A Theory of Community Formation

A Model of Community Formation

Seeded by interest, germinated by experience, grown through identity and sustained through intent

As part of our work at The Value Web, we’ve been involved over the years working with various communities – such as The World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders community – to organize numerous community gatherings and create processes that achieve particular outcomes or explore areas of interest.

More and more, however, the creation of community has become an end in itself, as the people we work with come to recognize the value of strong and engaged communities of people and their ability to achieve what disconnected groups cannot. While we have intuitively designed using our core models in a way that has nurtured communities through shared experience and work, I have found myself wanting a meta-model that would aid in explicitly designing for community formation.

The theory and model presented here is an early version towards having a design toolkit for community formation; it is based on a number of underlying theories and assumptions. The first assumption is that any community or potential community is a complex system, based on the fact that it is made up of a series of independent actors with their own influences and interactions. Secondly, it is based on the idea that community itself is an emergent quality – community, per se, does not exist; it is a perceived connection between a group of people, based on overlaps of intent, identity, interest and experience.

Which brings us to the model; as the model is in its first iteration, it is still in two parts; there is the individual, and there is the community. The idea is quite simple; individuals are the component parts of the community, and the community is based on the creation of connections or overlaps between the individuals.

identity formation in communities

A model of identity formation

The aspects of the individual that have been pulled out for the purposes of this model are the ones that are relevant to our sense of self in relation to others and groups, as well as those aspects which form a basis for connection. These aspects are interest, experience, identity and intent. These elements have, between them, a series of complex interplays, and I believe there are a number of archetypal interactions between them both for the self, and in the connect between people, that will be part of the next iteration of the model. For now, in this version, each particle within this “molecular” model of the self has multiple sub-components which dictate the behaviour of the particle.


Interest is meant in two senses of the word; first, in the sense of attraction or affinity to something as engaging, and second, as something perceived to be of benefit to the individual. Interest is a motive force which guides action.


Experience is the retained memory of past actions and senses. As it accumulates it begins to work in a feedback loop with interest and intent, but also begins to form a basis for identity, in that we become a collection of what we have done.


Intent runs deeper than interest – it is more complex and nuanced, in that it combines the drives of interest with the insights of experience to create a broader, vision-based set of motivations. Belief plays a role in intent, and intent, where forms, becomes embedded in identity.


Identity, in this model, is a purely emergent quality. It is presented as the interplay between our own self-perception which is “projected” into the world, and the received “reflection” from others as our projected self is validated, challenged and shaped. Identity, which we craft from our experience (“who have I been?”) is a balance between who we say we are, and who we believe others think we are.

The social aspect of identity is critical here, when we think of this model in the context of community formation. The most robust communities become so because the community has become a constituent element within its members’ self perception.

Forming Community

The concept of community formation within this model, then, is that communities can form based on the overlaps between these elements among a number of people. There are different archetypes of formation here – communities of interest, alumni (based on past experience), movements and causes (based on intent). Part of my contention here is that a community that is designed could be designed for resilience by sequencing and overlaying the different types of formation – once the development of a community has gone from loosely based on interest, then grown through shared experience, then catalyzed through intent (or multiple intents, mapped back to interest) would become a major identity vector among members. This delicate weave is what begins to create not a gathering, but a community, whether it be online or off, geographically based or transnational.

There is much more to the model, in particular the archetypes, but I’ll save them for a subsequent post. I am curious, first and foremost, to get the insights of others on how they have seen communities form; does the model hold? What’s missing?

36 Responses to “A Theory of Community Formation”

  1. Pamela McLean
    August 13, 2013 at 11:03 pm #

    Thank you for this. I appreciate your insights and hope to think about them more deeply, and ideally to explore them further with you.

    My interest in this topic includes several experiences of emerging communities, most of them ongoing.

    One is the gradual emergence, since approximately 2000, of what I now refer to as the Dadamac (online) community, You can dip into some of its interests and activities at http://dadamac.net

    Others are various communities / groups within the Dadamac community.

    The last one is a community that at present exists as a community only in my mind (a potential community as you say). It consists of people I know, some of whom know each other. So it has the elements you mention – emergence, individuals are the component parts, and there are connections or overlaps between the individuals (for instance some of them know each other as well as knowing me, some know that I put them in the category of my “crazy-sane” friends – see Celebrating my crazy-sane friends and contacts – http://dadamac.net/blog/20130224/celebrating-my-crazy-sane-friends-and-contacts )

    This is not the place to match my experiences and thoughts with every point in your post, so I will end by simply explaining something about the community “in my mind” which I see developing.

    It is a community which I want to help accelerate in its development and its recognition of itself as a community, for reasons I can explain some other time. It is a community that I see as being made up of “explorers and pioneers” in what I describe as the “Landscape of Change” – ie people with vision who are “going ahead of the crowd” in our precarious and uncertain present and future. See – Explorers Emerging in Landscape of Change – http://dadamac.net/blog/20130302/explorers-emerging-landscape-change

    Most of the things I do are a continual dance between theory and practice – a mixture of learning by doing and then reflecting on what I’m doing and learning. I’m delighted to have come across your work and would very much appreciate your help and collaboration in combining a theoretical context with the practical work I’m doing related to emerging communities.

    Thank you for your thinking and your Theory of Community Formation

  2. Ben Brownell
    August 14, 2013 at 1:16 pm #

    Excellent starting points!

    I think there is a lot of power and benefit in an approach like this, especially when paired with the technology to make relevant data collection and analysis intuitive and efficient. I have begun working with a semantic graph tool called Metamaps for very similar purposes. Rather than beginning with individual plots and working towards meaningful convergence, I have been working with the emerging group identity itself, facilitating conversations around an exercise I call the “values canvas” where shared intentions are mapped out along the lines of what, how, and why narrative elements in prospective “success stories” for the entity. Then, individuals can distinguish and communicate their own levels of alignment around any of the acknowledged group values to maintain a relative sense of stakeholding and identification within the whole. Most importantly, these expressed values are over time corroborated with documentary evidence of embodied action by individuals and the larger organism, in order to uphold a sound level of integrity and mutual trust – the experiential component in your model above.

    Metamaps (http://metamaps.cc) is a wonderful tool for this sort of collaborative visualization and sense-making, with an increasingly powerful set of analysis and cross-referencing tools under the hood for pattern discovery and systems-view.
    I’m currently working with the developers to test and tailor some templates for exactly this sort of application of the technology – I’d be glad to walk you through a tour or trial of the interface some time if you’re curious! It’s currently in beta invite mode. Based on your diagramming above, I think you are already a proficient test user – at least in manual / analog fashion!

    I look forward to your further elaboration and trials of these ideas.

  3. Pamela McLean
    August 14, 2013 at 3:27 pm #

    Hi Ben

    I’d like to explore Metamaps with you with a view to beta testing. I appreciate your emphasis on “working with the emerging group identity itself, facilitating conversations”.

    Conversations and the patience to allow emergence are so important, and are so often overlooked and undervalued. I guess it’s partly because the added value is hard to show in a photo-opportunity or on a balance sheet.There is a chemistry in human relationships and communities that emerges slowly and can’t be captured in tick lists that try to match people/projects/whatever.

    Other words and phrases of yours that I’m picking up positively on include:
    shared intentions..what, how, and why narrative elements… distinguish and communicate their own levels of alignment… acknowledged group values..relative sense of stakeholding and identification within the whole… documentary evidence of embodied action… sound level of integrity and mutual trust…tool for.. collaborative visualization and sense-making… analysis and cross-referencing tools … pattern discovery and systems-view.

    All that you write at the start ties in with what I know from Dadamac, especially through its support of Fantsuam Foundation and helping FF to find, and/or work with, collaborators.

    What you are writing at the end about visualization, sense-making and pattern discovery connects with my hopes around the Landscape of Change and its community of explorers and pioneers (http://wikiquals.wordpress.com/sqolars/pamela-mclean/)

    How do we go forward?

  4. Aaron
    August 14, 2013 at 4:25 pm #

    Pamela, Dadamac sounds incredibly fascinating – right along the lines of the type of pattern that lead me to start fleshing out this model.

    I like how you frame it as the dance between theory and practice; what I’ve been feeling in working to strengthen different communities I work with is the need to have models for community design that are as robust as the ones I use for, say, creativity, strategy or decision-making. Making some assumptions and concepts explicit in a model, I’m hoping, will allow for an approach that is better than intuition.

    Ben, I’m intrigued by your addition of the data and visualization angle. While models aid in design, better analysis could close the feedback loop on the effects of that design, and could help identify the types of community emerging in order to allow you to adjust course…fascinating. We recently have done some experimentation into doing data mining to identify which connections in a community need to be made, which aren’t being made otherwise (my colleague Brandon Klein spearheaded that http://collaborationking.com/)

    I’m going to do some digging on the links that you’ve shared here and will write more…

  5. Dave Pollard
    August 19, 2013 at 8:22 am #

    Hi Aaron: Got pointed here by Ben Brownell’s G+ post. I’m an alumnus of the ASE myself (when it was part of E&Y), and a friend of Dave Snowden (social complexity guy at Cynefin).

    I’m now retired, and really intrigued about how your model might be applied by the Transition Network and other non-business groups dealing with preparation for economic, energy and ecological collapse (communities being seen as the key to resilience and increased self-sufficiency in the face of large-scale complex system crises).

    Also interested in its application to group process in the context of creating intentional communities, conflict resolution, improving facilitation processes, the Occupy movement and the emergence of the sharing economy (I’m one of the developers of the Group Process Pattern Language — groupworksdeck.org). And a student of graphic facilitation (Nancy White and Paul Culmsee).

    If any of this interests you drop me a line. I really appreciate your disciplined way of thinking about complexity, and your use of visualization.

  6. Pamela McLeanting online
    August 19, 2013 at 10:47 am #

    Hello and welcome Dave.
    Hello again Aaron and Ben,
    And hello to any other readers.

    Wow. My thoughts are spinning and dancing in the rich thinking space that I’m finding here. There are so many different potential levels of practicality and abstraction to come in on.

    Four of us here already – attracted by an interest that we have yet to define, but that we recognise. I’ve only skimmed the riches of the links given so far – just glimpsed the work you’ve all done, and as a result I’ve felt increasingly “at home” here.

    Aaron’s work is obviously an attractor for us.

    Pattern language seems to feature for us. I wonder how/if that shared interest will play out – if it will help us in developing strategies to share our experiences and to learn together.

    I’m looking again at Aaron’s list of of the stages of community formation. Seems to me it’s arguable that the four of us are moving further than simple interest down that list of the stages of an emergent community. I’d be interested to see Aaron analyse the development of this “micro-community of four” (and more potential “members” of course – maybe some already reading this and about to contribute – I hope so.)

    To me it’s all part of the continual dance between learning and doing. What if we apply the theory of community development to “this community”. We would be doing the dance of learning, and the dance of doing at the same time

    I’d learn a lot about Aaron’s model by participating in its application for “this community”. Would that be of interest to anyone else? I’m wondering if such an approach would have practical benefits for us all as an accelerator. By recognising ourselves as members of a community here, would it accelerate our ability to find shared interests and recognise areas where we would work more effectively together than apart? Would it also give us shared expectations/behaviours etc. to call on when “we” (two or more of us, plus “whoever”) do other things together in a collaborative (i.e. community) way?

    This is just an idea. I have no idea if it is an Interesting-Idea or a Good-Idea or a Bad-Idea. It is simply an offered idea.

    (Another idea note. My current idea of the difference between a network and a community is that people in a community have a level of familiarity that enables them to “look out for each others interests” in a way that makes it something more than “just a network”.)

    Personal note on community development within Dadamac. I am currently needing to move the Dadamac Community to a new level. Perhaps there is wisdom in this group to help me. I am currently acting in two conflicting roles. I’m a communication channel, but I’m also an attractor (of additional people, information, knowledge and ideas). I need to attract people who will help me to widen the channel, before I can “allow” the attraction of more people, information etc, that will clog the existing channel.

    Pressure on the channel is very strong at the points where different sections of the community need to connect, and/or where information needs to undergo a transformation (e.g from spoken to written form). The community is spread at many geographical locations. An oversimplification is that it is based in the UK (mainly London), online (where people participate from various parts of the globe), and at various locations in Africa (especially “Nigeria and nearby” and “Kenya and nearby”).

    Hmm – this thinking aloud is helpful for me. I need to put a brake on community development around ideas and knowledge creation for the time being. I need to concentrate on creating a community of “communication channel builders and wideners” before I can allow the other parts of my community to grow any further. (Sorry I don’t have time to write this more clearly). I need to think of the Dadamac community more clearly as interrelated mini-communities, and enable their growth more effectively and appropriately. (Maybe I even need to accept that some cannot be nurtured at present, and I must take decisions based on that acceptance.)

    Maybe if the community here grows (so there is a community of people who are interested in the theories of growing communities) I will find some people who will be interested in structures for information flows (but who are not already overloaded with information and people in communities of their own). Maybe I will find people who will help me to develop better communication channels for the Dadamac Community to use – so then I can grow the Dadamac Community without fear of it clogging itself up and choking to death.

    This is helpful to me. Sorry I don’t have time to express it better yet, but I will share it anyhow, and I can make it clearer if anyone wants to explore further.

  7. Dave Pollard
    August 21, 2013 at 7:43 am #

    I’ve done some more thinking about this excellent model, and decided to write my own elaboration/response to it on my own blog rather than trying to capture it all in a comments thread.

    It’s here; hope Aaron and readers find it useful: http://howtosavetheworld.ca/2013/08/21/a-model-of-identity-and-community/

  8. Pamela McLeanting online
    August 23, 2013 at 1:05 pm #

    Hi Dave and everyone.

    An update.

    I appreciate the additions and observations that Dave has made. I was tempted to respond by writing a comment under his blog, but I decided against that. I have come back to this space to express my appreciation of how he is developing the model, because to me this is “the main home” for the emerging micro-community of people interested in this topic.

    Although I’m commenting here and not directly at Dave’s blog I understand and agree with his decision to use his blog space as the first place to put his discussion and development of the idea, rather than trying to fit it in the comments. Maybe, if there is general appreciation of the changes he suggests then his enhanced diagram could come over here, for easy reference.

    Now a couple of notes on the development of this “micro community”.

    I have shared the ideas here with two other people, and today i have promised it to another developing community that I know. I don’t know if any of those contacts will come here to lurk and perhaps become active in the discussions.

    Ben and I had a Skype chat yesterday, exploring some shared interests and how we might help each other. Our discussion was triggered and helped by our initial shared interest in Aaron’s diagram and ideas.

    I mention both of those happenings in case we do develop into a “community big enough to have that label” – and we want to look back at how it started to form.

  9. Pamela McLeanting online
    August 23, 2013 at 10:32 pm #


    I’ve done my homework as agreed in our Skype chat – see Dadamac and me – Filling in the gaps for BenB – http://dadamac.net/blog/20130823/dadamac-and-me-filling-gaps-benb. It’s less structured than I would have liked, but at least it is in writing and available to you, instead of just in my head.

  10. Ben Brownell
    August 24, 2013 at 11:52 pm #

    I agree, there is some interesting resonance here amongst folks who’ve been confronting the challenges of community formation (and sustenance) from various standpoints and, well, experiences/interests/intentions/identities!

    Here is the Metamap I’ve started to fill out with Pam as an experimental modeling of this approach via that tool:


    Basically, I’ve parsed Pam’s blog entry (following our Skype convo) via an exploded and tweaked view of Aaron’s framework. I really appreciate this ‘holoptic’ view as a starting point for deeper inquiry! I find it much more accessible and inviting than three pages of text…(no offense, journalists!). If nothing else, it’s a great exercise in organizing one’s personal mind map for more linear presentations on particular topics.

    Above and beyond any model or tool is of course the cultivation of self-awareness and conscientious facilitation in any process of explication and match-making around partnership and community…but this sort of process / pattern convention and technical empowerment can certainly act as a scaffold and “serendipity engine” of (valuable!) sorts.

    I look forward to continued experimentation, and invite anyone interested in the Metamaps-enabled versioning of this approach to join the Google+ community here:


  11. Pamela McLean
    August 26, 2013 at 11:41 am #

    Hi Ben

    I’ve joined the the Google+ community:
    but I’m coming back here to comment.

    Thank you for doing the metamap. I’ve been exploring it (and I’m realising that my laptop – a MacBook Air with the smallest possible screen – isn’t the ideal way to look at it).

    First – I’m amazed at how much work you have done. Thank you. I’ve been clicking on different icons, and discovering the way the connecting lines get highlighted and extra words appear.

    I started to explore some of the choices on the white on black drop down menu – and have “lost” part of the map. Given that the first two choices (“hide labels” and “start real time”) were toggles I assumed that “hide selected” would be a toggle too – but the selection has vanished. I hope there is some way to easily return to previous version.

    Something else is confusing me. I had a previous look at the map, and it behaved differently. That time when I clicked on the icons everything swooped around the screen. The icon I’d clicked on came to the centre, and the connecting lines and icons re-arranged themselves around the centre.

    I must have set something differently somewhere along the way, but I don’t know what it was.

    I suggest that next time we bump into each other on Skype we
    explore the map further together, and see where we go from there.

    I’m intrigued by the analysis. I’m also looking forward to discovering how metamaps will work to help with quickly recognising how different people and/or different groups relate to each other.

    I appreciate the work that has been done to make this possible and I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes.

  12. Aaron
    August 26, 2013 at 5:40 pm #

    I’m overwhelmed by the depth and quality of all of your responses, and deeply heartened to see the thinking that others have been putting into this topic. Having been disconnected from the internet for a week, this thread is a happy thing to find after vacation 🙂

    First, I took some time to read Dave’s detailed response on his blog (http://howtosavetheworld.ca/2013/08/21/a-model-of-identity-and-community/) and it has me thinking…

    I’m intrigued by the concept of “capacities” that you propose as a part of the model; clearly in many communities – especially action-oriented ones – capacities are a driver both of how one can be involved and engaged, but also of the perceived value of that individual to the community.

    That said, I wonder (aloud) whether capacities are also emergent qualities, or if they are basic to the individual. Do they really exist, or are they perceived?

    The way that I was thinking of experience was based on another model I’ve been considering (but haven’t posted yet) which is not as we commonly define the word, but as a patterned set of expectations based on prior exposure. I believe aging and human development rests, to some degree, on a continuum between possibility and expectation, where the unexposed (babies) have no expectation and infinite possibility, whereas an adult has a more nuanced, limited field of possibility (“That’s impossible!”) and a more deeply patterned set of expectations based on previous exposure to the world.

    Experience, then, is in this light, in the model here. To some degree, capacities could be a part of that – a set of known outcomes from known behaviours and actions.

    Where I like the “capacities” addition, however, is that it allows for the “communities of practice”, which was an intended direction for the model. I’m going to take a second look and see how to balance the two.

    Which brings me to your “communities of interest, communities of practice, movement and tribe”…you’ve exactly captured where I wanted to go with this, and those are a nice encapsulation of the main archetypes of community formation.

    Your thoughts on the emotional/chemistry component are interesting, and uncover one of my deeper assumptions: the identity component of the person is based on my experiences studying/practicing zen buddhism, and thus reflect my belief that the self is a fabrication, along with the emotions and chemistry that goes with it. This is obviously a highly debatable point, and it is worth challenging whether it is a constructive assumption to have built into the model. My argument for it would be that emotional connection and chemistry might be more difficult to “design for” in a community, and in that the model is meant to help inform a pattern or container that wraps around a set of nascent connections, it might be more helpful to have a view of the self as being malleable, dynamic and emergent could be helpful. We are shaped by the people we come into contact with, and as we build our sense of community, we also build our sense of self. As a design element, I thought that could be more helpful, and the people who come into the container obviously come with what they have.

    I’m now going to take a look at the metamaps – Ben, it seems you’ve triggered a lot of thought here, so I’d like to dig deeper.

  13. Dave Pollard
    August 27, 2013 at 1:31 am #

    Thanks Aaron. I think our worldviews on the degree to which we can influence/design (aspects of) complex systems may differ, as do our hoped-for areas of application for this model. I tend to agree that the self is a fabrication, but that doesn’t make it any less ‘real’ as a factor to consider in appreciating the dynamics that make or break community.

    I’m going to talk with our Pattern Language group about the model and see whether/how it might inform both our understanding of the dynamics of group process, and the potential construction of a pattern language for community effectiveness.

  14. Bill Burck
    August 27, 2013 at 9:42 pm #

    Hi Aaron and Commenters,

    Here’s what the original post and comments have caused me to think about.

    I’ll begin by saying, well done! Because this is very interesting. I’m not enamored with either model yet. But that’s just me. I often start there, fighting a model until I eventually give in as I learn more. That was certainly my history with the Creative Process Model (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OFzXaFbxDcM#t=90), which Aaron and most likely Dave will be familiar with. I think I’m much less interested in the “self” model.

    And in the course of this post, I’ll probably talk myself into liking them. Anyway, perhaps the first model has some validity in terms of intentional community building. Perhaps.

    Here is one story about a community I was part of. As a 7-year-old kid growing up in Chicago, I lived across the street from a small city park. A couple kids a year or two older than me — Bill figel and Mark Branfeld — decided to try to organize a regular sandlot baseball game in the park. Over a couple of days, they approached us in twos and threes and said show up Monday or whatever it was at 10am, and we’ll play a game. They needed to get a critical mass of at least 10 of us to play. With 5 on a side, we could have two infielders, two outfielders, and a pitcher. It would be pitcher’s hand out instead of first base, someone from the batting team would catch, and right field would be out of play. Any ball hit to right field would be an out. That was the bare minimum.

    They explained all this at that first game and got us to commit to show up all week. We played, other friends heard about it and showed up, and we soon had a regular group that came and usually had plenty for nine players a side. On days when not enough showed up, we might play tennis, or organize a trip on our bikes.

    For the next eight years or so, the group continued to meet in the park just about every day in the summer and often during the school year with that basic orientation. As we tired of one sport, we would switch to another. Sports was the dominant activity, but we did plenty of other things too. When we hung out in the evenings after dark, we would just socialize or organize a poker game at somebody’s house.

    The group’s ground rules and values would shift with events. At one point, another group started showing up at the park to play softball on a field opposite ours. Our center field was roughly where their pitcher stood. Eventually, the biggest toughest kid in that group started pushing around a small center fielder and Bill Figel ran out, got the tough guy in a wrestling hold, and broke his arm when he wouldn’t agree to leave the center fielder alone.

    We all had to come to terms with that. Was Feegs a hero? An asshole? A little of both? A group consensus emerged that we were glad he’d done it (though few of us would actually give voice to that thought), because the other group stopped playing softball there. One or two kids left our group though as a result.

    There was probably a pool of 20 to 30 kids who showed up semi-regularly. A dozen or so of us who lived right around the park were there every day. Membership in the group shifted as families moved in or out of the neighborhood or kids found the group not a good fit for them. At some point, girls starting showing up and hanging out. The group also transitioned from being about playing sports to being about hanging out. When I would come home from college, there would be groups of 30 or 40 people clustered around the park bench we had hung out on as 8-year-olds. The police showed up regularly. Eventually, a squad car would be parked near the park a lot as the bench became a center of drug dealing.

    Eventually, it ended. I had moved away by then, so I didn’t see whether the end was abrupt or slow.

    I’ll try to ground my discussion of the models in this story.

    First of all, I’ll say I agree with Dave in that once you assemble a potential community, it will figure itself out. I certainly did not believe that I wanted to play baseball every day when I first showed up. I was unbelievably bad at baseball. However, I did want to make some friends, and they said being good didn;t matter. I also saw this as a new way to establish myself in the neighborhood. We had moved in a year before, and I was suffering through FNG (fucking new guy) syndrome with the few kids who tolerated my presence.

    Figel and Branfeld did set up the group’s intent up front. They also created the ground rules for how the games would be organized and played. They were the captains and chose teams. Some of these patterns survived as first Mark and then Bill moved on, but others changed even while they were around as we grew more assertive and confident. That only took a year or two. Leadership shifted over time but also in the moment.

    There were overt rules and there were unspoken rules. But the rules of a community need to be represented somehow. They often relate to values, but not always. And they are not bubbles in the molecular sense. They are forces. They can be broken. and sometimes the group will collectively just break them. In the way that mob mentality can emerge, the system will contrive itself in such a way as to snap all the normal conventions.

    Or a shift can occur such as when girls would hang out on our bench. The whole dynamic became different.

    And this is something to keep in mind. The habits/structures/behaviors of the group can be looked at and recognized. But they are nowhere near being constants. What occurs in the moment, the totality of all the forces and relationships–as Kurt Lewin would call it, the entire field present and active in that moment will drive what emerges on an individual level as well as a collective one.

    Another thing to think about is the nature of decision-making in the group. Is it autocratic? Originally, our group of kids was led by Figel and Branfeld, and what they said went. But gradually it became more democratic and their influence faded. If there were two ideas about what we should do on a certain day, we would talk about it a bit, the ones who felt most strongly would make their case, then the rest of us would cast our lot with one option and the ones who wanted the other option would either take off or go along.

    But think about the nature of decision-making and how would the model change if it was democratic vs. autocratic vs. laissez faire. Or maybe that wouldn’t matter.

    Intent/interest was important in our group only to the extent that it got us together. We might have left the day before saying we would play baseball at 10am. But once we were assembled, what emerged might be something else completely.

    Side Note: In my experience, the group that formed in Crescent Park is somewhat rare. As an adult, I’ve always wondered as I drive by parks in the summer why no one is playing on the sandlots. In some neighborhoods, gangs are a factor. But in quiet, affluent, residential neighborhoods, the ballfields were empty. I think it goes back to Figel and Branfeld, two kids who intentionally tried to start a regular sandlot group.

    Anyway, that’s a whole other discussion, though it does relate to this notion of how and why to form communities. When one does form and is oriented around something productive or creative, it can be quite powerful.

    I’ve been reading a biography of Kurt Lewin and am struck by the groups he formed around him first as a psychology student then instructor in Berlin and later as a professor in the United States. These groups would meet at least once a week, and often more frequently, just talk about psychology and how to conduct experiments in behavior, will, intent, aspiration, when nothing like it had been attempted before. There was always this healthy tension between socializing and discussing science, and they all seemed to be jazzed by it. That kind of face-to-face community is extremely rare. There are plenty of virtual communities with that kind of focus.

    OK, I’m starting to meander here. Probably best to end this by saying I look forward to the next iteration of the community model.

  15. Dave Pollard
    August 28, 2013 at 2:19 am #

    Thanks Bill. Wow — the power of story. Yours brought back memories of the childhood, teen and young adult ‘communities’ I self-selected into. Particularly interested in your comments on the value/need for ‘leaders’ or catalysts or organizers to make the community happen.

    My experience, which may be atypical, is that whenever some one (usually me) tried to deliberately create a community (organizing, inviting, cajoling, scheduling) it would go for a while but then fail, while whenever the collective shared interest, intent, capacities and/or identity was present in a critical mass of people (even as membership shifted), the community would continue even without a leader or organizer. The additional proviso for community establishment and continuance (related to something I have called Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour) is that either the members must also have a shared sense of urgency around what they’re doing, or else the shared activities must be easy and/or fun to do.

  16. Aaron
    August 28, 2013 at 4:02 am #

    Hey Bill – what a grounding story to test the model…thank you.

    I think you touch on an important note, and that is the shifting nature of community – what it means to the individuals involved, and how the dynamics of it play over time. The idea of a group and its nature is a mental construction of those inside and outside of the group; just as we are actively defining ourselves, we are defining others around us and the communities we form. This becomes a series of interconnected feedbacks. This is why I imagined identity as being a Tx/Rx balance. The interesting test of this is what you mentioned about pivotal moments, such as when Figel broke the other kid’s arm; with a large gap between expectation and reality around the nature of the community, and where there own identities fit into it, the kids in your group had to either reconcile the difference, or were jarred from their sense of synchronicity with the community. Mobs and cults are interesting extremes here of the extent of a rapid or progressive reconciliation.

    Choice and attraction play a role, as well. For many of us, we are faced with an Omnivore’s Dilemma of community options; we have so many possibilities, that true engagement and involvement is difficult or fleeting. In the case of Crescent Park, I am guessing that many of the members had limited choice in terms of groups and areas in which to engage, narrowing the scope of possible involvement, hence its stability. You all had overlaps in interest/interests, similar or compatible initial capacities (I’m warming up to that as one of the primary nodes) and over time, evolving intent based on a shared group identity; but with time wearing on, age, geography and evolving interest pulled you all away.

  17. Aaron
    August 28, 2013 at 4:07 am #

    One of my initial thoughts on this model was that it was a “molecular” model, made up of elements in orbit and dynamic flow. What brings some people together in the community, and not others? It brings to mind the concept of strange attractors – patterns of movement as some elements are drawn together in novel and unexpected (beautiful) ways; could some of the analytic methods that Ben has talked about identify the strange attractors? Map them?

  18. Bill Burck
    August 28, 2013 at 1:42 pm #

    Hi Aaron,

    Another model would be planetary. You have a core solar system. No, there was no sun in our group, so it begins to break down. But then, in some groups there is a sun, such as Kurt Lewin’s circles. Still, where I was going is that comets who would pass through our group on occasion. There will also core members whose orbits were further away and less evident. This had a lot to do with geography. Those of us who lived closest to the epicenter of the community found it a very strong option. But this was a neighborhood in a major city. There are always options. Those who lived a few blocks away could be pulled in different directions.

    There was also a notion of allegiance. My best friend was more of a comet in this group and in many ways looked down on. (Funny side note: he ended up having a small scale career in Hollywood as a writer and director!) So while I usually showed up to play the sports, I would often choose to spend other time with my friend.

    But when it comes down to it, I think one of the most fundamental elements in community formation is storytelling. It is very likely the most fundamental element in defining self. At least there is a school of thought in neuropsychology that proposes that—we are the stories we tell ourselves…in a running internal monologue? Dialogue? I guess it would be monologue. Anyway, when that internal voice is turned off by a stroke or injury one’s experience of self is dramatically different.

    And I would propose that the stories members of a community define its self. They are full of hidden signals and subtexts by the way they are told, the subtleties of voice and point of view the storyteller makes in the act of storytelling are rich with identity cues. And the response they induce is also important. The assumptions built into that telling act, such as “I’m expecting you to laugh here,” or “I’m expecting you to sympathize with the poor kid in center field,” expect certain responses. They may not always get them, but they tend to be reinforcing.

    So the stories the group tells help to define its identity within the group. What the group does and how it behaves while doing those things and the stories people outside the group tell themselves and each other about those things and that behavior are what define it from the outside.

    Actually, I guess there is another thing that defines the group’s outside identity—the stories members of the group tell to those outside of it.

    Anyway, I haven’t talked about the model that much. But I’m just wondering how these types of complexities would be worked through it.

  19. Dave Pollard
    August 28, 2013 at 1:48 pm #

    At first I thought stories were part of our ‘identity’, but I wonder if stories are instead the means by which we recognize common interests, intents, capacities and identities. They are the glue, the language, or perhaps the ‘gravity’ that holds the community together around these commonalities.

  20. Ben Brownell
    August 28, 2013 at 4:00 pm #

    Nicely added perspective above!

    I see patterns of related insight and understanding within the subject at hand, somewhat muddied by the ways we interpret various labels placed upon those patterns and their relationships. A good enough reason to keep returning to visual concept maps, and applied instances? I want to reflect from what I’m hearing, through some of my own lens/labels:

    Community is based around a sense of “common unity” or participation in a greater social whole, with aspects of shared personal connection, or overlapping ‘identity’ based on common experience, interests, aims, beliefs.

    In order to better visualize, monitor, design and iterate this general sense of stable social unity, we may create and connect individual diagrams along those basic dimensions, into an emerging map of the “commons” amongst a group.

    In creating individual maps, we must consider the variation in understanding and practice around many abstract conceptual terms and subjective statements. This process is greatly enhanced by distinguishing amongst *projection* (interests, intentions) and *validation* (identity, experience – aka _stories_), and then attempting to draw links from those concrete, documented records forward towards more tangible goals in line with projected interests/intentions…something like a ‘roadmap’ for personal and collective development.

    I would add that another important reference point to maintain is a map of ‘capital’ or personal, shared, stewarded assets and capacities. I think that will help to ground ‘intentions’ like experiences does for ‘identity’.

    Basically, there are many ways to map aspects of what we each may bring to an interoperative space of community. Those maps can help to serve as a literal, living constitution of the social entity/organism.

    To make this all more accessible, comprehensible, and interoperable, I’m very interested in assembling a common vocabulary (actually, a visual iconography, to step away from cultural baggage/bias of spoken languages) to signify some universal principles (archetypes, patterns) of the story content we use to define and describe the items of common value that might show up on maps such as these.

    To me, yes it does all come down to a basic narrative form of cognition, where we can speak about who-what-when-where-why-how of a particular outcome (intended or actualized) through a range of formats to which some basic intuitive metadata structures may be applied and cross-referenced.

    …all in the interest of enhancing that emergent magic in the gluey midst of community: a rising liquidity of gift via shared identity, growing wealth, and common vision!

  21. Bill Burck
    August 28, 2013 at 10:37 pm #


    If you get the chance, listen to this episode of Radiolab:


    The stories on this one are compelling and point toward some of what I was getting at. One of the people mentioned, Paul Broks (can’t remember if he’s actually on this episode or not), is a neuropsychologist who has written a book called Into the Silent Land, which I have read parts of. He is one of the proponents of this theory that we are the stories we tell ourselves. By all means, listen to the story in this episode about the woman who had a stroke and felt the auditory portion of her mind fade in and out, and the radically different experiences she had during this episode. Really thought provoking.

    This, of course, is all oriented toward individual identity. But if they apply to the individual, I would expect them to resonate with community identity.

  22. Bill Burck
    August 28, 2013 at 10:41 pm #

    Another episode of Radiolab I listened to when I first got interested in this topic can be found here. It’s called the Story of Me:


    My apologies for taking this discussion away from the model…

  23. Dave Pollard
    August 28, 2013 at 11:02 pm #

    Thanks for the links. Another great book about stories is Thomas King’s The Truth About Stories: http://howtosavetheworld.ca/2006/11/05/the-power-and-weakness-of-stories/

    If we’re right that stories are the vehicle that enable community by letting is recognizing common identity, interests etc. then they are essential to the model.

  24. Aaron
    August 29, 2013 at 2:21 pm #

    Clifford Geertz, an anthropologist, defined culture as “the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves”.

    This thread has made me think there is a layer missing in the model, which is about the “how”. While the focus in the model is on the types of connection, for the purposes of it being a design model, might it be useful to consider the types of interactions which fuel these connections?

  25. Dan Newman
    August 29, 2013 at 3:11 pm #

    Super post and comments!
    i think that the challenge of Aaron’s model is he degree to which it is descriptive and the degree to which it could be functional. The ‘story’ theme you guys have been developing might provide the functional angle. Which is to say, “Can we use Aaron’s model not just to recognize and dissect a community, but also to help build one?”

    One approach to using the model to building a community (which I think is Aaron’s need) I would work along each of your axes and get the group (not yet a community) to develop the stories that they would like to hear about the community at an agreed point in the future. The stories need to have as low a level of correlation between them as possible so that a shared experience or the use of a shared tool or the growth of a myth (Bill Figel) or any other community-creating event would affect one of the stories and not the others. (Consequently, Intent and Interest might be too highly correlated to be useful.)

    Once these stories are created and shared, the community formation path would, among other things, consist of identifying the preconditions to make the stories come true, and then investing in those preconditions.

  26. Ben Brownell
    August 30, 2013 at 4:20 am #

    Aaron I think the “how” component of this sort of story-mapping is an aspect of either intention or experience. Certainly, it is more credible when founded in experience!

    Dan, my sense about getting a prospective group to agree (and follow through) on some vision of future status, is skeptical. It sounds like a strategic, rational approach, which honestly I think does not often match the realities of community formation. Rather than citing particular stories, I much prefer to work with the patterns abstracted from a set of resonant story content.

    The combination of explicit values canvas, roadmap, asset base, and portfolio, for individuals and the collective, seems to cover the essential points, in my eye. These are close, and translatable, to Aarons I-I-I-E format I think.

    Above any such explicit structuring, is the basic languaging, and its implicit grammatical meaning. Some of my work towards a shared ontology or “pattern vocabulary” of this sort of documentary story data is at:


    I think there’s a huge amount of creative/connective/concurrent power to unleash through new semantic web tech via some basic conventions around pattern language and story frameworks in this domain – which is what I’ve been salivating over for some years now at browsearth.org and more recently in conjunction with Metamaps as an apt experimental implementation.

  27. Taras Plakhtiy
    September 3, 2013 at 8:37 am #

    Conditions of Choosing Cooperation Strategies, Rather than Confrontation Strategies, By Organized Elite Groups in the Process of Their Competitive Interaction

  28. Jacki Saorsail
    September 4, 2013 at 5:18 pm #

    Thanks for pointing me to this Ben. I read through this conversation and here are my thoughts.

    This model brings up an interesting question. What are our communities formed around? Some are formed around shared interests(knitting club), others shared intent(organization), shared experiences(college buddies), and still others shared identity(church). One use of this model is to identify this dynamic and prescribe different approaches for different kinds of groups.

    It could also be useful to a group for identifying and repairing rifts. Is the disagreement resulting from a difference in identity, intent, experience, or interest? Once people can identify the source of a conflict, it is often easier to come up with solutions.

    When forming a group, models are only useful if applied intentionally, so, the kinds of models we are talking about are most useful for intentional communities or organizations, not loose associations like the sand lot group described by Bill. Models can still be applied to loose associations, but only as an afterthought, as Bill demonstrated in his post.

    Ben’s values model is great for identifying the nature of a group, the who, what, when, where, why, and loosely how. Now, if the group is a knitting circle or a church, you may stop there. I am more interested in communities of shared purpose(organizations), and so I developed a model that goes one step further, to design, in a dynamic way, exactly how the group will function.

    I created a model based on shared intentions, which I also mapped in metamaps. This would apply to a group who shares the values of sustainability, earth care, people care, etc. but also values creating wealth(not just individual and monetary, but shared and diverse) and being effective at getting things done.

    The core of it is here http://www.metamaps.cc/maps/378 but you have to explore the map using the radial view to see everything I have mapped off of it. Click on the words under one of the icons, then click on the arrow in the top right corner of the text box. As Pamela stumbled on, you can click on the icons to put them at the center of the map and search through everything they are connected to. I also wrote a short paper about it here http://portfolios.gaiauniversity.org/view/view.php?t=VJhGBRraIOmbpkQXENfw.

  29. Daniel F. Bassill, D.H.L.
    September 4, 2013 at 7:20 pm #

    It’s great to see the ideas shared in this discussion. I’ve been trying to put these ideas into practical application for about 20 years, building a community of people working to help volunteer-based youth tutoring/mentoring programs available in high poverty neighborhoods of Chicago.

    This PDF describes the “community of practice” goal http://tinyurl.com/TMINetwork-Shared-Purpose

    This describes visualization tools that can be used in building and understanding such a community. http://tinyurl.com/TMI-visualize-ideas

    This map shows a range of knowledge and organizations that might be connected in a virtual community where everyone has some shared interest in what happens in high poverty geography. http://tinyurl.com/TMI-libraryFull

    I have followed Dave, George Siemmens, the Webheads group and others who focus on connectivity for many years and look forward to finding places where people are mapping the growth of networks and using the network maps as tools people can use to find others who they might connect with within such a large network.

  30. Ben Brownell
    September 5, 2013 at 1:38 am #

    Jacki, thanks for your input! You add great perspective to this puzzle, and its potential applications.

    I still think a lot of what we are grappling with is the range of interpretation to the various labels that being put forward here, when in fact our means and ends land in close proximity…?

    I’m continuing to think this through and map it out from a couple of angles, to try and get at very basic yet configurable ‘theory’ in graph form. Aaron, I’m sure you’ve put a lot more into this model and its applications than we’ve seen here so far, which I look forward to in due course. Meanwhile, some parallel processing based on this unfolding conversation:

    My initial question is, what is the value proposition for this exercise? I can see four primary outcomes so far:

    1. establishing a sort of living constitution or reflection of what a given community represents at the intersection of its members’ motives and stories, both for internal reference and external comprehension

    2. designing for effective community formulation–actively shaping the activities and modalities of participants in a new or evolving social organism, in a mission-driven manner

    3. peer matching system, where things like wants/offers, capacities/roles, currency/ontology federation, can efficiently surface opportunities for collaboration and exchange

    4. network analysis and collective intelligence within a common knowledge system that spans many interrelated communities

    So, I’m looking for some basic conventions, dimensions, and semantics that could suit all of the above, and even morph between them from a common data set. I’ll try and lay this out a little further soon, perhaps in a separate blog post with of course a couple of maps!

  31. Pamela McLean
    September 5, 2013 at 1:46 pm #

    Hi all – especially Ben and Dan

    I’ve been away for a while – just reading the most recent couple of posts – ie Ben’s and Dan’s.

    I like Ben’s four outcomes.

    Also glad to see Dan here. I used to read something where he often posted (probably to do with social entrepreneurship) so I’m pleased to have reconnected with his work.

    I’m so pleased to see this mix of people doing practical community work and theory and analysis and related software development all combining in this emergent community.

  32. Helene
    September 9, 2013 at 10:53 am #

    Dear friends, I’m coming late to this post, but hey, that’s the conversation I’ve been looking for for the past few years! So my thoughts are spinning and dancing as well. Pamella, Ben and Daniel, we have already exchanged a few posts on these topics. And Dave I have been reading your blog with interest. I will look at the work of others who commented here with interest.

    Bringing together a community to share perspectives and tweak tools around these transformative goals make a lot of sense.

    Aaron, your model is quite advanced and very useful for alignment or at least understanding of differences along several critical dimensions that make up decision to action. I’m particularly interested myself in what shapes agency, the dynamics of transformative action and the ecology that can foster them. And I’m trying to find models and application methodologies to link theory with practice.

    I would need to do some more reading of the posts that came later and thinking around the model and how Dave enriched it to make relevant comments.

    Now I would like to present what I am doing to see what thoughts it can generate to pursue this conversation.

    I am currently concentrating my work around how various efforts to make the world a better place can coalesce, and looking at what types of visions, logics, principles could help the process. I have been focusing lately on a possibke candidate: the logic of the commons that links objects of attention with the concrete practices of this attention and the outcomes thereof. I gave a talk in a conference in Paris last week on ‘federating efforts towards a thrivable future’ that illustrates the various perspectives from which various types of communities ‘act’ around the commons (or on making the world a better place). And my intention right now is to try and find in more details how these communities express and enact the commons underlying logic in their own logic. Here is the link to the presentation: http://www.slideshare.net/helenefinidori/imagine-thecommongoodconf2013.

    I’m contributing right now to build together a network of people around the idea of commons and abundance to learn from each other and devise how the different movements or communities of practices on the field can build the scaffold from which a new paradigm can emerge. We are at the premises there with a knowledge sharing base and collaborative spaces and tools to work across communities: http://commonsabundance.net/

    So Aaron, your model is very relevant to both perspectives we are taking: one is internal, getting communities of stakeholders involved in managing/caring for a commons to function better within, and the other is external, getting the various communities to deal with conflicting perspectives and interests and cross pollinate on their areas of overlap to increase possibilities of outcome and impact and to enrich the emergence of the new paradigm. So I would welcome the opportunity to look at how this model can be put into practice and test it, on the CAN, or via other initiatives we may have to help synergize the actions of change makers. So I will be looking further into this conversation and your work.

    In this context, I believe dynamic visualization is key. For example, seeing change in the making to serve as feedback loop as I described long ago in this post: http://menemania.typepad.com/helene_finidori/2011/05/shared-intent-and-purpose-for-action.html.

    More recently I wrote these two ‘briefs’ on Github:

    > Holoptic borderspace visualization (this may be a bit theoretical and out there, but what Ben is trying to develop goes in this direction): https://github.com/HeleneFi/Holoptic-Borderspace-Visualization

    > Exploration of the adjacent possible (some commonality with your wikiqual Pamela?): https://github.com/HeleneFi/linked-data-exploration-graph. This maps both identified possibles and what emerges in between to see evolution of theory and practice in the making.

    I will leave it to there now but will look further into the other posts, and make further comments.

    Thank you!

  33. Gail Taylor
    April 29, 2014 at 4:32 pm #

    Aaron, this is a great model and reveals the rightness in the idea of some indigenous american tribes who had no word for knowledge… They were always coming to knowing. And so it is with all life. Often at the end of Matt’s and my design events we ask participants to look around them and meet a new friend. The time between the start of an event and the end is timeless, ever changing.

    One CEO told me several months after an event that every time he met with his board or executive team, he reminded everyone to support everyone’s becoming-ness so as to not see them as they were, but who they are becoming. The company soared in its ability to affect and impact their future. They supported each other’s moments for inbetween-ness… Giving space is essential.


  1. Thresholds in community formation | shift and share - April 28, 2014

    […] In designing both educational and community processes, I am curious in how deeply the sense of self needs to be challenged in order to induce a liminal state of “becoming” in order to forge a more connected self, and how that depth affects the durability of the community or sense of identity for the learner what they come out the other side. Part of this question is exploring the role of ritual, and of course, it all relates back to the role of identity formation I began to explore here. […]

  2. Beyond Analysis – Designing Communities and Networks | shift and share - October 20, 2015

    […] – a model for the role of the individual in the process of community formation, as I’ve outlined here, connects the whole with the individual, which is important for the last […]

  3. Would You Consider Vacationing in India? – Travel & Tourism - September 2, 2016

    […] exotic new cuisine is a reason that you may want to take that Indian tour. The Indian community enjoys a wide variety of foods like Biryani, Dal makhani, Kebabs, Ladoos and more. You most likely […]

Leave a Reply