"Community" is the new "family"

"At this company, we're a family" by now is a red flag many recognize. Something I noticed replacing that trope, is calling something a community. Everything is called a community these days, which makes it harder to recognize real communities.

"Community" is the new "family"
Photo by C. G. / Unsplash

If you are not familiar with why calling your organization a family is problematic, here is a very brief recap. While plenty of people have fantastic family environments, family is not a positive experience for everyone. Marginalized folk often end up having difficult if not traumatic relationships with family (e.g., a transgender kid who is not accepted and has to leave home before they're ready). Even if a family experience is a net positive for someone, it often is not unequivocally so. When even the Harvard Business Review runs an article called "The Toxic Effects of Branding Your Workplace a Family" you know something is up — and they are fairly slow when it comes to criticizing mechanisms of capitalist exploitation.

Using the family frame as a way to create a familiarity, investment, and tolerance of toxic behaviors became recognized as a trope in due time. In families you tolerate certain behaviors; in patriarchal families there is a deference to authority. The family trope encourages confirmism, assimilation, and a male domination of the space. The family trope covers the workplace with a veneer of care, without needing to sincerely commit to relational, reciprocal care.

With more people seeing through the veneer of the family, a replacement frame started arising: Community.

In my own experiences, the rise of the community narrative manifested itself in an increase in the amount of Slack channels, Discord servers, and group message threads. It has been overwhelming and I retreated from real communities as a result. Community saturation is a thing, and we are even seeing meta-community indexes starting.

I also get that since the COVID-19 pandemic began (among other monumental events), there is a lot of desire for connection. Real communities provide a sense of connection and belonging, which is incredibly rewarding. I know there are several online spaces that invigorate me. However, creating a group space does not create belonging — setting up a Slack channel does not a community make.

Plenty of brands are now resorting to the trope "We are a community of [something]" when all they are actually doing is providing a space for people to gather. Plenty of such group spaces are new advertising spaces – for announcements, job opportunities.

For ResearchEquals, I too have fallen trap to utilizing this new trope. Right now, it still reads "Join a community of researchers building a new research movement" on the homepage. Part of why it says that is because I want there to be a community; I have worked on designing spaces to create a sense of connection, belonging, and agency. In that sense, the community narrative can be an aspiration for some spaces, reifying the future community into being.

The community frame can work – but plenty of spaces do not really want a community – they want a(nother) space of attentive consumers.

So whenever I read something's a community, I ask myself whether it is a gathering space instead. I also started replacing the word "community" with "collective," which helps me recognize that most so-called communities do nothing to build the power of the people in them. A collective builds power, a community makes us feel part of something, and a group space is a room to gather in. Putting people in a room does not organize their power.