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A Tribute to Online Communities

Picture of Karl Palachuk

Karl W. Palachuk
November 11, 2007

One of the really great things about the internet is its ability to build communities. You might call them “virtual” communities, but that implies that they’re not real.

Internet-based communities are very real.

I know from my own experience that people can come together in a series of online communities and have those communities spill over into “real, live” get-togethers. I’ve seen it on the arthritis new groups, the technology groups, and in my own seminars.

This happens in part because people are self-interested (they join a group to pursue an interest, gain knowledge, etc.), but also essentially social beings. After all, we all want to “hang out” with people who share our interests. Whether it’s at a BBQ or an online group, we gravitate toward people like us.

Now let me tell you about a spectacular example of building a real community online.

There is no better analogy for a community than building something with fiber. [Disclaimer: Here’s what I know about knitting. It involves sticks and colored string and is best accomplished in groups.]

When we build communities, we tie strings from point to point to point and create a web. Interlinking online points create an obvious web. When we extend that to “real world” activities and events, the web expands even more. And the connections grow stronger.

Over at http://the-panopticon.blogspot.com, Franklin holds court. His blog is about . . . everything. His schtick is that he writes about knitting. And about his imaginary friends, the sheep and the ball of yarn. It’s all very entertaining.

So Franklin has quite a following. Google “imaginary sheep knitting” you will find The Panopticon.

Anyway, Franklin recently had a real-life adventure because of his work in building a community online.

Frank is writing a book. He’s a photographer and has a project to photograph 1,000 knitters. Of course he blogs about the project and has held several sessions to get knitters together so he can snap photos.

My wife knits, and she belongs to some knitting groups. So, two of the members of the local knitters’ guild invite Franklin to come to Sacramento (from Chicago) for the weekend. They advertise that he’s coming, and set up an opportunity for knitters to come by and get their picture taken for the book.

The event was a huge success. People actually bussed in from three hours away to participate. Why?

Because, on one hand, Franklin has been building a community. He gets lots of interactive feedback from his blog. Or perhaps the comments are just a lot of I-Love-It snippets. Either way, readers dig in and love it. And participate.

His report is at http://the-panopticon.blogspot.com/2007/11/there-and-back-again.html. (The role of the charming husband was played by yours truly. And my wife is a wonder to behold.)

On the other hand, Franklin participates in the broader online community. Instead of simply posting stuff and going away, he communicates with people and interacts with the community.

The combination of building a community and participating in a larger community results in a community that cannot be contained online. Eventually it must overflow into the physical world. And so Franklin has the 1,000 knitters project. And he gets invited to fly across country for three days of activities. And people travel hundreds of miles to meet him.

Outside of all the other things people have going in their lives, they carved out time for this. Why? Because it’s fun. And they get to meet up with lots of people who have similar interests.

And because the online world IS the real world.

Here’s the best thing about this event: The entire online knitting community is a little stronger because of all the connections made that weekend. The Guild is stronger because members from across California got to meet each other. Social gatherings and online posts pumped up the event. The reports were all positive. Other groups will want to do this.

Over on my technical blog I’ve been trying to help build communities for years. It can be a lot harder than it looks. So even if this isn’t my community, I appreciate the effort it takes to make it happen.

So here’s a tip of the hat to Franklin (and Beth and Cindi) for building the community web and making it a little stronger.

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