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We learned so much about online community building in 2020 - probably far more than some ever intended to learn. Fortunately, many leaders have paved the path to better digital communities before 2020 and have imparted lessons to us through this transformative year. 

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Carrie Melissa Jones
Carrie Melissa Jones

6 Book Recommendations for Community Builders in 2021

4 minute read

January 21, 2021

We learned so much about online community building in 2020 - probably far more than some ever intended to learn. Fortunately, many leaders have paved the path to better digital communities before 2020 and have imparted lessons to us through this transformative year. 

Not only were there endless webinars and podcasts on digital connection, but many new books also helped steward the necessary shift from IRL to digital communities and shallow connection to deeper relationships. As you know, the learning must continue even though the calendar year has changed. Luckily, there are a handful of brand new, 2020-published books to guide your journey. 

1. The Business of Friendship by Shasta Nelson

Shasta Nelson’s book is a new go-to guide for those building employee communities and enterprise social networks. Shasta shares the three requirements of all friendships and how to make them happen effectively at work. She also makes a compelling business case for the importance of friendship at work. Any internal community manager can use that business case to convince the C-Suite of their employee community’s significance. We can all learn from how Shasta Nelson explains the value of friendship in clear, practical terms that everyone understands. 

2. How We Show Up by Mia Birdsong 

Through personal experience and extensive interviews with community builders and community members, Mia Birdsong weaves a narrative of our deep interdependence. She establishes a case for the necessity of the work we do in building communities. This book will bring you inspiration, motivation, and a deeper grounded meaning to the work you do each day. 

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3. Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter by Charlton D. McIlwain 

In Black Software, Charlton McIlwain shares stories that otherwise may have been lost, to the detriment of those of us who build online community today. His book Black Software tells stories of Black leaders who shaped the internet as we know it today, including community builder Anita Brown, the co-founder of Black Geeks Online in the mid-90s and a mostly unsung hero of the online community world. 

Through detailed histories of these creators and builders, Charlton demonstrates that justice-related community organizing online is nothing new. It sparked in the earliest days of the internet’s history by Black engineers, politicians, students, and business people, including Derrick Brown, Maxine Waters, and Ken Onwere. All our work ties back to this early history. This book can help ground your understanding of community work in a historical context. 

4. We Should Get Together by Kat Vellos 

Kat’s work bridges adult friendships with organizational culture, design, and social justice. Her book We Should Get Together was the first book I read in 2020, ordering it hot off the presses the day it was published. Thank goodness that was the case because her advice helped me apply community-building knowledge to my personal life right when it was most needed: I was able to strengthen existing friendships and create new ones that have helped sustain me digitally through the pandemic. The list of questions at the end of the book is also an incredible resource you can use to start conversations with your community members and friends. This book is a true gift to community builders. 

5. We Will Not Cancel Us by Adrienne Maree Brown

On March 8, 2020, the day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, I ordered the book Emergent Strategy from my local bookstore. I needed a book to bring solace and an approach to strategy that gave flexibility without flakiness or harm. Through that book and her ever-insightful Instagram account, adrienne maree brown’s work opened up a world of necessary new thinking for me in 2020. 

In this new book, she addresses “cancel culture,” which impacts our community work whether we realize it or not. She gives us space and permission to sit in the dissonance required to hold people accountable for the harm they have perpetrated and embrace that harm’s victims with hope and healing. We Will Not Cancel Us is the kind of nuanced, complicated book we need to navigate the complex work of community moderation and leadership in 2021. 

6. Building Brand Communities: How Organizations Succeed by Creating Belonging by Carrie Melissa Jones and Charles H. Vogl 

Yes, I am recommending my own book. Yes, that might make me look like a self-involved jerk. Or narcissistic. Or a narcissistic, self-involved jerk. But, hey, at least I placed it at the end of the list! 

I have included it because of my deep commitment to building online communities. Charles and I wrote this book for you. The book is for you if you’re an organizational leader wondering what community means or a seasoned community builder in need of a handy reference guide and teaching resource. 

You can also feel free to use this as a book you can send along to your boss so they finally “get” what community means in their organization. Or as a doorstop. Your pick. 

Now, may you find some downtime and mental space to read and apply everything you’ve learned. Onwards and upwards.

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Carrie Melissa Jones

Written by Carrie Melissa Jones

Carrie Melissa Jones is a community leader, entrepreneur, and community management consultant who has been involved with online community leadership since the early 2000s. As the founder of Gather Community Consulting, she consults with brands to build and optimize communities around the world.

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