Despite my best intentions I never make it to the local farmers’ markets. Even with several available within walking distance on any given Sunday in downtown Wellington, my preference for a good sleep-in wins every time.
There are any number of reasons why farmers’ markets have grown in popularity in the last decade. Likewise the associated buzzwords, “organic”, “slow food” and “natural”.
But probably more interesting than my excuses for not going – are the reasons why so many others do go. You could look at the revolt against fast food corporations, a renewed interest in healthy eating, a desire to slow our lives down and get in touch with our figurative, and literal, roots. But I’d like to look specifically at one reason – community.
“The first markets were filled with talk. Some of it was about goods and products. Some of it was news, opinion, and gossip. Little of it mattered to everyone; all of it engaged someone… Some of these conversations ended in a sale, but don’t let that fool you. The sale was merely the exclamation mark at the end of the sentence.”
– Doc Searls
A decade ago, Doc Searls explored the connection between ancient marketplaces and our present disconnection with where our goods come from in the seminal Cluetrain Manifesto . He illustrates that commerce has always been heavily weighted towards the social aspects rather than the transactional. The past few centrires has been simply an outage, because as Toffler  put it,
“The rise of industry drove an ‘invisible wedge’ between production and consumption… As production was ramped up to unheard-of rates, the clay pot of craftwork was broken into shards of repetitive tasks that maximized efficiency by minimizing difference: interchangeable workers creating interchangeable products.”
– Alvin Toffler
Social media at its best is allowing us to close the gap between us and the producers of the goods and services we consume. We can check that their ethics align with ours, to assess quality, to give feed back as to what and how we want things made.
But there is a problem with the way most businesses implement social media into e-commerce. For the most part they just want us to review their products publicly and share our purchases. That works for them – but where in this is the coming together of people to “have a good goss” or talk about the peripheral topics that cement relationships and allow you to really trust a merchant? Where is the community?
Far too often businesses point to their Facebook page, anointed with the liking of a few thousand devotees and say, “Look at this marvellous community we have created around our product”. But a Facebook page, or a list of Twitter followers has as much in common with a real community as a random assortment of disconnected individuals alone at home watching the same show on television.
Last week I applauded the Internet for helping us form communities around interests, rather than the restricted geography of the past. But having something in common is not enough. Agreeing we Like(tm) product X is one thing – but we are not instantly part of a community by finding ourselves sharing some virtual real-estate with others who do the same.
My gauge for judging real community is simple – when more of the conversation is about anything but what the members have in common, you’re getting somewhere. And if a number of these are disagreements so much the better. We don’t gather at the end of our street talking with our local community about our unique geography – we gossip about the neighbours, talk about the sport fixtures from the weekend or boast about our offspring. As Searls notes, the same diverse conversations happen at good markets.
There are plenty of examples of great communities online – these just very rarely happen in brand owned spaces. My favourite example is that of The Well, an early Bulletin Board System in the USA. Wired magazine wrote a moving account  of their early days – that could make you wonder if a “virtual” community isn’t real until it has coped with the death of one of its members.
Brands shouldn’t be able to take credit for creating a community, nor claim by implication they control it. We put the effort into turning spaces, whether physical or digital, into communities. If we invite brands in they should be there on our terms. Brand spaces may be great places to meet someone you have something in common with – but once you do, the best place to get to know them is a elsewhere, either online or offline. Just…
Don’t mistake having a conversation for being social. Simply because a brand, or someone is talking to you, doesn’t mean they are letting you in to their world or business.
Don’t mistake being social for being part of a community. Simply sharing our passions does not make a community.
Brands can talk to us, we can socialise with others… but we have to work harder at forming community. And that means finding out what we don’t have in common, debating, playing and potentially crying – not just the pleasant stuff.
Real communities, and life, are messy. That isn’t necessarily the kind of space that brands what to be seen in, because they can find themselves alongside compromising conversation and content. As such we can’t rely on brands or business to foster our communities. But if they want to buy us drinks – who are we to say no.
Next Time: Making Sure of Who We Are: The Right to Identity Play
-  Locke, Christopher & Levine, Rick & Searles, Doc & Weinberger, David. (1999) “The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual” Cambridge, Massachusetts: Basic Books.
-  Toffler, Alvin. “The Third Wave”. (1980) New York: Bantam.
-  Hafner, Katie. (1997) “The Epic Saga of The Well”. Wired magazine 5.05.