The Awesome Value of Community

NASA Sombrero galaxy image from Hubble Space TelescopeI saw something amazing this past Friday night at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in nearby Menlo Park, CA (formerly the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center). In a presentation called Visualizing the Early Universe, computational astronomer Dr. Ralf Kaehler showed a series of time-lapse 3-D simulations of the aftermath of the big bang – focusing on the part where the universe had cooled enough to enable the formation of stars and galaxies. The 3-D graphics were immersive, and Kaehler’s explanations were imaginative and clear.

I would have missed this extraordinary event without the email marketing that comes with membership in the Peninsula Astronomical Society (PAS), and as I headed home from SLAC, I realized I’ve gained immeasurably from participating in PAS, and in a variety of other communities, both virtual and physical.

But why are some communities especially vibrant and effective, while so many others languish?

On reflection, I think that effective communities share three qualities:

1. Shared concern – It doesn’t have to be a content-rich topic like astronomy, but it helps. We’re living in a golden age of astronomy, and the PAS community embodies the ever-changing discourse, an aggregate of all the conversations around each new discovery. We all have something to talk about.

2. Engagement – There are so many ways for people to listen to and take part in the conversation; online forums, Facebook pages, LinkedIn groups, email lists, real-world meetings. Great communities shape their communications to make it easy for each individual member to take part in whatever way works best for them. The PAS web site includes an event calendar, a number of active forums, a gallery of astrophotography, observatory notes, an email newsletter and more, all contributed by members. But it’s only at the monthly star parties that you discover what nice people they are.

3. Identity – The people I’ve met in the PAS community have been fascinating – every bit as fascinating as 3-D movies of colliding galaxies. Talking with them invariably opens you up to new ideas. More than just a shared concern, a community is a shared identity, and joining a community redefines the possibility of who you are. For marketers, part of the challenge is to articulate this identity, and to speak about it authentically to people who care.

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My thanks to the volunteers at the Peninsula Astronomical Society, and to Dr. Kaehler, who is Manager of the Visualization Laboratory at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC) at SLAC. You can find images and movies from cosmology research projects he’s worked on at: http://www.slac.stanford.edu/~kaehler/movies/