It doesn’t really matter where you go on the internet, where people have a common interest they will gather. It doesn’t really matter what that interest is, in amongst the noise people will find each other. On a channel like Tumblr it might be the latest band or fad, on Facebook it might be that you went to the same school or have the same memories, on LinkedIn it could be that you work in the same field and on Twitter it could be as simple as you support the same football team. Social media is built to help people with the same interests find each other easily and hang out, because the conversations on topic usually take part in a public space. It’s a bit like standing in a shopping mall with a megaphone shouting “I love to collect stamps. I have a great collection.” Most of the people passing by will roll an eye and stroll on. Stamps have no interest, but every so often someone will come past and say “I love stamps too. Lets go somewhere and talk about it.” Then off go the stamp men with their cardigans, and their first editions and their passion for stamps, and they sit, drink coffee and exchange stamp war stories, tips and advice.

The guy with the megaphone, lets call him Jim, is talking to his new stamp buddy (lets call him Brian), and they become friends quickly because of their shared love of all things stamps. Jim phones his friend who has a rare first day cover and he comes over and joins the conversation. Jim and Brian, discover that they have a few mutual friends who also love stamps. They agree it would be a good idea if they all met over a beer next week, and brought their friends along to talk a bit more about stamps over a beer in a bar. Word gets out from friend to friend, by word of mouth and word of mouse. The stamp guys hang out.

Enjoying these informal get togethers, Jim and Brian and all the other stamp guys, and now a few stamp girls decide that it would be great if they met once a week to talk about a new super interesting stamp topic, and to show the new collectors’ items they had gathered each week. Once this started happening they soon realised that they needed to be organised, which meant someone needed to take charge, and a few others needed to take on responsibilities like booking the bar, ordering the pretzels, that kind of stuff. After a while, they agreed that it would be good to start bringing some new faces in, because they had seen every stamp each of them owned, and they had each led a meeting to talk about their specialist topic. What they needed was someone to get the word out and take control of marketing the group to new people. Time to get the megaphone out, put a few posters up and make a few announcements.

About this time, there was a stamp fair in town. People were coming from far and wide to buy, sell and swap stamps. They weren’t really connected, but they were all pretty serious about the art of stamp collecting. They had a lot of knowledge, but they liked to keep their secrets to themselves because stamp collectors are seriously competitive. New people joining in the meet ups, which became meetings, always started reserved, but learnt fairly quickly that the more they shared, the more others shared with them. The sales fairs became a great recruiting ground for the stamp group, they even took a stand to meet new people. The more time the group took to run, the more they needed to organise themselves with a committee, organisers and fees to pay for venues, marketing and the like. The group grew and grew.

When the group met each Wednesday, they started to divide in to sub-groups according to their niche interests. Some people had a special interest in first day covers, others were interested in African stamps, new releases and only stamps over 100 years old. These groups decided among themselves that it would be great if they hung out separately on a different night.They still went back to the main group once or twice a month, but mostly they liked to hang out in small groups, with the people who were more alike. The big meetings were more social for a pint and a chat, but the smaller gatherings was where the real business of talking and exchanging stamps got done. Each of these groups started to organise themselves because they needed to, appointing a group leader and an organiser to get things done.

From time to time the members fell out with each other, stamps can be a competitive and challenging hobby to have. One member would be accused of breaking the rules or aims of the group, but there were no rules to speak of, people just kind of knew what they expected of each other. As the groups grew and became more diverse, and other groups started to spring up in other towns it was clear that some structure was needed. Jim and Brian had always been the self-appointed leaders by virtue of the fact that they were the first members, but others were starting to question this. Whilst their contribution was undisputed, they were a bit dated in their views. For a start they didn’t really like the internet, and shied away from anything on-line, but members needed to communicate and trade their stamps even if they couldn’t make the meetings. The special interest groups wanted to be able to connect with other people who shared their interests wherever they might be located, and this could only happen on-line.

Recognising that they were holding back the natural progress of the group, Jim and Brian declared that they were taking a backseat, and organised a vote among the members to elect a committee with formal roles. Whilst they wanted to keep things as loose as possible for the members, they also recognised that some structure was needed, and the first job of the new council was to crowdsource the members and agree guidelines for the members to follow. No one quite knew when it happened, but the people involved had gone from being enthusiastic friends to being members of a bigger community. From that first announcement about stamps, something bigger with structure and culture evolved, a real community, and they took it on-line. The virtual membership and participation became bigger than the physical one. From an early chance meeting, a real community was born.

The point of telling this fictitious story is to illustrate how communities evolve and change over time, sparked by a shared interest and a natural human desire among people to connect and belong to groups with a shared interest, and how structure and order naturally evolves. It is the way towns grew from villages, and city’s from towns. Shared purpose, and the need for a level of order.

There has been a lot of rubbish talked about talent communities around companies. Job seeking is a solo occupation. People don’t want to do it in packs or groups. Job seeking is transactional, communities are based on relationships. Following a company is not belonging to a talent community, at best it is being a part of a talent network. Applying for a job is not belonging to anything other than your interest in the job. Like the stamp guys, real community needs to be around a shared area of interest, and the community is not owned or managed, it evolves and gains structure over time. You need to broadcast the area of interest in the early days to attract those with an interest, get them to the same place then let them decide how it evolves, and the structure it takes. It is a long term gain, not a short term return, and is unlikely to be what a real company needs.

Just my thoughts, evolve like the stamp guys from a single interest, let the members decide the structure and objective and make recruiting one of many secondary activities, and not the basis of a community.

Bill