What is community? There are many answers, most of them right, but my favorite answer to this question came from Depop founder Simon Beckerman. I worked for Depop in 2015 & helped launch them in the US. If you're not familiar, they are a secondhand fashion marketplace popular with Gen Z. Depop is more community than any other marketplace, and more marketplace than any other community. Simon launched the company in Milan and a creative community emerged and became popular across Europe.
A group of us were discussing community with Simon, and he said, "Community is a feeling. I want people to come to Depop and feel like the Bee Girl. You know, the Bee Girl. The one from the music video." At first, I didn't follow. It took a minute, but when tumblers finally clicked, I got it. Yes! That is the feeling.
If you were MTV years old in 1993, you couldn't escape the music video for Blind Melon's song, No Rain. The hit song was a wistful, upbeat take on depression with trite but catchy lyrics like:
And I don't understand why I sleep all day
And I start to complain that there's no rain
And all I can do is read a book to stay awake
And it rips my life away, but it's a great escape
The brilliant music video directed by Samuel Bayer, who also directed Nirvana's classic Smells Like Teen Spirit, was a high water mark of a corny 90s bohemian vibe. It tells the story of a young girl in a homemade bumblebee costume. She tap dances for an unseen audience and gets ruthlessly laughed off stage. She runs away in tears, but doesn't give up. She wanders around gritty LA scenes tap dancing for anyone who will watch, guy walking his dog, random lady at a bus stop, construction workers, but they all mock or ignore her.
Finally, almost broken, she reaches a mysterious wrought-iron gate covered with roses. She opens the gate and sees an over-saturated, frolicking swarm of people in Bee costumes dancing together in a meadow. A village of different people, all in motley bee costumes, cartwheeling and jumping and dancing. Our Bee Girl has found a place where she belongs, she's found her people, and as she smiles at the camera in the last shot, you can't help but smile back.
Simon said that the feeling of refuge and acceptance and joy is community. Not the place itself, nor even the collection of like-minded people, but how those things make you feel. When I think about community, my mind immediately goes to activity and infrastructure and connections. But besides these things, community is all about helping people feel. Feel less alone, feel seen, feel special, feel loved, feel something.
There's a dark undercurrent to the video and that bee girl moment, though. Maybe this is because the audience knows that the lead singer of Blind Melon, Shannon Hoon, died of a drug overdose shortly after the music video rose to popularity. Bee Village is glorious, but it’s ultimately just a bright green field, there's no shelter or supplies. The audience is happy for Bee Girl, but we're not convinced she's going to be ok. We know that like the song says, "it's a great escape."
I try to ask myself, are the mechanics of community just a means to an end? Are those of us that work in community in the business of delivering that "bee girl" feeling? In my more cynical moods, I wonder if as community professionals we are ultimately in the drug delivery business: login, and we'll hook you up with that virtual hit of oxytocin, or whatever hormone makes us feel safe from the void. If so, I'm ok with that. We all need and deserve that feeling. That feeling won't solve everything, but it's a necessary start.