Posted on August 28, 2009

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This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series The defunct'ness of the polyamory movement

Series Disclaimer: This series is the result of conversations that I’ve had with fellow poly leaders, mixed with my own thoughts, experiences, and observations. While it seems that a lot of us have similar experiences and thoughts, these writings do not represent the beliefs of poly leaders as a whole.¬† These writings are not meant to target specific individuals or organizations, but instead show how “the system” is defunct and needs a lot of TLC and fixing.

In my most recent posts, I applied the business rule of 80/20 to the polyamory community, both in what percentage of people within an organization are actively involved in events, as well as what percentage of that sub-group (20% of the 20%) do the majority of the volunteer work. I also provided my own theories as to why this subset of a subset – those that end up with the label of “leader” – feels compelled to push themselves to the point of burnout to provide for the larger group.

One of the reasons why the core group of volunteers, the leaders of the polyamory organization, push themselves on how much they contribute is a sense of obligation towards providing for their community.

Today I will challenge the belief that an organization of 100+ members on a bulletin board or a large meetup group  qualifies as a community.

Prelude: How social media wrecked havoc on one word

Photo by Robin Utracik

Photo by Robin Utracik

Remember in the good old days of elementary school when you found someone liked the same thing you liked, who wanted to sit next to you at lunch or hang out with you during recess.¬†¬† You were happy when good things happened to them and sad when bad things happened, and they were the same way with you. Perhaps the two of you got to the point of sharing secrets with each other, letting the other person know things about you that others didn’t.

This was the nature of being a friend, until Livejournal, Facebook and other social media sites came along.¬† Rather than indicate that you’re following someone else’s journal, you friend’ed them.¬† Now enter a whole new world of popularity contests, seeing who could have the largest Friends List.

Through social media, the word friend came to replace other, more descriptive words that indicated a person’s closeness in our lives – words like acquaintance and “someone I know”.¬† The word became so inclusive and the definition so blurred that people forgot what it means to be a friend.

Until someone they knew chose to unfriend them.  The fear and dislike of loss Рa deeply emotional response Рmixes with their original view of friendship as a form of social intimacy.  Then they feel indignant, hurt, and betrayed.

The hidden meaning of words

Some words have a deeper emotional significance than others. For an example, compare the words “house” and “home”. Both mean generally the same thing, though the two words have different impacts. When we think of a “house”, we think of the physical structure – the roof, siding, walls, wiring, etc.¬† However, when we call that house a “home”, we give that structure a deeper, emotional meaning. We think of the sense of security, comfort, and peace that we have by being surrounded by our family and belongings.¬† This is why insurance companies sell “home insurance” instead of “house insurance”, and why banks offer “home mortgages” instead of “house mortgages”. ;)

The developers of social network sites realized the same thing.  Follower has a different emotional feel than Friend.  For there to be a follower, they need to follow someone, which implies that someone is leading them. In addition to positive mental images of devotion and attention, I can also see the negative mental image of a Queen B and her drones. However a Friend, due to our idealistic views on friendship, tends to conjure up more positive mental images than negative ones.

Friend isn’t the only word whose meaning has been diluted due to overuse.¬† Community, a word that once described tightly connected group of individuals, is used to the point where its defining conditions have been loosened.

What defines community?

A community is a social construct that is defined through experience.  There are four elements that make up this experience:

  • Membership: There is a distinct delineation of being a part of the community (a member) vs. being on the outside (non-member). In addition to a boundary on inclusion, another aspect of the element of membership is a shared sense of ownership of the community through contributing to it.
  • Influence: This is a two-way street. Members of a community need to feel like their voices are heard and they can influence the direction of the group.¬† At the same time, for the sake of creating a cohesive unit of people, members of a community need to be willing to follow the direction of the group (adhering to rules, accepting certain symbols/norms, etc.)
  • Reinforcement of needs: In exchange for their personal investment in the group (part of membership) those within the community are rewarded for their participation.
  • Shared emotional connection: Members feel connected to each other through a shared history and a shared participation in the group identity.

Just like we have other words that we can use to describe our associations with people with whom we aren’t quite friends, we have other words for identifying other social groupings that don’t fully embody a sense of community.

A scene is similar to a community in that  participants share the same interest or common purpose. However, while a community seeks to provide for its members in exchange for their investment into the group, people within a scene focus on thriving independently.

Members of a society have a sense of identity through a shared history and culture. Because they exist on a larger geographic scale, they tend to have looser membership requirements than a community or society.  The qualities of reciprocity found within a community (to influence and be influenced, to contribute to and receive benefit from) are lessened because of the larger scale and lack of deeper emotional connection.

Is your poly group a community? It depends.

Is an organization built around a discussion board a community? Is your meetup group a community or a scene?  It depends on the dynamics of the group, as well as how strict of a definition that you want to use.  Does the group have the four qualities mentioned above, and if so, to what degree?

One way of measuring the sense of community within your organization is to use a Sense of Community Index Test, like the one provided at SenseOfCommunity.com.

It is possible for a community to develop among a grouping of members within the organization.¬† This is nothing new, and can be seen in other larger organizations (cell groups in mega-churches).¬† As long as the subset of people are not being intentionally exclusive of people based on certain traits (which can harm the dynamic of the organization as a whole) it’s ok to allow that group to exist as-is.¬† If there’s concern about people being left out, find ways to connect those group members with other members that have additional common points – likeness is one way of building camaraderie and developing community.

Why we tend to say”poly community” (instead of “poly organization” or “poly group”)

The idea of “community” resonates with us emotionally.¬† We desire everything that it implies – finding people like us that we can connect with on a level deeper than superficial interaction.¬† Even if we may not have a deeper connection with the organization-at-large, being able to say that we’re a part of a polyamory community gives us warm fuzzies.

It’s also easier to entice people to join a polyamory “community” than it is to get them to join an “organization” or take part in the local “scene”.¬† See, smart marketing there! ;) ¬† Also, because of the emotional implications, people are more willing to aid their community than an organization that they’re a member of.

On the flip-side of that, it’s easier for us to justify burning ourselves out and overextending ourselves if it’s for the benefit of our “community”, even if we may not fully connect with everyone in it.

Now that I’ve laid the foundation (it’s taken 5 days and almost 7100 words – whew!), my writings for tomorrow will focus on the steps that active poly people can take to help their local poly groups (or the poly movement as a whole) without burning themselves out or otherwise making a mess.

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