I’ve talked about issues and ideas over the last year about the use of certain tools or platforms in the social technology for social impact sector, from Causes to Ideablob to Ning.  These conversations have moved through a version of the stages of grief: outrage, doubt, fear, wonder.  We’re now, as a community, emerging into a great place and ready to figure out what we do now.  How do we create a better way of building?

Through these discussions, I find myself creating the never-ending pro and con list, or if-then clauses.  Yes, we know where we want to go (kind of); but we are also very much here right now.  Looking at our tools, I can’t help be stop for a minute to examine what they are doing to define our communities and what “community” even means.

Here are four of the biggest examples I see as to how some of the most popular tools at our disposal for “community building” online are actually not community-centric tools at all.

Numbers do not equal Activity
Many tools—whether it’s a page, a group, or a network—focus on numbers.  The number of fans on your facebook page is one of the core features on the landing page, the number of Ning network members is the same, and again with Twitter, etc. I can’t think of a tool that doesn’t put that number right in front of you.  But, I could have a million in my “community” without a single one of them “doing” anything.  Sheer numbers don’t mean activity.  And activity is what makes a community grow and thrive.

Opportunity for Community Builders:
Use the functionality options you are given (even if extremely limited) to put activity (even activity numbers if you have to) at the forefront.

“Market” does not equal “Community”
The reliance on advertising is becoming more and more visible throughout the social media space, most recently in Ning’s move to require all network creators to pay with the exception of educators (with an emphasis on using ads to offset payments). As digital citizens we are not against advertising and promotions online, per se, but have come to accept them as part of the space where we live, work, and hang out (just like offline).  But, offline, we can create community spaces that are free from advertising.  Many of the tools popular right now don’t provide that option (obviously unless you want to pay for it).  But, your community may want to feel like it’s a community - not a market.

Opportunity for Community Builders:
Look for tools that provide the options your community wants when it comes to ads or other non-community content. (Don’t be afraid to just ask them what they want!)

Owners do not equal Leaders
Pretty much every tool requires someone to “host” it or own it: to be the first administrator, to set it up, to pay for it, etc. But there are very few communities online, at least that I’ve experienced, where that person is one of the “community leaders.”  Most all communities have various roles that members self-select or grow into.  These roles may include welcomers, trainers, supporters, creators, moderators, and leaders. By it’s very nature, a community does not have an owner—all the members are owners.  Many tools create opportunity for the owner to stand in the spotlight, without much attention going to the other, more appropriate, roles.

Opportunity for Community Builders:
Look for ways to spotlight, recognize, and thank the community members who are taking an active role to lead and support the community who aren’t automatically spotlighted in the “owner” profile.

One Community does not equal All Communities
The inherent problem with adopting many tools is that the options, functionality, and flexibility are limited. But, not all communities function, need the same options, or even want to operate online in the same way as others.  This also points to one of the big issues in strategic development: it isn’t just about knowing where your audience is, but know what they want to do - those may not always match up and it may be the case that a catalyst (you?) can step in to help provide the space where they can do what they want.

Opportunity for Community Builders:
If you see a tool/network not being used by your community the way it has done with others, don’t assume that people aren’t getting it or need training or help - maybe the tool just isn’t right for the community’s goals. Strive to be a catalyst (a spark that creates but doesn’t own) for finding and creating appropriate spaces with the appropriate tools.

Many of our current tools require us to operate as spider networks, with a traditional hierarchy and distribution of responsibility (aka power), instead of starfish communities where we can be share and distribute responsibility, and develop in an agile, organic way.  A spider network may be appropriate for some groups and communities.  But, is it right for yours? What are your tools deciding about your community?  What have you done to redefine “community” for your network?

(For more on the metaphor used above, visit The Spider and The Starfish.)