Individuals and Communities

Published 10 years, 11 months ago

I was quickly skimming through David Brin’s rantblog (because frankly I don’t have the six hours it would take to read through all his very lengthy posts) when I came across a quote that resonated so strongly, I had to reproduce it here.

The community stagnates without the impulse of the individual.  The impulse dies away without the sympathy of the community.

— William James

This almost perfectly captures how I’ve tried to shape css-discuss and other communities in which, over the years, I’ve been deeply involved or had a hand in founding.  It is a very good starting point to understanding my views of society, politics, and more.  I’m literally considering putting up a framed copy on my wall, right next to my print of “Jump Station“.

But that’s me.  What do you think is the best relationship between individual and community?  How should they balance, or not?  What’s the best way to inspire and maximize both?


  1. Often if people do not feel that they have a stake, or that they will be heard with a reasonable degree of respect, then it will stagnate. The result will be a group of people who are passionate, but content to let the usual suspects set the agenda. Some really talented individuals will just refuse to participate.

    I think the key is responsibility. Not everyone will necessarily want to take the lead, but would love to contribute. Not necessarily everyone who wants to lead should be in a position of responsibility. The ability to place the right people in leadership positions is the issue. How do we find these people? Who is in the best position to evaluate candidates? How can we train individuals to become responsible leaders? Who is in the best position to develop the qualities they require?

    Am I making sense? I hope so.

  2. Good thoughts. We in Western culture have spent long enough focusing on the individual at the expense of the community, and we’re finally learning that it has to be about both. I think the Internet is forcing us to learn the balance, and at the same time that it’s teaching us what that balance is.

    For the past five hundred years, we’ve been able to sit and read a mass produced book by ourselves, and study by ourselves, and do whatever we feel like doing in relative isolation. As culture changes, we’re no longer able to do this.

    If we can step back from the Internet’s daily presence and look at the cultural impact that it may have over the next five hundred years, I think we can see how the community can relate to the individual. People have begun to care, or at least to expect others to care, about human stories and voices and passions (people actually use Twitter!). I don’t think these things would have happened in Western culture without the rise of the Internet.

    Everyone has a story and a passion. Communities form around stories and passions. Vision creates community by inspiring individuals with the stories and passions of others. Individuals create vision by combining their stories and passions with those of others.

  3. Those involved within the Internet communication industry, too often, have an overblown view of their influence along with the influence of the Internet.

    It is not changing people. A social Web is just another vehicle that can be used for whatever purpose by the individual who chooses to use it. It only impacts those individuals who have the ability, desire and need to affect a personal change.

    More often than not and for better or worse, the only thing that changes individuals and actual “communities” are those ass kicking literal events that occur through living life.

  4. It’s funny as I was wrestling with this very thing over the weekend.

    In (hopefully) August I’m tipping my toe in the whole “community building” thing and my worry is that no one in that existing community has the sympathy to come along. Hopefully the three of us involved have enough impulse to refresh it and get people talking.

    I think Anthony hit the nail on the head:

    Often if people do not feel that they have a stake, or that they will be heard with a reasonable degree of respect…

    I know that where that has held true, such as CSS-Discuss, it’s been a great experience as a participant.

    I guess the responsibility of the few with the impulse is to keep banging on the drum and let everyone know they will get to have a go too, if they stick around. I’ll let you know if my view changes the deeper I get into it ;-)

  5. In the online world, blogs have done a great deal to create a sense of community. A strong bond grows up among readers and commenters. For example, the good folks who comment here probably feel a strong sense of identity and community as “CSS people.” It’s the ability to offer feedback, to contribute to the conversation that allows so many strong communities to develop on the web. Often these online relationships lead to real life friendships. Blogging has given both the individual and the community a stake in what gets said. William James would probably love blogging.

  6. The William James quote is more a basic (and obvious) observation than a profound insight. But it’s like a stem cell (or a quote from Jesus or Ben Franklin) in that people will use it to mean whatever they want to mean. “Famous person says that society needs to provide more sympathy and not isolate individuals!” “Famous person says that individualism is overrated!”

    All of the interesting debates are in the stuff James *doesn’t* say there, but which people wish he did. What he actually said in that quote is pretty non-controversial, and if we think that we agree and others don’t, it’s probably our own skew being introduced.

  7. Nice quote… he apparently delivered it 127 years ago… here’s a transcript:
    http://www.des.emory.edu/mfp/jgreatmen.html

    I tried to read the whole thing, but apparently over the last two centuries we’ve mutated away from having loads of free time to enjoy the scenery on the way to the destination…. ;-)

    (Online communities have faster feedback cycles than James’ societies and governments did, but we also have faster influx of newbies, who do post without knowing the new group’s mores. Similar problem, different dynamics.)

    “What do you think is the best relationship between individual and community?” A lot of it may depend on how tolerant and resilient the community is — for instance, you’d have a hard time using the word “genius” today as James did, 127 years ago.

    jd

  8. The most profound truths tend to be the simplest, and the most difficult to come to terms with. How many people have tried to balance their physical, spiritual and mental development? (An ideal state that the Greeks tried to achieve).

    Regardless, a lot of times all we need are simple things said by exceedingly well known people to give us that “Aha!” that we need in our life. Could we worse…Eric could have been inspired by something in a 50 Cent song, no?

  9. Oh yeah, and I’m with Virginia. Blogs are one of the best ways to foster a sense of community.

  10. A sense of “community”, involvement, whatever label it carries, is generally dependent upon the tone set by the owner(s) of the blog. It should be done as though the individual were staring you right in the face. Most blogs fail miserably in reciprocity, courtesy and respect.

    I have seen, for example, in the Meyer blog where a direct question presented by a customer of an upcoming Event Apart was ignored. Such things do not bode well for questions presented regarding individual involvement and sense of “community” and how to improve upon them when basics are not met.

  11. Uh oh. Where’s the ignored question? I try to answer people but am not 100% successful; your help in boosting me closer to that mark would be appreciated. Thanks!

  12. Meyer–

    Give me until this evening, please, probably late, to dig through prior articles to find it.

    Understand please, this is your home. All bloggers should consider their blog as their home and visitors should consider it as such.

    The point I was making is that the owner, through his/her intentional graciousness, hospitality and attention to detail solves the questions presented.

    I am not butt kissing anyone when I state that your home/blog is better by far than most. So, thank you for you gracious hospitality. It is appreciated.

  13. What a great quote! I love it.

    I also agree with thacker, it has a lot to do with the host. If individuals feel as though they are welcome, are apart of the group and are treated with respect the more likely they are to become repeat visitors. More repeat visitors equals more content. More content creates a good base for the community getting you even more visitors. It’s a cycle but it starts with an individual (the host) being welcoming and aware.

  14. Thank you for reminding me of this quote. James was a genius, and I think I needed to be prodded with the James-memory-stick today.

  15. Behavioral relationships between community and individual are revealed when you kick an anthill. What appears to be chaos is really many individuals interpreting and achieving unity within a group. Value of self is a component of unity. Unity is a component of group stability. Group stability is increased by encouraging value of self.
    It’s like love.

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