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Creativity and Community: A Love Story
By Katerina Bohle Carbonell
Community as a source of support for creativity is a two-edged sword. It drives you forward when you can trust community members and talk with them. But it holds you back when your strangeness is frowned about.
When being creative you are taking steps into the unknown. You brace yourself for the fall, the harsh critique ("What the fuck are you doing?") but instead of violently hitting the ground and breaking, you walk away with a couple of scratches and bruises. Your community stepped forward. That's what they do. They catch you. They don't let you fall (too hard). They also push you to step beyond your known world.
My aim here is to explain how communities can help people be more creative, but also how a community can hinder people to be creative. As with everything in life, the solution is somewhere in the gray space balancing the stimulating and restrictive forces a community can offer.
Your community, your guide
Many years ago I wrote two articles about how strong and weak links shape creativity. Last month I picked up the pieces, trying to apply everything I’ve learned about speaking to your audience, writing less densely, and being more engaging. I was reaching (again) for my ever elusive nirvana: talking about science to non-scientists. Even my kids roll their eyes and say “stop lecturing” when I open my mouth.
Enthusiastically, I started rewriting the articles, trying to merge them. Soon I hit a wall. “It’s not working,” a voice in my head whispered. I persisted, drudging through the lines. “It’s not working!” The voice was adamant. I knew I had to share it with Foster, my writing community, for feedback. I didn’t know which way to turn and craved feedback and help from others. Yet the voice was relentless. “It’s crap. Don’t share. You’ll ruin your reputation.” Thankfully I hit the submit button before the temptation to give in, delete everything and hide in a corner became too big to overcome.
Creativity and its consequence, innovation, is risky. Like writing this article: How will it be received by others? Will the article change how writers approach being creative or how they support the creative endeavors of other community members? That’s what I hope. I also hope that community managers can take something away about how relationships are important in communities and need to be nourished. People need to feel comfortable to reach out to strangers.
When I wrote the first version of this article many years ago, I didn’t have a writing community who could help me. It was at the end of my Ph.D. and I was struggling to write about science in an accessible way. I was also struggling to write about my research in a scientific way, but that is another story. Picking the article back up, I knew I needed help, but it was still scary. What helped me ask for feedback was my experiences from the many articles I’ve shared before on Foster, and the many articles I’ve edited.
Over time I developed a sense of community with other Foster members. I trust that others will lend me their time and provide feedback that will help me turn this draft into a powerful piece. In a way, we – the authors and editors – are collaborating on this article. Admittedly, it is not like the typical collaboration you see among team members that spans a long time with strong ownership from each team member. But, nevertheless, we are co-creating an article.
Co-creating something with others makes it less daunting to put creative work into the world. You can discuss, get feedback, and share the workload. And, it’s important to remember, other people know other things! By creating with others, you are combining knowledge. That’s a good argument for working with others, friends and strangers. In the end, whatever I publish will be better thanks to my trusted community-sourced co-creators. And I do trust them, because we are part of a community I feel I belong to.
Let’s jump into the science-y rabbit hole.
One reason people work in teams is because nobody is good at everything. By teaming up with others, humans can mesh and combine their expertise. But teaming up with complete strangers can be risky. We just don’t know what they bring to the table: Can we trust their expertise? Are our work values compatible?
Research on scientific teams in new emergent fields (here Oncofertility) has shown exactly this: Scientists prefer to work with collaborators of collaborators or with those with whom they had a prior relationship. They avoided working on teams with no shared collaborators (often scientists are members of several teams at the same time).
Thus, while working on two teams with completely different team members gives a person a competitive advantage (access to unique information, greater chances of developing a profitable solution), it also puts them in a very risky position. The number of unknowns about team members, their expertise, work ethics, career goals etc., is just too much, especially if coupled with working in a high risk discipline.
Applying this research finding to communities: Communities provide a space where like-minded people meet. This familiarity reduces the risk of working with strangers. Understandable, working with like-minded people also has drawbacks, which I’ll address in the next section. Your communities should be your first source of feedback. That’s why Rosie is right when she says building in communities > building in public.
When I looked at the feedback I received from Foster on the initial draft of this article, I was confronted with what I didn’t want to acknowledge earlier: The feedback stopped when I began discussing the scientific study. This was a red flag: The story didn’t flow, the language was clunky. Nothing really fit.
Your community, your prison
But (in social science there is always a “but”, a limitation and exception to the scientific “fact”): Your community can limit your creativity. Every community has a certain way of doing things, standards that need to be followed and things that are a clear no-no. In the action comedy Hot Fuzz, for the title of The Best Village, a group of people do not shy away from murder to make sure everyone colors within the lines.
Communities protect their existence by making sure they have a purpose for existing. A side effect from this protective activity is that members in a community look down on outsiders and their creative outputs. Social scientists call this groupthink. Telltale signs of group-think are comments like “You can’t write like that” or “We don’t wear that/like that song/watch this movie.”
Let’s jump back into the science-y rabbit hole!
According to an experimental study on information sharing in groups, when like-minded people share new information, a new fact or something else not known by other members, this leads to a) the new, unique information being dismissed as not important or relevant, and b) the person who shares this outside perspective is considered less helpful than others. Coloring outside of the line isn’t accepted.
Based on the two scientific studies I shared, we can draw the following broad conclusions:
When engaged in novel and creative projects, people prefer to work with familiar others, i.e., community members.
Familiar members (fellow community members) limit your creativity by making sure that whatever you do is a slightly modified copy of what others are doing, but nothing truly groundbreaking.
But isn’t this a contradiction? You might wonder. Indeed it is! It’s a perfect example of a thesis (community is good for creativity) and its antithesis (community is bad for creativity). What follows is the synthesis: Community members should provide new perspectives, and not new information.
Finding a better way forward
Let’s begin with the scientific study: Jill Perry-Smith showed in her experiment that good friends are more beneficial for creativity if they provide a new frame or perspective than if they provide new information. The level of familiarity and trust between friends forms the necessary nourishing ground for ideas to flourish, grow, and become something real. When friends suggest a new way to look at a problem, or tool or subject, they guide each other to see the topic in a different light. When the light changes, some things recede in the shadow while others are illuminated. And through this act, creativity can spark.
In a follow-up study, Jill Perry-Smith continues her experiments on creativity. This time she takes decision-time into account, in addition to creativity performance. Her argument is that if you discuss your newest book or blog idea with an acquaintance, and this near-stranger suggests new information, you are ready for it. We go and talk with an acquaintance about an idea we have, because we want to get new information. We are seeking an outside perspective.
However, when asking for feedback on your book or blog idea from a good friend, we do not expect new information. In a way, we remain entrenched in our current way of thinking. We might look for validation or other, bigger picture points. If this good friend now mentions something unique, it puts you off your balance. You were not expecting a new spin on your idea or being told about a unique aspect you did not consider.
As a consequence you discount whatever your good friend has told you: You dismiss it as not relevant. But when your good friend provides a new frame, you listen. Suggesting a new way to look at the problem is feedback that acts at a higher, more abstract level. This feedback can take the form of statements, stories, or – as a good friend of mine offers – questions I have not considered that force me to re-evaluate my idea.
What does this mean for how you show up in your community?
Let's assume you are part of the Foster writing community. How can this community help you become more creative?
1. You need to identify with the community and feel like you belong, like this is your tribe.
By doing so, you will be more open to input from others and instead of dismissing their edits and suggestions ("they don't get it"). Don’t worry, the community shouldn’t be your all-defining identity. Just one aspect of it. The first step is to show up and get to know other people. Read their work, provide feedback if you want, hang out in the Discord server. Of course, if you realize this is not the community for you, no worries. You can’t force it.
2. You should frequently interact with a small group of writers and editors.
By doing so, you are building a circle of close community collaborators. These will be your “good friends.” It doesn't matter where you interact with them, Discord, Twitter, or via the Foster App. What’s crucial is to feel like you talk with each other frequently. These people will be able to change your perspective. They can help you look at your writing in a new way, frame your stories differently, and push you to explore new paths.
Example: I see this editor’s name quite often. She’s a “good friend” even though we have (I think) never talked with each other. Just via edits :-) Her feedback was along the lines “you should look at avatars (hidden identities) in a different way.” Integrating her feedback into my article changed the section slightly but I felt I needed to include it.
3. Finally, don’t forget to interact with the larger community.
Edit works from new people. Throw a wide net! These will be your near-strangers. Get unique and new information from working on their drafts. This will make you open to their micro-edits: changes in your paragraph structure, word choices, writing style, and notes on where your point isn’t clear.
Example: I don’t often see his name on my drafts, so that makes him a near-stranger. His feedback, while valuable, was not relevant for me. It would have shifted the direction of the article and I wasn’t willing to do this.
In the end, it’s still your call
I began this article by stating that working and collaborating with your fellow community members can be good, but doesn’t have to be. If the community you are participating in limits or nourishes your creativity, it depends, partly, on you and how you show up in that community. This is good news: You are not fully at the mercy of your community.
How did the Foster Community nourish and support me in writing this article?
Some feedback I received on this article was the nitty-gritty type of feedback, the one that brings in new information (e.g., “How do you identify and feel like you belong?”). I think I saw the person before, maybe in the comments on another article, or maybe I read his piece. I reacted to it by adding a sentence explaining the process.
Other feedback was more about the story line (e.g., “I could see this as a strong starting paragraph!”), which made me move the referenced paragraph at the top, which changed the flow of the story. The feedback came from a good friend, a person who I regularly “meet” on Foster.