Cat Herders Needed
September 22, 2010
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Last night I went to Public Media Camp at OPB. Unlike most unconferences in Portland, members of the tech community were in the minority. Attendees were varied in age, gender, profession and interests. I really enjoy conversations with a diverse group of people. I like how different interests, experiences and knowledge can enrich a discussion. With multiple perspectives functioning as a prism, refracting ideas rather than light.
One of the recurrent themes of the evening was the challenges inherent in building and sustaining communities with both online and face-to-face components. People had successes with one or the other, but very few had succeeded at both. Those that had succeeded at both shared one thing in common. They each had someone responsible for managing the community.
Communities are like ecosystems. With no external intervention, they can sometimes achieve a degree of stasis. But change is inevitable. The most successful communities have someone whose role it is to either help the community regain its equilibrium or adapt and evolve.
Koalas have lived in Australia for 20 million years. For almost all of that time, they thrived on a rich and diverse diet. At some relatively recent point, the Australian climate changed. Over time eucalyptus forests took over what had been rainforest. Koalas did not adapt well at all. They became very picky eaters and limited themselves to eating only the youngest, most tender eucalyptus leaves and only of certain species. Eucalyptus leaves have very little protein. In response, koalas brains shrunk significantly. Koalas sleep 19 hours as day to conserve their energy, and three of their waking hours are spent eating. Koalas have survived their habitat’s transition, but they certainly have not thrived in it.
I have seen the same cycle occur in communities time and time again. A huge amount of time and effort is put in to building a community. Once the community becomes stable, energy gets shifted to more pressing concerns. Initially, the deterioration is slow. Little things fall start falling through the cracks. Eventually, the community shrinks to just those that are most committed. Without the initial excitement, it is much harder to initiate the momentum needed to rebuild. The renewal process can be successful. But often at the cost of the community’s core members who have burnt themselves out. Other times the community slowly atrophies until nothing is left.
Last night a couple of people reminded me how important my cat-herding was to the CubeSpace community. I am often uncomfortable taking credit for much of my community building work. Fundamentally, I believe that no one person can take credit for building a community. It takes a community to build a community. But last night’s conversations helped me see my contribution from a different perspective. My role was like a lynchpin, mostly invisible. But without one, the wheels literally fall off.