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Book Review: The Art of Community: Building the New Age of Participation by Jono Bacon

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One of the effects of the rise of the Internet are online communities. There are many of these virtual worlds and the kind of community they offer varies in proportion to the needs and goals of their users. While communities, like Facebook, provide a kind of public square populated with one’s friends, some online communities are focused on specific projects and goals. Such goal-driven communities can have significant impact—many produce software products that rival their commercial counterparts. For example, online communities focusing volunteer efforts have brought us products like Firefox and Ubuntu and many more.

The case of open source software communities is particularly interesting because their members create software that would normally be worth billions and they do it for no tangible compensation. This may seem odd, because, even though participation in a community such as Ubuntu provides psychic income, we live in a world in which no one accepts psychic payments—you can’t pay for groceries with a smile and a thank you. So why do these people give away their work?

With The Art of Community: Building the New Age of Participation Jono Bacon suggests that belonging is the key motivation for volunteers. Successful communities, he argues, offer their members an identity in a social economy, and through this identity members accumulate social capital and obtain the emotional satisfaction of respect and admiration of the membership through the quality of their contributions. Another motivation involves a sense of an opportunity to accomplish something meaningful, even world-changing.

How do you create a well-functioning community that provides belonging and other psychological benefits? Bacon offers a comprehensive look at the basic elements and challenges of creating online communities, hitting all the bases and giving prospective community leaders much to think about and learn.

The book starts with an overview of the art of community, discussing belonging, social economy, and the aspects of successful community leaders. Then he moves into a series of chapters discussing the essentials. Chapter two gives a good grounding in planning by helping the reader think through a strategic plan for her community. Particularly helpful is the Community TODO List that Bacon updates as he proceeds with the discussion of objectives, goals, collaboration, teams and deliverables or success criteria. What is lacking is the part on supporting the community: Bacon mentions the standard ideas here, such as online advertising, selling stuff, and donations, but doesn’t provide much granular treatment. This would require a separate chapter.

Another useful chapter is the one on process. You want a community that is self-sustaining and reproduces itself with each new cohort of members. One crucial aspect of online communities is selection of new members. Bacon does a good job illuminating the challenges here and offers specific points to consider when attempting to identify the right people.

More excellent information can be found in the chapters on supporting workflow, social media, building buzz, measuring community, managing, and tracking work, governance and conflict resolution. There is even a chapter on organizing physical meetings.

For anyone who has never thought about community organizing or has created a community by the seat of their pants but now would like to tweak it, The Art of Community is a great resource providing a balanced treatment of the issues involved in creating and running a community dedicated to a specific objective. 

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