T he past few decades have seen a drastic increase in wealth and technology. This combination has transformed our societies and ourselves. A media and marketing mix of renaissance-inspired individualism and corporate-pushed consumerism has created a culture – particularly in the West – that values the freedom and expression of the individual above all.
For some, this has led to a flourishing of creativity and fulfillment as individuals to choose our own destinies and attain our best selves, with increased freedom from cultural traditions, dogmas and stigmatisation of one group or another. But for many others, this development has led to disorientation and confusion, a loss of meaning and vitality. Many are left perplexed, challenged to navigate successfully such rapid change.
In the past, your community was typically determined by the geographic location you were born in and who your family was. You inherited their name, cultural practices and religious beliefs. Your neighbours, your family, the people who you went to school with and those who you worked with would be the grand sum of your community. Who you were was a conflation of these elements, and for the most part, everybody was quite similar. Not so much any more.
What has emerged, much to our amazement, is an amazing diversity of digital communities and the sudden blossoming of possibilities for connection beyond localities, beyond family, beyond educational institution, religious affiliation, or work-related groups.
The need to define ourselves as individuals doesn’t appear to be the antithesis of communities. In fact, in the modern day, our individual identities drives us to seek out the people most like us, assisted by the smart device in our hands and the internet that connects us in the cloud. In a newly globalized and multicultural world, the free flow of ideas and people mean the boundaries of traditional communities are dissolving.
People now have more choice over who they can be. They can choose from a diverse range of cultural units and interests to define who they are. Through living with, working with, and marrying each other, different communities which were once distinct are beginning to converge, not always in the so-called melting pot but as a kind of collage or mosaic where individual identities are not dissolved but recognized.
The key difference now is that communities are built around individualism and choice, as opposed to lineage and proximity. Through the internet and social media, it is now possible to find your people – no matter where they are in the world and regardless of how arcane your interest is. People now can choose their tribe. And it doesn’t have to be just one.
But it seems that we can’t run away from the fact that we are social animals. Although some have found happiness in pursuing their individual goals and defining themselves on their own terms, others still aren’t fulfilled. Many are actively seeking new communities and social structures to strengthen their sense of purpose, identity and belonging.
As technology unfolds, the human story evolves. But there are some factors that seem to remain constant. One is our need to be with others and to cooperate with them. To understand the epic point at which we find ourselves now, we need to take a brief detour, a rapid journey to the distant past.
When you look at this development of individualism from through the lens of our long history as a species, it makes perfect sense. The majority of our story involves roving bands of humans, ranging in size from 10-150, working together towards a common goal: survival. Across the globe, the repeating pattern is tribal and communal. Individualism took long to develop as it was difficult to survive on our own. Humans aren’t the most physically robust animal, so we must rely primarily on group coordination and our brains. Add to this the fact of longer child-rearing and we see that our entire cultural and biological infrastructure is built on being part of something bigger than ourselves.
The nation-state or kingdom represents the idea of community at scale. This unified body of people gave their citizens or subjects a common identity and purpose – a set of values, a designated homeland and cultural myths that needed to be preserved.
Within states, there also existed influential communities which played significant roles throughout history. Take the role of religious orders such as the Knights Templar, which played a key role in The Crusades, or the Society of Jesus, which gave birth to the Jesuits. These communities exerted substantial influence on both the masses and nobles alike, and provided early frameworks of how influential individuals and groups could come together to drive cultural and political change.
In the economic realm, some of the first entrepreneurial communities began to form in cities such as Lisbon, Venice and Amsterdam – where financiers, explorers and freelancers began to congregate to venture out into the new world. Although these groups often competed with each other, the competition within these groups to stake a name for themselves provided a key driver for rapid expansion across the world. These economic communities demonstrated the vast potential of uniting skills, capital and vision.
Perhaps the best historic example of why community matters comes from the scientific community, with this name highlighting the enduring importance of the communal concept. With the vast amount of knowledge in the world, it would be impossible for scientists to work productively alone.The work of science is the product of a global community which collaborates, disseminates, and builds upon each other’s work. Although scientists may work on different fields, and in different countries, they have a common method, values and curiosity about the world. This unites scientists and allows science to function. The necessity for each theory to be rigorously tested by peers ensures that science will always be a social endeavour.
So even a cursory overview of history shows the impact that communities have made. From the formation of families, clans, tribes, then fiefdoms, to kingdoms and then nation-states which allowed greater distribution of labor and economics of scale, to the rapid knowledge acquisition of the collaborative sciences, we have relied heavily on community to give life meaning and structure. We have depended on it for our survival, for industrial progress and for our cultural development and entertainment. But in our modern culture (some would say cult) of individualism, infinite access and abundance, does community still have the same relevance as they once did? We will show that, in the age of multiversity, the need is greater than ever.
In the business world, networks that provided access to capital or industry connections have always been a key driver of deal flow. Guilds and unions are just the most obvious of business groups. Chambers of commerce and secretive fraternal orders used social and commercial connections to get business done. The modern day is built on this trend – there are numerous opportunities to connect with people through global industry conferences and professional networking websites such as LinkedIn. The value of business communities is recognized broadly and they are organized wherever possible – from educational alumni groups to internal organizational groups which may provide support for employees.
Digital communities are also changing how projects are financed and how creative work is distributed to the market. Platforms such as Kickstarter and Blockchain technology are disintermediating the power brokers of capital, allowing entrepreneurs to launch projects by building massive communities crowding around an idea or product. For creative types, websites such as Soundcloud, Wattpad and Instagram are giving artists and authors a chance to go directly to their natural audience and build a profitable community around their work. People are no longer reliant on middlemen or gatekeepers. They can go directly to the consumer.
The idea and structure of a community has been of importance throughout history, and still remains so to this day. We know that we have a biological and historic basis in forming communities, but what is it that makes them so important for us? There are a few factors to note.
There is a reason why solitary confinement is seen as one of the harshest forms of punishment in the prison system. Prolonged isolation can torture the mind – we simply aren’t built to be alone for too long. At the most basic level, communities give us a group of humans with whom we can interact in a safe way. This allows us to get our social fix and reminds our brain that we are still accepted and part of the larger group. Without this touch, individuals can develop a sense of loneliness which can impact their happiness and even physical health. This is something that can affect all people and manifest itself in different ways – from the introverted child at school to the business executive “lonely at the top.”
It’s important to note here that being part of a community doesn’t necessarily have to be physical. The sense of connection and belonging can be spiritual, social, and emotional through the internet. Think of how many different sub-cultures and groups have emerged and are now connected through community websites such as Reddit. Through voice, video and now VR, most of the benefits associated with in-person interaction is now possible through the internet. In short, you can feel part of a real community without leaving your house.
Communities also serve as cultural frameworks for individuals to affirm an existing sense of identity or to gain a new one. Who we are is not only a matter of how we think, but also the signals we receive from the world around us – in particular the groups in which we invest value. Being surrounded by a group who holds similar opinions and lives a similar lifestyle helps to reinforce one’s worldview. But we also have the means to foster diversity and exposure to different perspectives.
We are increasingly recognizing the amazing capabilities of the human brain. But as remarkable as it is, the brain has many flaws. As individuals, we have many biases in our thinking which can cloud judgement. We each only have 24 hours in a day to work, play and learn, to support the basic needs of ourselves and our families. Maybe even sleep. None of us has the capacity to learn everything, even about a niche topic. There are always different ways to interpret information and more sources to seek out and assimilate. And there are so many new ways for this knowledge to be disseminated.
For the factors listed above, this is where communities can play a crucial role. The nature of an idea is that it is malleable like a sculpture. It is comprised of different bits of information and data which is structured in a unique way to give it a form. But the form that an individual comes up with may not be the best or final form. It takes a group of people who see things from diverse perspectives to mold and improve our ideas, to take and work in progress and mold it into a masterpiece. This has been a long tradition of science, with our understanding of the world constantly being challenged and updated. It is a pursuit of mastery.
It has been proven that people benefit from a peer group that can critique their work or simply help them with decision making. Take, for instance, an app developer who is part of an app development community which meets regularly to exchange ideas. In cases like this, people can benefit from learning about other people’s experiences and working together to figure out best practices. A rising tide raises all ships. There is a lot of value in discussing something with other people. Not everything can be best learned from a book or captured in internet search results.
Although there are exceptional individuals in the world, most challenges can’t be solved by one person. Communities allow for problem-solving on a mass scale that dwarfs the impact of a lone genius. These can bubble up from the grass roots, like the social and political movements of Brexit in the UK, the Tea Party (itself inspired by the revolutionary acts of subject rebelling against taxation without representation)or Justice Democrats in the US. Or from the top down, it can be in the form of influential leaders coming together to leverage their power structures as seen with the United Nations, Gxx Summits, Davos and the Bilderberg Group.
In some cases, social movements, business, government and powerful political communities all converge to tackle the biggest challenges. Climate change may be the best example of this. We see a diverse range of social movements such as environmentalists and progressives coming together with entrepreneurs and political leaders to educate society and enact change. There is not a single leader here. Instead there is a coalition of people – a multiversity – who are united by the cause and share at least a temporary sense of community in pursuit of their aims.
As everybody is trying to figure out their way in life, we all have our own challenges to overcome. We run into roadblocks, undergo personal crises and may even feel lost at certain points in our life. Being part of a community of like-minded people acts as an important remedy to solve the problems we face. It is not simply about receiving good advice, or hearing how peers rose to address their challenges. It’s also about simply knowing that there are people out there that you can rely on and turn to on a regular basis. The feeling of having a social safety net is reassuring and empowering. If you find yourself in a tough spot, you know someone may provide you with an introduction or throw you a lifeline to help you get back on your feet.
Perhaps paradoxically, there is also a human need for emotional vulnerability. This may be found in a specific community designed especially for support. The most familiar examples of this may be groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, which bring people together to help them stay sober. But the same process works outside the realm of addiction and self-help. The act of being vulnerable and hearing others be vulnerable creates stronger emotional bonds among the group. With a shared set of values, these individuals have a community to whom they are emotionally and morally accountable to solve problems and advance in their life or business journeys..
In the next section, we will take a deeper look at the various emerging communities for business and social entrepreneurs, influencers and their tribes, and a new breed of leaders far more diverse than ever before. We will assess some of the available leadership structures and consider the case for joining, participating in, and even forming communities focused around your own interests, associations, and motivations. All of this may help us to grasp the revolutionary potential in a new model of leadership and participation that is rapidly coalescing in the digital age. Never before have new perspectives for community and social learning been more needed than they are in the emerging multiverse.
Stefan Beiten is a lawyer, international entrepreneur and investor from Berlin. With more than 20 years of experience, Stefan is an expert in building, scaling and managing successful businesses.