take a minute to comprehend the striking contrast between those numbers. To put it in perspective, we’ve only existed for less than 0.05% of the time Earth has been alive. It’s surreal, isn’t it? Evolution really took its own sweet time. And all that we see around us, the philosophical breakthroughs, the scientific wonders that define us, are all only a few hundred years old. A grain of sand on this beach of perpetual existence.

It’s maddening, and at times outright ridiculous, to think of what we’ve achieved as a species. How as conscious, sophisticated, social beings, we’ve opened up a pandora’s box of inventions and innovations. Ideas run deep in our world and with each passing decade we make discoveries, we solve new problems, and introduce revolutionary change in the world.

But every beautiful thing is also a double-edged sword. The price we pay for being the smartest beings on the planet is self-awareness. We spend our lives in the pursuit of finding meaning and purpose. It’s like we’re all running towards something without knowing what it is. In the pursuit of something unpredictable, and in this race of being better than everyone else, we lose sight of how fast we’re moving. We went from coal mines to factories and now to skyscrapers, yet are still unaware of how fast really is too fast.

What does that have to do with communities?

The essence of building communities is our sense of social belongingness. Despite how recent the development of communities has been, what powers it is perhaps one of the most primitive tools we had at our disposal - empathy. Communities are about strengthening human connections, it’s about nurturing a space where people can find solace, a place to get away from the noise that lies outside.

With the advent of modern society, people have become envious and competitive. We started forcing the end without truly understanding the importance of living through the journey. Money, power, and politics run the economy today but certain things need to remain untouched by this social construct we’ve created. This construct that forces us to think of everything as numbers and timelines.

Community is one of those things. Although community-led growth has irrefutably powered the growth of many organizations and independent groups alike, a majority of the players haven’t been able to draw the line that separates business from communities. What contrives as a result of that is the urgency to reach a certain quota and meet company expectations. Before they know it, communities become another marketing gimmick just to see the numbers go up.

The existence of communities was never just to bump up the sales. Even for brand communities, before you can measure the impact of your community on your business, you need to offer value. Make the community a place of sharing and growing and learning from another. A place where like-minded folks can unabashedly be themselves. Here’s the thing - you can never force value, you can only nurture it, and see if people genuinely care about it. Everything else will gradually fall into place (but with effort, of course).

Change is inevitable but necessary

We spoke to Melissa Emler about her views on communities. She’s spent most of her life in the education space until recently being involved with managing events and community building. She’s the Owner of Modern Learners - a platform that’s helping organizational leaders build a culture of learning through community, content, and events. Modern Learners’ community is a network of 900+ educational leaders who are committed to making a change.

Community has evolved drastically in the five years that I've been focused on building Modern Learners Community. The marker for that growth is the number of community job postings and the level of those positions,” said Melissa. “When I started, people equated building a community to building an audience on social media. I'm really glad that has been debunked, but I'm equally concerned with the thread of community being the latest worthy buzzword in a marketing department's attempt to gain their customer's attention. People are open to building and being a part of a community, but they quickly learn that gaining value from a community requires more than simply joining it.

Melissa’s right. Community building is at its crux across most organizations. They’re looking at it as a money-making machine which will soon reach a tipping point, making communities as effective as 2000’s marquee ads. The purpose of community, if misplaced, turns into just another empty attempt. To get people to do more than just clear their notifications, you need to put in the time, put in the effort. That being said, communities are no strangers to change either.

At the cusp of yet another breakthrough, some businesses are witnessing the wonders of community-led growth but not even communities are devoid of evolution. The future of communities might look a lot different than the one we’re used to now. It’s not about re-inventing the wheel, but rather about re-designing it to keep up with the times. With everything that’s going on - Web3, NFTs, the build-in-public wave, etc. - communities will be subjected to grow and evolve with it. The fundamentals will remain the same, but some things will change, hopefully, for the better.

Speaking of change.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, the residue persists

The billion-dollar question on everyone’s mind right now is - how will communities transition to the post-pandemic era?

The pandemic accelerated the global adoption of online communities. As everyone went remote and everything went virtual, so did communities. And guess what, for most people, it became easier to start online communities. Communications became easy, and honestly, hosting virtual events became a lot more convenient too. These couple of years catalyzed quite a few things. If nothing else, it can rightfully be said that remote work popularized online communities, or at least played a vital role in doing so.

“Online communities started long before the pandemic. Certainly, the pandemic created opportunities for community, but the opportunities were accessible prior to the pandemic too. I think the community models gaining more steam is great. I think there's a sweet spot in regards to the size and scale of communities that will find a new set point now. Community is about identity, and people and communities are redefining themselves at this moment,” said Melissa.

The flip side of the coin is arguable too. Although we did see tremendous concentration towards communities, what a lot of people fell prey to, was underestimating what community building is all about. It’s not all just attending virtual events and replying to posts on Slack. Building communities is about harboring connections, real connections, that cannot be manufactured but can only be felt. And, a lot of people are exhausted from all the Zoom calls. This is why there will be some friction moving from virtual to in-person and hybrid events, especially for those who built communities during the pandemic.

Again, in the cloud of changing times, it’s important to take a step back and make sure your goals and purposes are well aligned with where the community is going. Communicate, re-assess your strategies, and grease out any friction that might remain. Don’t rush into anything. Take your time.

Future of community from the lens of Modern Learners

For Melissa and the folks at Modern Learners, the future of learning lies in the conjunction of community, content, and events.

Here’s how each component alone is incomplete -

  • Content without reach is like a well-cooked meal without anyone there to eat it. If there’s no one consuming your content, it’s as good as non-existent.
  • Community alone without a goal is just people having the same conversations over and over again. It seems like a healthy community at first but over time, people lose interest and leave; members outgrow the community.
  • The purpose of events is to offer immense value that leads to conversions and retentions. An event without the right community or the right content is basically like beating an empty vessel.

Modern Learners - The future of learning

When asked about this philosophy, and what led her to believe in it, MeIissa said, “I was working with people starting communities and hosting events, and I recognized the pattern. The event provides the urgency and the community provides the place for the event follow-up and continued learning all while content weaves a common thread through the entire experience. The next step is to think deeply about the size, scale, place, and longevity of community. What is the extent of the commitment?”

The future cannot be restricted to what we witnessed in the past. It’s important to reflect but nonsensical to swim around in circles. As communities become extensively mainstream, they will have to co-exist with a multitude of different factors that go into the systemic functioning of things. Ironically, learning is consistent with change; learning is what deepens understanding, solidifies acceptance, and triggers change. Perhaps, for organizations, the future of learning and growth really lies at this intersection.

Understanding yourself is the beginning of all wisdom

If learning is the search for knowledge, and knowledge is the search for wisdom, then wisdom is the search within.

Introspection is an art unexplored by many. It’s the ramification of self. The experience of who you are. However, it needs an external trigger. That trigger is the process called learning. Melissa also talks about the concept of learning as inspired by the Social Cognitive Theory proposed by Albert Bandura. It theorizes the existence of 4 core features of human agency - intentionality, forethought, self-reactiveness, and self-reflectiveness.

Upon taking a deeper look at it, you can’t help but draw parallels between the path to learning, and the path to community building. Intentionality helps define the purpose and goal of a community, forethought helps strategize and plan community roadmap, self-reactiveness helps execute the plans properly, and self-reflectiveness helps look back upon what was observed and understood.

Personal learning and the existence of communities are so linearly intertwined that by being part of a community, you’re diving deeper into your understanding of things. An external impact directly influences who you become; the more you give, the more you open yourself up, the more you learn. This makes you wonder if being part of a community can be transcendental to your development as a person.

Melissa put it perfectly, she said, “I've always believed the purpose of community was to connect and learn with people. I've witnessed significant individual transformations inside of a community, and those transformations happened because the community served as the place to seek and make sense of ideas. Communities lead people to find the clarity they need. Clarity leads to action. Action leads to transformation. Communities have a way of building peoples' confidence and sense of belonging.”

In the evolution of life, at least we get to decide our own pace

Communities are more than just a tool for growth, it’s a tool for self-refinement. Yes, it’s tempting to broaden your reach, but it’s always just surface level. You have to go in deep; deeper communities lead to cohesive discussions that are invaluable. The idea of cultivating unique rituals that become one with the identity of your community should be manifested as one of the fundamentals of what building communities is all about.

Learning is the element of change but change cannot be forced. It has to come naturally, like evolution. With each iteration, we get better at it. You have to be patient with it though. When it comes to building communities, sometimes it can be weeks or even months without seeing any significant change, but that’s okay. Communities are about fostering human connections, and that’s something just can't be manufactured.

Don’t let the numbers phase you. A smaller community with incremental value and critical learning is better than having a larger community without that essence. It’s not a competition, it never was. In the grandeur of life and existence, at least we get to decide our own pace. So, why rush? Put one foot in front of the other, slowly, and get to work.

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