I’m currently on vacation at a fitness and health camp known as Fitness Ridge, in St. George in Southern Utah. It’s about 2 hours outside of Las Vegas, nestled between Zion and Bryce National Parks, a truly spectacular area.
I’m at Fitness Ridge with my wife, for a week’s extended workout consisting of a 6 to 8-mile hike every morning, followed by 6 hours in the gym and the pool every day, and all on 1200 calories per day (yes, it is possible!) Check it out if you’re interested at www.fitnessridge.com
So what does this have to do with community? Well, there are 70 people here bound together for at least a week, (some are staying several weeks), exercising and eating together with no possibility for escape from the compound. So, reaching back into my sociology degree days of many moons ago, I thought that I would don the anthropological invisibility cloaks of my revered mentors, Branislow Malinowski and Margaret Mead and, although we are most definitely not in New Guinea, and would observe the development of community in our week’s long gathering at the Ridge from my unique, embedded vantage point.
You would think that community would be running rampant here – closed environment, 70 people all here for one reason: to get fit and lose weight, and at least a week of shared common experiences - common goals, communal living, communal tiredness, but no – very little “community”. There are some isolated groups developing, some cliques, some guests that came as a group, a lot of one-on-one relationships and friendships forming, but no overwhelming sense of community. Why? Let’s look at what gives a sense of community and see what parallels there are here.
In a paper written in 1986 titles “Psychological Sense of Community”,McMillan and Chavez identify four essential aspects of the sense of community and why people join and stay in communities: membership, influence, integration and fulfillment of needs, and shared emotional connection.
Membership - a feeling that members have of belonging. In this particular group, there’s not a lot of kudos in being a member or wanting to be recognized as a member. Just the opposite: there’s some embarrassment and in some cases, shame about being here (although none is at all justified.) It’s like the commonly reported reactions of people going to support groups like AA or ALANON – “What am I doing here? I’m nothing like and have nothing in common with these people!”
Influence - a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group. There is a lot of mutual support and empathy from people “who have been there”, but it’s not training or support in how to fix the problem. This group learns by being instructed and shown what to do by the trainers, and shown what to eat by the chef and the dieticians. We don’t learn a lot from each other than failures in the past, because unlike other communities especially communities of practice, we are not experts. So there is no training value from interaction between guests.
Integration and fulfillment of needs - a shared faith that members needs will be met. As indicated previously, because we are not experts, there is no expectation that our needs will be met by members of the community. We expect our needs to be met by the staff.
Shared emotional connection - a shared faith in their commitment to be together. Although this aspect refers to the emotional connection within the community, their “shared history”, there is a great emotional connection in terms of their shared experiences with health and food issues and the fact that although there are many different reasons that brought us here, that everybody here is here for the same reason: to be healthier and fitter, and to lose weight.
In addition there are several other barriers to community formation with this group:
Heterogeneity The heterogeneous nature of the guests makes it difficult to find someone exactly like you. We’re from all walks of life, different ages, at different stages in life, different educational backgrounds, different work experiences and very different life experiences. Apart from the desire to get healthy and be very supportive of each other, there’s very little that brings us together as one “community.” And certainly not enough to keep us together afterwards – I tried unsuccessfully to form a Fitness Ridge Bay Area alums group (all those that had ever attended the camp who lived in the San Francisco Bay Area) but to no takers.
Individual activities: The activities, although conducted in groups, are all about the individual. It’s individual goals that are being satisfied – one wins private victories, one wins alone; we don’t win by all crossing the finishing line at the same time.
Moral of the story: a gathering, even a week’s-long gathering for a single purpose, an event, a conference, a summit, or whatever, even with a lot of interactivity, does not a community make. As community managers, user group leaders, and practitioners involved in community building, facilitation, and curation, or seeking to communicate with communities, we should not be content just because a lot of people show up. It takes care and the right ingredients to make a true, healthy, vibrant community.
Have you had similar experiences of groups where you thought you had a community but really didn’t?