Communities Are Purposeful

By Dave Bayless

Proximity or propinquity may be necessary to instill a sense of community, but they aren’t sufficient. Communities are purposeful.

John McNight is the author of The Careless Society: Community and Its Counterfeits. When he speaks of community, he’s referring to a neighborhood or small town. But, what characterizes a neighborhood? According to McNight, it’s not mere proximity:

So, when we are thinking about community, we’re thinking about resident-defined place. And the reason for that is because what people feel is their neighborhood is telling you what they’re motivated to do something about.” (emphasis added)

Physical proximity doesn’t equal neighborhood. A sense of neighborhood and community derives from a shared sense of motivation to achieve a goal or goals together. That is, communities are purposeful.

The same is true in the virtual world. Affinity or propinquity may be necessary but are not sufficient for a vibrant online community. As Gina Bianchini and her colleagues at Mighty Networks put it,

The power of your community comes from people mastering something interesting together…Your Big Purpose is the motivation for your community. It’s something that can only be accomplished by bringing these exact people together…

Gina’s observation is reminiscent of a key point made by Priya Parker, the author of The Art of Gathering:

The art of gathering begins with purpose: When should we gather? And why?

So, identifying women faculty at U.S. based colleges and universities who are early in their careers might be a starting point for a learning community. However, it’s not enough. The hard work comes from understanding what such women want to do and where they want to go that necessitates their collaboration with others. A meaningful sense of community seems to lie at the intersection of propinquity and purpose.

In a sense, being a designer of an online community is not unlike being an urban planner. Sure, good infrastructure can help a community thrive. However, if we don’t know where our community members want to go, we risk building a highway to nowhere used by no one.

An underutilized boulevard in Naypyidaw, the planned capital of Myanmar.