Community, Community, Community

I hate the word “community.” It’s a catch-all word that means so many things it feels like it means nothing. When I use it I feel a little silly.

Yet there’s not really a good replacement for the word. Or at least I haven’t found one I like.

Check out a thesaurus — is there anything that can both refer to a geographically-bound collection of individuals while also referring to a group of individuals that are naturally cohesive around a shared affinity?

Society has too many connotations of snootiness or political implications (“The Great Society”). Association is usually attached to the name of a lobbying group. Neighborhood is nice and informal, but it’s too geographically-bound and too small-scale. Nothing else quite matches “community” in terms of flexibility and meaning, right?

If anyone has a better term, please share it in the comments. I really would like to find another word I can use interchangeably with this term.

7 thoughts on “Community, Community, Community

  1. I agree – used all the time and what does it mean?

    I like the idea of Fellowship more – it is that type of relationship where the group is so tight on each other and on the mission that they don’t have to be with each other or even communicate. In Lord of the Rings, the Hobbits get to this point. In the early Jesuits Father Xavier leaves Europe never to return.

    Here is a link to a post I did on this that offers up a distinct gradient of relationship leading to this point – no ambiguity here

  2. I’ve tended to use the word “cohort,” in the sense “a group of people with common characteristics,” though at least one other sense would also apply, “a group of people banded together.” (Another sense, “an ancient Roman military unit,” would not apply. 🙂

    “Cohort” is a bit marred by use on cop shows, but not irretrievably. I do like the connotations lent by the usage meaning “accomplice” and “conspirator” for what it adds in terms of suggesting a scrappy effort to reach a common goal. Conspirators and accomplices for good, so to speak.

    Where the word works best is describing those relationships in which all the parties involved do not necessarily know that they are in a relationship.

    For example, I cohost a syndicated public radio show and I’ve been following this blog for a while, so I would consider myself part of your cohort whether you know it or not. I think a lot of listeners fall into this category. There’s a type of near-cliché—”long-time listener, first-time caller/emailer”—that indicates this perfectly. We may know through ratings that they are there, but the listeners have allied themselves to us without our knowing exactly who they are.

    My own disgruntlement with the word “community” is that it is used as shorthand for too many ideas. It is invoked as a talisman or totem, a single word that is supposed to cure and heal our relationships with our listeners. Someone says “community” and we are all free to give it the meaning that suits our own purposes, much in the same way someone can say “God” or “birthday” and these two words can very different outlooks on life or on aging.

    Does “community” mean allowing visitors to post comments? Reading listener email on the air? Going to face-to-face events? Making yourself accessible to your listeners instead of buffering yourself behind assistants and auto-reply bots? All of those? Not sure.

    But “cohort” says something simple: these are the people who I have allied myself with, and those are the people who have allied themselves with me. Developing a definition of “community” that starts with identifying the company you’re keeping in more specific ways than ratings allow is not a bad way to begin, I think. (Though God knows that this is where the marketing start talking about CRM and ruin the basic joy of having a human relationship.)

  3. A few ideas…

    There is Seth Godin’s term “tribe,” but that could be a bit too exclusionary. Same with “affiliation.”

    Or “constituency,” similar to tribe but might be too politically loaded.

    I’d also like to pose whether there is also a suitable replacement for the word “engagement.” When you put community and engagement together, then it’s this lovely jargon that has become nearly meaningless today.

  4. Thanks for the word, Grant! Having spent a year in purgatory (teaching high school English), the word cohort for me evokes an education mindset with a statistical edge. So I see what you mean, but feel a little funny using that word. Isn’t it funny how we all assign these extra meanings to words based on personal experience?

    I’m with you 100% on “community.” But as much as I dislike it, I still catch myself using it! Let’s keep this conversation going, if possible.

  5. @Rob Fellowship has a nice Ring to it (pun fully intended). Though for me that has religious overtones. I suppose I’m just going to have to get over myself, huh? 😉

  6. @Lisa — Yes! I like tribe. Though in Alaska there’s definitely an ethnic component to that word. But as a fellow follower of Seth Godin’s writing, I do like it. It has an earthy tone to it, an organic component.

    Constituency is actually a good one, but I think you’re right — it sounds like you’re running for office when you use it. But it’s definitely accurate, and it doesn’t have to be geographically bound.

    And I struggle with the use of the word “engagement,” as you pointed out. I’ve definitely used engage a lot lately. Perhaps Jean Luc Picard has seeped too far into my consciousness? 😉

    To escape the engagement trap, maybe we could use participation? Co-creation? I really don’t want to sound like a cheesy consultant, but maybe we’ll have to use some of these words anyway.

  7. Tribe, cohort (by the way the gregales spent 25 years with each other in the cohort – 8 men in a tent or barrack room – 80 in the cohort – so they were CLOSE) Fellowship – we all know what we mean don’t we.

    I think that this is the new marketing – build out from the close people – they have close people that are not quite the same as our own. Like an artichoke in reverse?

    Also I think that we are connected through a shared mission or work (not work in the dull sense) but the great work – helping pub media become something great for democracy is for me part of the great work.

    And JP – though I use religious imagery a lot – I was a choir boy – I am pretty pagan now

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