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I grew up in Austin, Tx on a 1-block street called Laurel Lane, a tight community that embraced equally hippies,
bankers, a transvestite math professor and Laura Bush’s best friend. Our dinner table was elastic, every
Cowboys game a neighborhood party, and I could go to any house at any time.
My mom got a job at Princeton when I was 11 and we moved. 25 years later she still regularly dreams of Laurel
Lane. My brother moved back for a while, and childhood friends live there still, but I never recaptured that
feeling as an adult until I joined a softball team.
A friend invited me because the team was short on females. I hadn’t played in 20 years but gave it a try since I like
watching baseball. Turns out I’m slightly afraid of the ball but the camaraderie of the games and hanging out after were
so fun I kept playing, just not very well.
7 years later the team has gradually grown to become both our social center and a major support structure:
camping trips, tailgates, bocce tournaments and bar crawls blending into assistance finding jobs, apartments,
spouses or dealing with death or divorce.
“A sense of belonging appears to be a basic
human need – as basic as food and shelter. In
fact, social support may be one of the critical
elements distinguishing those who remain
healthy from those who become ill.”
Dr. Kenneth Pelletier
Stanford Center for Research and Disease Prevention
Group friendships grant us a sense of belonging, of connection, of acceptance, that is the ultimate antidote for
loneliness, much more so than individual friendships even when those have a significantly higher level of intimacy.
Communities have traditionally formed through some combination of physical proximity, ethnicity, and religious
identity but increasingly form across long distances around games, hobbies, online pictures, and anything else
that remotely connects us.
Frequent, regular contact is crucial to meaningful community formation: daily or weekly most of the time. People
you see once a month will feel tangential to your existence but if they are there every day you’ll probably learn
their name, just like on Cheers.
The interactions also need to be convenient: when people need to organize to make something happen it’s likely
to stop happening fairly quickly. An event that always happens the same time & day, whether a church service or
a softball game, is much easier to fit into your life.
How many of you have joined book clubs that failed? I’ve been in at least three with common themes: monthly
was too irregular to plan around, people wouldn’t show if they hadn’t read the book, the original host would get
busy and no one else would step up.
But it can’t always be easy: individuals need to feel that their presence, their contribution is important. While too
much pressure can become overwhelming, nothing reinforces a person’s sense of value and place in a community
than feeling needed.
It also needs to be connective across participants. While people talk about communities around tv shows,
musicians, etc. if the communication is fundamentally back-and-forth between the celebrity and individual fans
it’s an engaged audience, not a community.
Goals, especially goals that require co-operation to achieve fill a double role of connecting individuals and
making them feel needed – it’s almost like instant jello powder for community. Team sports and MMO guilds
particularly shine in this regard.
But for a community to have depth it needs to expand beyond communication around mutual goals and interests.
In-jokes and banter get you pretty far but ultimately people need to talk about their lives to really get to know
each other and connect.
Expanding beyond the initial limits of the community is most difficult in an online setting, especially where
communication is asynchronous or limited and identities are anonymous. What’s the equivalent of the post-game
pizza & beer that turned my softball team into much more?
The more forms of communication you provide, the better. The more they are group and synchronous the closer
the feeling will come to hanging out. And they should never disappear when a match is over – where else will the
requisite trash-talking occur?
It’s also important to allow for different levels of engagement and effort. Churches handle this well, allowing for
the most active to join weekly events like prayer meetings and bible studies that supplement Sunday services as
well additional volunteer opportunities on other days
This also allows for leadership to emerge. For a community to thrive it generally needs some organization and if it
relies on just one person it’s ultimately fragile. My softball team went under for a year when the manager moved, but
restarted with first 2 and now 6 of us organizing.
Which begs the question: what size is right? To sustain I’d say they generally need 2-5 stalwarts/organizers, and
at least 10 members to start feeling like something larger than friendship. If joining is easy then sizes can
balloon to hundreds, even thousands
But even before you hit Dunbar’s # at 150 any real feeling of intimacy and deeper belonging is lost unless
subgroups emerge or are organized. Normal class sizes of 18-30 are probably the goldilocks answer: my softball
team has roughly 20 people.
When all these factors together they can make magic. If any of you doubt the power of community for games: 8
months a year I spend my Friday nights playing a game I’m both mediocre at and lukewarm about because I’m
deeply attached to the community that comes with it.