Communities of Commerce: Where the Marketplace is also the Meaning Place

by cv harquail on January 11, 2012

Networks of people and organizations are usually either “markets” or “communities”.

It bothers us that networks fit one or the other model of working together, because we envision something more –something both market and community —  in one network.

We are often disappointed when markets don’t exhibit a commitment to any values other than maximizing profits. And, while we treasure communities where we create collective meaning and build relationships, we often shy away from using these relationships to help each other make a living. We ask too much of the market format, and expect too little from the community format.


It’s become easier to see how these two different models, the market focused on economic transactions and the community focused on meaning & social interchange, diverge in both form and feeling.

Ebusiness and social technologies have made it easier for us to buy and sell based on prices alone. At the same time, they’ve made it easier for us to build strong and rich networks of interpersonal and collective relationships that sustain us socially.

In online markets, the ease of finding a lower price or quicker delivery has led us to dis-intermediate the buyer-seller social relationships we relied on before. We’ve learned to sacrifice the comfort, the security, the qualitative connection, and any interpersonal meaning we found in these commercial exchanges in favor of reduced search costs, lower prices, and increased economic efficiency.

Online communities, facilitated by social technologies, have created more meaning for us, as we’ve been able to find and interact with people who are like us (or unlike us in desirable ways), who have similar interests, values, and goals, who can recognize and affirm who we are, and with whom we can pursue a shared social purpose. And, while we can imagine ‘communities of purpose’, where all participants are aligned to contribute to the same purpose, these kinds of communities usually do not put making money/making a living anywhere near the center.

Although we often draw on online communities for social support, learning, and collaboration, we have sometimes shied away from using them to sell or buy or earn money. We worry about burdening our relationships with something as crass as pricing or payments, since we fear that these will change the nature of our interactions and deprive the community of its innocence – or its nobility.

These concerns and these hesitations are appropriate, since markets aren’t supposed to be about creating meaning, and communities aren’t supposed to be about extracting excess rents. Markets and Communities are different models for working together.

But what about our vision of markets where relationships matter and communities where we can make a living while we explicitly pursue values beyond profits?

Enter the Community of Commerce.

As I’ve been researching online eMarketplaces like eBay and Etsy, I’ve identified that while the dominant model is a marketplace that’s all about efficiency and economic exchange, an emerging model is a marketplace that combines the exchange of goods and services with the exchange of social meaning. This combination of economic and social exchange is intentional, motivational, and wickedly effective.

Instead of seeing this model as some sort of ‘not-free’, values- constrained market, let’s give it its own category. Let’s call this model a Community of Commerce.

Defining a Community of Commerce

A community of commerce is a network of organizations and individuals that buy, sell, and exchange goods and services within a collectively-defined community culture, a culture that is based on articulated, shared, more-than-economic values.

Back in 2000, Stacy Bressler & Charles Grantham published a book “Communities of Commerce: Building Internet business communities to accelerate growth, minimize risk, and increase customer loyalty.” Their thesis was that businesses should learn how to transcend geography so that they could identify and connect with strategically relevant business partners. Bressler & Grantham’s motivating contrast was between off-line and online business relationships; they used the terms “communities of commerce” and “online business communities” interchangeably.

I want to expand the definition of “communities of commerce” to focus on how the tensions, tradeoffs and opportunities of a commercial network that puts community first will differ in economically and socially important ways. Trying to stack a network for exchanging meaning on top of a network of economic exchange won’t work – it’s not like we can simply add “meaningplace” to “marketplace” and call it a coherent business model.

In the next few weeks, I’ll post my efforts to define what’s distinctive about a community of commerce, to explain how it’s related to other progressive business models, and to begin to unfold the tensions and opportunities that arise when buying & selling are inseparable from and integral to the mutual exchange of meaning.

I’d love your thoughts about the concept and especially your suggestions for defining it.

 Check out these more recent ideas about communities of commerce:

See also:

Don’t Tell Esty That Authenticity Is Getting “Old” — The Social Dynamic Between Crafters and Buyers is Timeless
Purpose is the Killer App: Why Organizations Need Social Business Tools

7 Ways That Social Business Advice is Wrong for Your Organization

Insights about Authenticity from the Open Community Book Tour

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{ 1 comment }

Human Resources HR January 24, 2012 at 5:17 pm

It is a fact that the process of buying and the experience of buying has less of a meaning now in many cases. So many products which would have once been bought and paid for in person are now taking place at the click of a finger. Where one market (the high street) has been in decline, it has seen another one boom!! (e-commerce / online).

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