Communities and the “big enough” society.

Launch of Big Society programme
Small committee makes big society - Image by The Prime Minister's Office via Flickr

I’ve been listening to and talking with a lot of people about community lately. All kinds of communities and all kinds of projects. One of the things that comes out of the discussions was the connection/tie-in/albatross-round-the-neck that is the “big society”.

A general embargo on political commentary on this blog means I won’t tell you what a none-sensical, keep all the blame away from politicians excuse for a concept it is.  But it has certainly put the cat amongst the pigeons for those doing real community engagement stuff who genuinely have to worry about the way their work is seen/critique in a political context.

By real, I mean something other than the virtual – the twitter community or the community of readers –  we often talk about in social media circles.

Social. Theres another word that means something else now. In my world, social often means social networks or collaboration. In the world of big society communities it means poor (and costly to the state) rather than the cash rich time poor that make up most of the demographic.

Social housing isn’t connected to facebook and social security isn’t just using  backupify.

Despite the differences, what struck me about a lot of the discussion was the parallels between how media talks about community and the growing discussion in the broader ‘social’ arena; the idea that working with communities is a sure fire way to solve the big problems. Not because those small communities couldn’t help with that – they can. But because of the belief that there is a big solution out there to be found.

It’s not enough for a good community strategy to simply help and develop a community. It has to scale and have a model (preferably a business one).

But maybe they don’t have to be.

Maybe a local community group doesn’t have to be an exemplar of how ‘big society’ can work. Just like your hyperlocal community site doesn’t have to be the business model for others. Maybe they just need to be big enough to do the job. Big enough to sustain one journo rather than the business plans of many.

More importantly when we talk about community, maybe we should be looking at how we can make that word social mean the same thing for both sides of the digital divide.

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