The Art of Community: Building the New Age of Participation (Theory in Practice). By Jono Bacon, O'Reilly Media, 2009, 400 pages, ISBN 978-0596156718
I have been building online 'communities of practice' for about 10 years now. Some have thrived and others not. It started about 10 years ago with the formation of a small association with a shared interest in classic marine heritage. The community operated entirely online, mainly through a forum and we found that, with very little conscious effort, the community quickly grew and thrived. It was quickly taken up as an example of good practice and evidence for what could be achieved within a small community with similar interests and aspirations.
Since then, I have been involved in establishing and supporting many other communities, for instance the TASI (now JISC Digital Media) JISCMail list. This community was much harder to build and although we saw a healthy growth in membership, it was difficult to obtain much feeling of 'community' from across a worldwide group of digitisation experts. But still it was worth it and I felt the sharing of knowledge made the exercise worthwhile. So much so, that when I moved on from TASI, I continued to subscribe and post to mailing lists simply because I enjoyed being part of their community.
For me, online communities were rosy places, where only good things happened, then somehow the mask slipped a little. The moderator of a large list suggested in-post that the only reason I posted was as a marketing ploy for my own business and that I just liked the sound of my own voice. This really made me review my own reasons for spending so much time online as a member of various work and play communities.
More recently, it became obvious that even my original maritime community was not doing so well. After 10 years of great success, the forum was busier than ever, with a quickly growing membership, but also with an associated wooliness of content. There were rumbles of discontent, as new members joined and old members left, saying that it had somehow lost its 'mojo'. Things were coming to a head. So it seemed pure serendipity to be given the chance to review Jono Bacon's book The Art of Community, because if there was a time when I needed it ... it was now!
This book is designed for those who are actively engaged in establishing or supporting an active online community. Although the author Jono Bacon is keen to propose that the content is useful to all communities, the focus is still primarily on 'online communities' and especially those with very established and professional goals, such as the 'open-source development communities' from which he mainly draws his stories and examples.
Therefore, for me, the key initial question for the reader is: 'what kind of community do you have or wish to create?'. If you have been tasked with creating or supporting a large professional project with firm established goals, outcomes and milestones, then this book could only be described as quite brilliant; however if your idea of community is more in the lines of that proposed by Etienne Wenger in his book Communities of Practice , then much of this book may be considered over-prescriptive for a small self-determining community.
The author, Jono Bacon is an English writer and professional community manager, now living in California who cut his teeth, working within open-source software communities such as Linux, including Ubuntu and other software. When he proposes a theory on the management of online communities, he can talk with great authority and backs it up with real-world stories from his own experience that gives the book a hard practical edge.
He writes in an upbeat and chatty way, reflecting the approach to communication that he proposes in the book. However, it still has more of the feeling of a 'handbook' or 'manual' rather than a 'good read'. It can be quite dense at times, to the point of becoming quite verbose. Although this level of detail was welcome, I still felt that for me, the book may have benefited from being written either as a much shorter and pithier 'manual' or as a much more readable 'discourse' on the subject by extending its anecdotes for the reader's enjoyment. Another drawback of this 'handbook' approach was the marked lack of illustrations within the text. 'Community' may not be a subject which is easily or naturally explained by images or diagrams; however the book offers very little for those of us with a more 'visual' learning or reading style.
The book starts with a general overview of how and why communities work, covering the underlying 'nuts and bolts' of what makes them tick with a concentration on a community's need for communication. This is followed by his practical suggestions for the basis of a standardised strategy for building a community, including a set of generic objectives and goals that can easily be taken and modified for use by your own community. The book then considers how to establish and put into place the building blocks required for running a successful community, starting with the required methods and tools for establishing clear and effective communication.
This is followed by a chapter giving practical advice on the processes and tools required to allow the community to grow in a sustainable way. The next two chapters look at how to build the 'buzz' that encourages growth, and then at methods that can be used to provide real evidence of your progress.
Towards the end of the book we find the chapter which many community managers will most probably dive into first – covering the thorny subjects of governance and handling conflict within your community. For me, this was the chapter, which promised most, but somehow delivered least. To be fair, it may well be that it would have proved of far more use had I been more involved with the kind of large project-orientated communities with which Bacon works, rather than the much smaller and more self-governing 'Communities of Practice' with which I am normally involved.
The final two chapters, provided useful details about creating events for a community and also of how to go about hiring a community manager. Useful, but again much more relevant to the larger professional project community rather than the smaller Community of Practice. All in all, the content of this book provides a very good reference on a very wide range of topics about managing an 'aims-orientated' professional online community. It is solidly grounded with sensible and practical advice on how to build online communities, written in a very 'demonstrative' way and in many cases you could simple copy and paste the checklists and to-do lists for direct application in your own community.
For me this book went deeper into the nuts and bolts of community management than I have ever wished to go, providing explanations to some of the things that I have learnt by trial and error. It gave me guidance and clues to challenges I have yet to face... and yet for all of that, I still felt that it somehow missed the real nub of the question of what makes one community thrive and leaves another still-born. It was as if you were being given all the words but left to write your own poetry. In the end, this book is undeniably well constructed, full of useful information and written in an entertaining way by someone who truly believes in the power of 'community' and knows how to harness it; but I suspect that the core skills for community building are not those that are easily written or taught, but are the soft 'people' skills that are common to practitioners at the centre of all thriving communities.