A love letter to my community #1 💌

The #LinkedInLocal Host Community

Let’s begin this love letter with some context, in case you missed the last instalment which announced this project and its intentions.

I’m Anna, a community builder, LinkedIn fan and curator of this newsletter. I led a thriving global community called #linkedinlocal up until 2 years ago. Since that time I have been writing and exploring this whole idea of community, connection and belonging. I have also been involved in a podcast project this year, interviewing experts and those with lived experience of mental health.   These are conversations have been tremendously insightful and the lessons are deeply rewarding for both me and will be for listeners when that project launches on August 10th. 

That experience led me to wonder though, how do communities affect our mental health, our sense of belonging, and how do they help us create deep meaning in our lives?  So that’s what this blog project ‘A love letter to my community’ will explore.  People, their stories, their communities and how they enrich our human experience.  I want to explore what community actually means for the interviewees, our letter writers, and what it could mean for you.

I’m committing to 10 of these love letters, but there may be more beyond this, and potentially even a podcast, if I can figure out a way to fund it.  On a more personal side, I am really good at finding deep and meaningful projects that create lasting impact, as you’re about to read, but not turning them into a revenue stream.  So that’s my challenge this time, I intend to share this and be entirely transparent about it. It's not my intention to put these love letters behind a paywall though, I strongly believe they should remain free.  Through a donation model I believe there is an opportunity to create some funding, as well as fund additional writing and coaching projects on the back of this.  Given my background in marketing, I also intend to share the growth and what is working in terms of revenue, and what is not working.  Perhaps these aspects will be valuable to subscribers who are also interested in building their own communities and experimenting with different funding models.  Any feedback on this, or on style of the letters, is welcome in the comments below or via email.

As I embarked on the interviews for this series, it has become very obvious to me that the first love letter in fact needed to be my own.  I questioned which community I should do this for; I considered my children’s pre-school which enriched my experience as a parent, and pulled me through some difficult times. But I also considered that perhaps it should be my LinkedInLocal community, the one in which people know me for.  Having already written a book about LinkedInLocal I wondered if my love letter would be different.  It turned out that it was as I was able to reflect upon things from a distance and in hindsight.

It’s also the community I believe most people will assume I will write about,  not that assumptions should always guide us, but in this case I believe it to be a valuable expectation.   

So without further ado, here is the first love letter 💌.

Dear #LinkedInLocal host community,

The experience you gifted me was one that brought about deep and meaningful change to my self-view and world-outlook.

I talk about you in past tense, even though some of what we were remains in the present tense, although it is in a fractured form. I have an immense sense of gratitude for what you taught me - connection, how to give, conscious leadership, and a restoration of faith in the power of a few thousand thoughtful human beings united by a simple idea.

That simple idea was to get to know the people behind the LinkedIn profile and connect at a human level. Face to face, in-person, without agenda or ulterior motive.

This community began in June 2017 the day a few LinkedIn users began responding to a call out message I posted on LinkedIn about meeting connections offline and in-person with a hashtag #linkedinlocal. Whilst a lot of local people here in Coffs Harbour, Australia responded, it was Alexandra Galviz in London, and Erik Eklund in Brussels, who reached out to express support for the idea with the intention of starting groups in their own cities. We were the first three hosts, followed shortly after by Swish Goswami in NYC, and a loose host community was born. We connected via calls, shared ideas and feedback, but most importantly were able to respond as a collective to the global demand that was to come. We established some core values for gatherings; authentic, diverse, collaborative, and respectful. In September 2017 demand skyrocketed from LinkedIn users around the world, seeking help to bring the idea of online to offline connection using LinkedIn to their cities. We were in a position to form a collaborative host community, and with the help of Ryan Troll, to build a digital home for the movement which only increased demand further. 

To be clear, this love letter is to the global host community, not my local community in Coffs Harbour.  The latter requires another love letter separate to this one, perhaps for another time. However I am deeply grateful for that group and their support to continue gathering into 2021 and beyond.  This group provided enormous inspiration for others and allowed me to continue to lead the movement globally. Their part in contributing to the formation of this global community should not go un-noticed. 

But lets backtrack a little. Prior to creating the first LinkedinLocal post, I was in a strange place in my life; a new mum of a 1 year old and 3 year old.  I was craving adult conversation, not small talk but real connection.  Having experienced a move back to Australia from Scotland and motherhood in the space of a few years I had become what felt like a grown-up. I was ‘adulting’ but not gaining much access to adult conversation.  I had used LinkedIn for a number of years, having spent many years training recruiters on how to use social media.  There were plenty of interesting people locally online I was interacting with so moving offline seemed like a natural progression.  The first #linkedinlocal post was not meant for anyone but my local connections, but I’m enormously grateful for those beyond my city limits who were inspired by the idea.

By December 2017, when we launched the website, LinkedInLocal gatherings were happening in almost 100 cities across the globe. At its peak in March 2019, when LinkedIn validated the idea on release of the LinkedInLocal terms, gatherings were happening in over 650 cities, in 92 countries, and our host community assembled over 1000 passionate volunteer community builders.

It became the perfect synergy for me to align my global outlook for social impact, my passion for LinkedIn, as well as supporting local businesses, people and their stories.

I poured my heart and soul into it, running onboarding calls, developing host resources, making introductions, building rapport with new members, and driving online engagement. I was inspired by the conversations around why new hosts were so aligned to our values, and the impactful stories from event attendees that flooded my inbox from all corners of the globe.

I learned the importance of clear purpose guidelines for community behaviour and of building a culture of mutual support for one another.  Our egalitarian structure meant there was no hierarchy among hosts.  Anyone could lead within the host community, and many stepped up to do so, and for those who helped as host mentors I’m forever grateful.

I discovered that diversity is possible when it is held true as a value, when you make that clear to new community members, and when its continued in practice.

From this experience I learned that with a limited amount of technology we could create impact, and how a web presence really legitimises the activity of community building.  

Seeing so many events and groups gathering gave me an enormous sense of pride in what could be achieved through some thoughtful ideas and collaboration.  It was also wonderful to consider the far-flung foreign cities and countries this simple idea was impacting.  Hearing from prospective hosts really gave me a sense of purpose knowing there was such demand for this growing all over the world. Seeing people create communities too, a series of ongoing gatherings and not just one-off events, was inspiring.  It created a perpetual source of inspiration for new hosts, where LinkedIn posts from one city would create a ripple to inspire others across the world. 

But with great heights also came another lesson that’s hard to admit. You taught me the valuable lesson of boundaries. Boundaries around time, giving and more sustainable digital habits. During the two years of leading this community I developed some truly awful routines that led to burnout. Upon waking in the morning I would reach for my phone and browse my notifications, messages and newsfeed.  It brought me great joy and extrinsic pride to know what was happening where and by whom. People asking for help became another sense of satisfaction. But I also experienced excessive demands on my time, asking me to weigh in on city disputes across the world, people trying to take ownership of regions, and a few very blatant attempts to destroy the community values.  We were all volunteers and I never asked for money, it fed my soul and my desire to help others.  But weighing in on the quarrelling really took its toll.  Our need to be loved and wanted online is worrying, and without recognising this and developing boundaries its dangerous. But I’m grateful for the lessons I take away from once seeing the pedestal of leading a community as a place to feed my ego. Seeing the effect it had on my children brought me back. The greatest connection we can build is to ourselves and the people around us.  The movement itself taught many the value of offline connection, but personally it drew me further online. Bad habits I have since had to un-learn.

You taught me the value of leadership, and in developing leaders.  I used to think that leadership existed in a silo, and that being irreplaceable should be an aspiration.  My ego was wrong though, in order to truly lead we must seek ways to develop other leaders.  They are the ones that will create true impact.  You taught me that what is needed is support, inspiration and nurturing - a belief in others to help propel them forward. Through that belief I’ve seen people truly thrive.  You also taught me that I could lead, and gave me the confidence to be a really conscious leader. In doing so I was able to provide a vehicle for others to lead. The experience of leading this community enabled me to gain a wide range of skills not available in any role or position locally.

You taught me that location did not matter, long before a pandemic arrived to gift us this lesson.  I live in a small city of 75,000 people on the edge of a vast but underpopulated continent, a long way from anywhere in global terms. 

It has made me a more optimistic human being, hopeful for human nature and the desire for others to build real and authentic human connection at a local level.  Because there was no exchange of money or directive from the brand we were using to enable gatherings (LinkedIn) I believe we were able to workshop ideas in a unique way.

It truly was something special, yet as I reflect on what has happened in the past two and a half years - LinkedIn swooping in with terms rendering a central host community unsustainable, and a global pandemic forcing the end to gatherings - I acknowledge the community has become watered down over time.  On occasions its being used for self promotion, for purely money making purposes, with hosts trying to make events bigger, flashier and all-about-them.  We were the anti-networking event, the intimate experiences that valued stories, people and their contribution.  At one time we used to say that LinkedInLocal rarely felt different across cities.  Whilst the venues and faces were specific to a city, the nourishing experience of meeting connections in person remained consistent.  In a word, some new groups have become ‘pitchy.’ We used to see panels on helping attendees build their storytelling skills, and create discussions around women in leadership, on creativity, on diversity. Many events now are focussed more on lead generation and less on getting to know the people behind the LinkedIn profile.

Reflecting on the demand we saw for these events in 2017, 2018, and 2019 I have grown fearful and yet excited about where our need for human connection will go.  I witnessed first hand this outpouring of desire to meet in person, to move beyond our screens and show up.  I fear for what lockdowns and pandemics have done to that desire and our growing collective loneliness.  Gathering is a human need, yet the past 18 months have taught us to live more and more online.  LinkedInLocal attendees were LinkedIn users frustrated about the superficial nature of online connection, and were driven to connect offline.  Now that the rest of the world will experience it. This frustration will only have grown so I wonder, where do we go from here?  We have (or will) come out again, which fills me with both excitement and also fear for those we may have lost along the way.  There is a lot of pretence online, but you can’t fake an in-person connection.  The nuance from body language, eye contact, and everything we surmise about a person is real and open.  Online this connection can be blurred somewhat. 

LinkedInLocal was ultimately a way to express ourselves; our ideas, our personal brands, and to create experiences for others.  Because we removed financial profiteering and made it voluntary it became a vehicle for self- expression through the art of gathering. Those lessons for the hosts, myself included, will last a lifetime.  I’m excited and continue to admire others involved in the movement and witness where they take these lessons.  

Ultimately what I feel to be the true value of the community is that it assisted people in finding themselves through the process of building their own local communities.  It raised the self-awareness hosts had of their own skills and talents and expanded their opportunities.  It has allowed them to apply the lessons of fostering human connection to a variety of areas in their careers and local communities.  I continue to watch the growth of the individual hosts I got to know well through the community and it makes me smile when I see their LinkedIn posts and how far they have come in their own journeys.

The bond I feel towards the community is no longer the community itself but through the friendships I’ve formed and the people I have met. As I reflect on these friendships, what I’m really enjoying now is seeing where people go, and what the experience has facilitate for them. 

I remain forever grateful to everyone involved in the journey of hosting events across the world, and to those who continue the journey of building true and lasting communities in their local cities.

With love,

Anna McAfee

Anna McAfee is a Community Storyteller, LinkedIn Trainer and host of the podcast Managing Minds. She also curates this newsletter is co-author of the book ‘How a Hashtag Changed the World” Stories, Lessons and Reflections of the #LinkedInLocal movement.” She lives in Coffs Harbour, Australia and is a mum to two Star Wars and Lego obsessed children. She also likes gardening, real gardens and building digital gardens too. The best place to connect with her is on LinkedIn. You can also find out more about LinkedInLocal here.