The three ingredients of a great online community
As interpreted through Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights
Before I welcome you to this edition of the newsletter, will you please just Venmo $20 to your friend that has a podcast they want you to listen to that’s not very good, and sign them up for The Edit? We’ll help them make it good so that you don’t have to feel bad about not listening anymore.
Welcome! We’re here in the #vanlife of podcasting publications—always exploring somewhere new, and always exactly where we want to be with good podcasts along the way.
Today we will talk about the thing that every company is touting yet failing at: community. To start, herding people into an area is not building community. A Facebook group or subreddit with thousands of members that mostly don’t know each other and spend time trying to work around self-promotion rules is not a community.
We’ll use In The Heights as our guide. I’m sure you saw it within the last couple weeks? It is a moving, singing, joyous ode to community. It highlights the three key ingredients that make Washington Heights a wonderful community. We’ll go through each one.
There will be spoilers, so come back if you haven’t seen it.
Commitment and authenticity
We learn through Usnavi that community takes commitment. You stick by it and work for it. You don’t leave it for tropical beaches, or if you do leave it, like Nina, you find a way to give back to it.
But as we make new communities, we can’t immediately expect commitment. Instead, we can plant the seeds of commitment by fostering authenticity. If you’re in some online group making a real connection with @SourDoughBaker1995 what happens when they just disappear forever? Who were they really?
We’re more likely to stick by people we really know. When we learned that Sonny is a Dreamer in In the Heights, his character went from flat to round. We became committed to his future—to the community’s future.
If you’re making the Washington Heights of online communities, it needs public gathering spots—the pool, the salons, the stoops. Small talk, random connections, and Place (with a capital P) are such important parts of communities. One of the reasons Twitter is a hollow community is because it lacks Place. Everyone follows different people around a non-neighborhood.
Slacks and Discord servers have created neighborhoods with places (channels) online. I love them. As someone with kids in a small town, I might feel locked down by my parenting schedule or lacking a large group of people that share my particular interests, but Rands Slack (for software leaders), Bello Collective (for thoughtful podcast people), and a few others always have someone up for a chat. Since I didn’t grow up in Washington Heights, my analogy for the Slacks and Discords I’ve joined is a college campus where you can wander from the campus center for general gossip to a science building to geek out.
But even these wonderful online communities aren’t quite the real-deal without one more ingredient. The most overlooked ingredient in most companies’ rush to make communities: To really build a community, you need to work together. You need to have a stake with other people in creating something new. In the Heights hits this note with the bodega-slash-boutique that Usnavi builds with everyone he knows.
Now’s the part at the end of the newsletter where I tell you that this is what I’m trying to do at Timber. The Edit is the seed. The members there have literally worked on their podcasts with us. We’ve listened, we’ve taken notes, we’ve written helpful guidance.
Come join us. We’re hanging out online, and we’re around when you are. We like to talk about podcasts, and movies, and traveling, and kids, and food, and more.
We want to make your podcast with you.
PS. One thing I left out
Building strong communities isn’t all dancing under open fire hydrants and hanging out on stoops. We must also experience shared loss. In In the Heights, Usnavi and his friends and family mourn the loss of Abuela Claudia. Her death is the spark that draws the community together. Here in real-world Eagle, Colo., Adam Palmer’s death has done the same. I am not recommending that people building communities manufacture shared loss, but I wanted to mention it, and maybe the reality is that if the community is lasting, has a place, and creates things together, shared loss is eventually inevitable.