Lessons from the History of Communities – Why They Matter Today and Tomorrow

Apple’s first self-proclaimed nerd queen, Ellen Leanse, leads us down memory lane with the early community shaping of Apple. Her theme echoes the ethos of Apple: Live Long & Prosper. Let’s follow her down the path of one of the first brands to recognize the importance of leveraging their user communities.

Live Long and Prosper

Live Long and Prosper

Ellen starts from the beginning of man, looking at what we can learn from the history of communities. From opposable thumbs and making tools, this created a social order based on community. It was how we survived, how we built and played together, how we gathered for rituals, hunted, raised children, made nomadic paths across the earth. With smoke signals, bear traps, and cave paintings, we had early forms of communication with our fellow-man. We conserved and shared resources, developed tools together, tested in the field, added value, and innovated together. We advanced by crowdsourcing, developing tribal knowledge to pass down through generations.

But things changed: developments such as agriculture, with plotted land, and alphabets, with written and spoken word, caused humans to think differently, paying more attention to ownership. Once we learned how to fight and write, our social order became hierarchical.

But community is unstoppable. It is what we do, like a super-organism, reclaiming wisdom from ancient heritage. Yet why is it a struggle for so many to build communities? Why do we see community members as outsiders? Why do we think this is new technology when this is how we began? Sharing, working together, making things better: these things are all part of human nature.

So what do we do about it?

Ellen brings up the example of Apple, with a community rising to match the product developments of the 1980’s. The community grew before the company realized they needed an internal advocate. Unfortunately, Apple relied on archaic systems, with very primitive communication tools. These were different times with communication between users much harder, but this didn’t stop user communities from networking and growing. Early adopters felt disillusioned by product; they felt Apple abandoned them. The letters Ellen received were discouragingly consistent. She reached out to the community, quickly learning that they wanted outreach, honesty, and rapport. The community crowdsourced, turned to them to make the product better. Modems connected the community, finding and sharing information, sustaining an Apple drum beat to create immeasurable value on behalf of the company. Apple finally showed up to be part of talk; then moved to listening. While other brands resisted talking to users, Apple demanded it, with executives pushing Product and Strategy to shape with the needs of the community. 

Early communities

Early communities

The fall of community in early man caused a separation of self, pushing people to lean away from community. We paid a price to move from communities, with new haves and have-nots. Innovation tended to separate us rather than bring together. Industrial Revolution and manufacturing industry boom led to further separation, with consumption and capitalism leading people to invest in things, not each other. Companies began to see each others as creators of products, separating themselves from the consumers. We have lost the knowledge that our users are linked to our ongoing success.

But this is changing. So many products link to crowd support models, with community at heart. New abilities to track and analyze data show what we have known along: patterns of community create something much greater.

We now need to think of the long game: we are at the point of breaking through things, but we can’t be so short sided to think that a quick fix can address all the needs of our community. This must be an ongoing conversation with our community, directing the wants and needs to the development team.

Ellen says we must create community by asking, “how can community help push your interests and needs?” We know there is something here possible that not many understand. We have to know we are making a difference in companies and people’s lives, no matter how trivial the product or the role. Be comfortable as an unsung hero. We are the witness to progress, but we must stay in touch with our community, and each other. Make sure to position yourself as a special ambassador of truth, reality and key analytics from your community. She recommends that the Community role should be an early hire, reporting directing to the CEO and acting as a liaison between the management team and company, and the community of users.

Ellen’s closing thoughts: Keep the faith. We are in this together. History is still being written. Live long and prosper.

Thank you, Ellen! We appreciate all the hard work you have done. Ellen can be found on Twitter.

Editor’s Note:  We’re live from the #CMXSummit all day today at Dogpatch Studios in San Francisco.  We’ll be covering all of the sessions, but you can livestream the event as well: 

Photos by Abby Sturges.  See more of her work on

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About the author

Ashley Hayes

Girish gupta
Girish gupta

@Ashley, I'interested to get more insights around how you started, planned, and faced all the possible challenges. 


Thanks, Ashley - great job capturing so much content today: that takes determination, good editing skills, and fleet typing. The write-ups extend understanding even for those of us who were there. Appreciatively, Ellen


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