The Possibility & Limitations of Online Community

Today I want to share an example of what is possible in building community online, but I also want to consider the limitations of online community. This discussion will be framed within an online community I have been researching recently: the LEGO community, and in particular adult fans of LEGO who collect and build some amazing creations.

LEGO has a thriving community of fans of all ages, and in the past decade, LEGO has really embraced this. The web has been an incredible gift to these fans, and they are now able to share their creations, information about new sets, chat with each other, and purchase rare pieces. I think it’s a great microcosm of what we mean when we talk about online community, so let’s use it for our example here.

But first, I want to share some original LEGO creations by members of the community, to illustrate how detailed and inventive their ideas are:

Unbelievably, this is entirely made out of LEGO.

A scene from the movie Logan’s Run, in LEGO.

A castle.

Star Wars chess set.

But these are just images of THINGS. What is far more interesting is what goes on behind the scenes that drives the interest, passion, and creation of them.

Here is a sampling of the online LEGO community.



Third-Party Resellers & Marketplaces

Directories & Groups


The Strengths of Online Community

  • Power is Disseminated Across a Wide Network
    Notice how many links there are above? This is just the tip of the iceberg, there are so many other blogs, websites and individuals in the online LEGO community. No one person or entity makes the rules, creates limitations, chooses direction. This is particularly important in niche markets. In the past, you may have a few magazines that cover a community like this (and there are LEGO magazines), but there is always the chance that they close down or are merged with another magazine, changing the focus. A community can’t go out of business as a media brand would. Now, the “audience” is also the content creators. It is a subtle but powerful shift, and one that cannot be undone.

  • The Community is Inclusive
    The LEGO community online knows no boundaries. It is diverse in terms of age, ethnicity, region, and by most any other measure. Clearly, LEGO has a huge following in the US, Europe, and Asia, but that hardly matters anymore – regardless of where you live or who you are, you can now be an active member of the community.

    Because of this, every member of the community comes to understand the worldwide LEGO community, not just their local market. You constantly hear news about international set availability & prices, and I’m always amazed to see original creations from people around the world. It’s so easy to meet someone from across the world, and immediately have a conversation. In a funny way, it tears down boundaries.

  • The Community Breeds Acceptance and Validation
    Being able to connect with other fans of LEGO online turns a basement hobby into something that is okay. Instead of being the lone nut in someone’s real-world community who collects LEGO, suddenly there is the realization that there are thousands of these lone nuts all over the world. In fact, this obsession is celebrated and encouraged. Most adult LEGO fans don’t get that in their everyday lives.

  • It Expands Creativity of the Form
    Flickr has been a boon to the LEGO world, where people regularly share some amazing creations. For the community as a whole, this helps to push the limits of what one can do with LEGO bricks. It becomes a forum to not just consume, but to create, constantly challenging every member of the community to be more inventive. In the past, I never had any idea how amazing these models could be. With the web, people now have a public gallery – a reason to create and share their own ideas of what to do with the bricks.

  • New Art Forms Are Created
    The capabilities of the web expands the uses of the bricks even further – into video and movies. BrickFilms are basically stop motion movies created with LEGO bricks. You can check some out here: or with nearly any search of the term LEGO on YouTube.
    Some recreate famous movies, others create their own storylines, scripts and films.

  • Online Extends to Offline
    This weekend is an in-person LEGO meetup, BrickCon in Seattle. Here, fans come to share ideas, their creations, and chat, and go shopping. Even though I’ve never been to a LEGO event, I’ve heard tons of people making plans for this event – all because of the online forums and blogs. They are extending the value of in-person events via online means. It’s so easy to coordinate like-minded people, create subgroups, and to publicize events. Here is a list of “collaborative displays” at BrickCon, meaning members have coordinated to each brink smaller sets to combine to make a huge display based on a certain theme.

  • It Creates Room for a Secondary Market
    The web has become a big marketplace for LEGO fans to buy and trade pieces and sets. Need 10 of a very particular piece? No problem, go to Bricklink and purchase them from thousands of individual sellers. The LEGO company does sell individual pieces, but they offer a limited selection. When you crowdsource this and create a marketplace, suddenly, every piece ever created is now available for purchase. Likewise, third-party manufacturers have popped up to create new pieces that LEGO hasn’t. One of them is BrickArms, who creates little weapons and accessories for LEGO figures.

  • This Expands What the Mothership Can Do
    Because the LEGO community has been so passionate and organized themselves online, the LEGO company is able to learn more about their fans and what to create for them. In the past decade, LEGO has embraced their adult fans, creating some of their largest and most complex sets ever:

  • The Community Empowers Every Individual Member
    The information stream in the online LEGO community tends to go from forums to blogs. This is truly bottom up from reports in the field to break news on LEGO set availability, pricing and other LEGO news. You see it happen every week in the forums, something is first reported by one person in a random corner of the world, it is quickly confirmed by other individuals in other corners of the world, and once validated, it makes it’s way across the major LEGO blogs where others can now comment and learn.

These are incredible benefits. But there is a flipside, where the term “community” is stretched to its limits. Let’s explore that as well:

The Limitations of Online Community

  • There is No Individual Identity
    In forums and blogs, you don’t know who anyone really is. Everyone has a username and avatar, not a real name and face. This puts some very real barriers up in terms of solidifying a community. People are largely nameless, faceless, ageless and placeless. It’s hard to form real human connections with that.

    Likewise, we learn very little about people’s lives outside of their LEGO hobby. That too limits the connection. We know nothing of their other interests, their job, their friends and family, their life experience. These are the building blocks of relationships.

    If someone stops posting to a forum, they will never be found again. We only knew them as a username, and have no idea where they went. They are ghosts.

    This was really brought home to the LEGO community when one of its members was killed in a car accident:

    Farewell to a Legend: Mourning the passing of Nate “nnenn” Nielson

    No one in the community ever met him in person, it took his wife reaching out to the community to learn of the news. They held a memorial for him online, and later at an in-person event. It was incredible to see this, and it made me realize how lucky the community was that Nate’s wife let everyone know. 308 comments on that blog post alone, and another 208 on the last image he uploaded to Flickr.

  • The Fragmentation of Community
    For those who participate in the community, your identity is not pervasive, it is fragmented across dozens of websites. Not only do you have to create usernames on each site, but some people participate on some sites, but not others. Voices are spread too thin. It becomes hard to identify who is the same across different websites.

  • It is Hard for Loose Connections to Become Strong Connections
    With online community, we miss the emotional connection with physical space and objects. Most members of the community remain persistent loose connections, there is little evolution as there would be in real-life. When one member stops logging in, the entire relationship is over.

I read three other things this week that relate to the possibility and limits of online community:

This week, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece for The New Yorker about the limits of social change using social media. Anil Dash gave a counterpoint, explaining that social change may look different today than it did in the 1960s.

The blog TechCrunch was sold to AOL this week, and in a post, they describe itself as a community:

“In the end that’s true. TechCrunch is a community. A community of great writers, great employees, and great readers.”

I understand why businesses feel that way, they are in the bubble – they are honoring the fact that without their audience and without people, that the business wouldn’t survive.

But clearly, the community had no say in the ownership, in the decision to move to AOL. The community is on the receiving end of the blog, their power is that they decide to comment, decide to buy tickets to TechCrunch events.

TechCrunch just sold their community for $25+ million. The current CEO of AOL supports editorial independence. Will the next? The one after that? What about when AOL merges, or changes direction, and their next CEO isn’t so content focused? Community is a long term commitment to it’s members, and deals like this remind me that the “value” of it often manifests itself in financial terms, with a few key players profiting from the collective efforts on a “community.”

But the best post I have seen on the topic is a post by Mark Schaefer this week. He tells a very compelling story which I highly recommend you read. Here is the key insight he shares from it:

“I lost sight of what it means to be a friend. It’s a word that has been social-media-cheapened and distorted for a new generation and I got caught up in it too. While many of us pontificate and debate about the heralded Age of Conversation, I’m realizing we’re not having conversations at all. Twitter is not a conversation. Commenting on blogs is not a conversation — it’s usually just a comment. We see these little smiling avatars each day without really having a clue about the person behind the picture.”