I’ve been thinking a lot about community lately.

Community has been important since the beginning of civilization.  People self-sort into all sorts of communities, usually based on similar interests.  Communities form around geographic locations (neighborhoods), schools, religion (churches, temples, mosques, etc.) politics, social values, medical conditions – you name it, and there’s a group of people who share similar interests who form a community of like-minded souls.

In these heady days of  the new media revolution, we can now form ever-larger groups of like-minded souls, independent of physical location, or the ability to get together in person.  Yet conferences, like Podcamp, The Portable Media Expo, South by Southwest,  VON, and more are multiplying.  Why?

I think it all comes down to neurology.  For eons, we were built to interact on a face to face basis.  Over time, we developed the ability to pass knowledge from place to place, across distance and time, through the written word.  But once we developed the ability to communicate from a distance through more “personal” methods, using sound (think radio, telephone), these technologies really took off.  We then figured out how to enhance the sound with visuals by adding pictures (movies, television) and whole industries developed.

The internet started out just like tablets and books- transferring knowledge through the written word, almost exclusively.  But we’ve quickly developed the ability to transmit information by audio (internet radio, podcasts, mp3’s) and now video (video blogs, internet TV, downloadable movies and the like).  And it should be no big surprise that these new formats are taking off , just as their predecessors have.

The difference between the “old” forms of media and the “new” forms is that the new forms add interactivity and conversation.  “Old” media is a one way broadcast of information; New media is all about having an ongoing conversation and dialogue with an audience.  If you’re a content producer, you may start the topic of conversation, but your audience continues it, pushes it further, and can continue it, with or without you.

And I think the overall reason why new media conferences are so powerful for attendees is the immediate sense of community and electricity that happens once everyone has “facetime” together.  It’s bringing already developed friendships and relationships into a third dimension, and forging new contacts that expand the community further.  These new connections grow, thrive and bonds increase offline, making the next meet-up with these virtual “old friends” even better.

Content producers often produce their blogs, podcasts, vlogs and other content alone or in small groups.  I think we’re all flattered and a bit taken aback when people notice, comment on, and appreciate our work.  Sure, we are putting it out there, in hopes of other people finding us interesting or compelling, but we never know who will really see it, or if it will resonate for others as it does for us personally.

When we all get together and spend time, the electricity comes from the organic connections, from pushing the envelope, from sharing, from connecting.  We finally get to be in a village where we all fit in, no matter how miscast we might feel in our real life day to day roles.  Friends and family may not  always appreciate our niche interests or esoteric technology fetishes, but at new media events, we get to finally be with our people, our community, and that is a truly amazing thing.