“Communitas is collective joy – the experience of social ecstasy and oneness that is experienced when people come together for a cause” – Donald Getz
When we looked at the common features of iconic events, one element stood out from the rest. Whether it be the World Cup or Woodstock, the Olympics or Octoberfest, successful events embrace this thing called communitas.
When 400,000 people flocked to Woodstock for 3 days of Peace & Music, it was widely regarded as a pivotal moment in popular music history, as well as a definitive moment for a generation. This was the power of communitas in action.
According to recounts of Woodstock, this was an occasion like no other. A massive sense of social harmony, even despite the overwhelming mass of people, making it one of the enduring events of the century. Max Yasgur, the man who happened to own the site where the event came to life, saw it as a victory of peace and love. He has spoken of how nearly half a million people descended on his farm, without a great deal of planning. A gathering filled with potential for disaster. However, it seems all spent the three days with music and peace on their minds. He stated at the time that “if we joined them, we can turn those adversities that are the problems of America today into a hope for a brighter and more peaceful future…”. A powerful insight, into a powerful thing.
This state of communitas should be an aspiration for all events. After all, events are the coming together of a tribe to celebrate a shared passion. To gather in a time and place for a shared purpose.
This “collective joy” can often arise at events. At the great events. The ones that offer ‘can’t buy it’ experiences and emotions. Ones that have a truly shared purpose, a gathering of a like-minded people. It is a special feeling, beyond an everyday occasion. Many of us are fortunate to have experienced it. During a celebration, a sporting event, or a performance. Within your group, club, community or nation. Whatever the tribe. It is that reciprocal feeling of happiness, that shared moment of awe we experience, a shared struggle, these are all experiences of communal closeness, of collective joy.
When communitas embraces us, it creates powerful, influential events. Once we experience it, we seek it out again. Communitas creates attention, emotion. It can connects us to our tribe, brands to their audiences, employers to employees. It sells tickets, raises funds, make us travel, gets us up in the early hours. Whatever the influence you seek to have, with whichever the audience, creating communitas is a powerful thing.
Like when your a Liverpool FC fan, ‘you will never walk alone’. 1 minute into this video you will experience the power of communitas, that 100,000 others did live.
We often see this in sport, at the Olympics or World Cups. The ‘Local Derby’ is a example of communitas in action, where the rollercoaster ride of nerves and truimph that spectators share as their team clashes against its arch enemy. And it seems the greater the rivalry, the greater a sense of communitas that embraces each set of fans. As you may know, El Clássico “The Classic”, the meeting between rivals Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, is considered one of the biggest football games in the world, and among the most viewed annual sporting events. The rivalry is regarded as one of the fiercest in world sport, and the match is known for its intensity. The two clubs are among the richest and most successful football clubs in the world. The communitas that is experienced by either side is a potent force. As Phil Ball, the author of Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football, says “they hate each other with an intensity that can truly shock the outsider’. The rivalry comes about as Madrid and Barcelona are the two largest cities in Spain, and are often identified with opposing political positions. So there is an intensity when the two come together.
And while at many sporting events this communitas may be ‘us against them’, once the battle concludes there is often a shared state of community, the tribe is united around the game, the event. Even as rivals the majority of football fans demonstrate respect for their rivals.
Whilst communitas is a lofty concept, and as event promoters, we can look to embrace communitas within our events. We can design to enhance the likelihood of it all appearing.
Research shows us communitas experiences often appear because of the disappearance of social hierarchies. Individuality disappears because the group’s energy is focused on a single cause or force, hence the feeling of oneness on either side at the El Classico. As we have learned, a purpose and a shareable experience are powerful features of events. If we add in an equally shared passion, we can create a collective joy.
We can observe the disappearance of social hierarchy and oneness at the starting line at a ‘fun run’. For the majority, they are equal, it is ‘us’ against the challenge, not against each other. Although rankings are given and results displayed, participants are peers. Even the elite, striving for victory have a healthy appreciation of others struggles and accomplishments in these environments. Communitas is after all about ‘a groups pleasure at sharing common experiences with fellows’. Everyone is very aware they are a mere mortal halfway through an endurance event. It is us against the distance. And we can promote this in our messaging around our event campaigns.
The Biggest Little Railway in the World, is an interesting small, but powerful example of an event creating communitas. The ‘BLR’ was a temporary 114km model railway set up by an assortment of 56 volunteers in the Scottish Highlands. Made up of ‘an army of madcap enthusiasts, geeks, and engineers’, they shared a collective passion, and purpose. The event has been described as ‘a crackpot project … in the best spirit of eccentric Britishness’.
Despite many challenges and disagreements, the assembled team shared a unique experience, were embraced by local communities (and an international TV audience), with a spirit of egalitarian camaraderie. In the final scene in the event, in what became a highly watched TV production, the little trains arrival at its destination showcased the collective joy of communitas. Tears were shed, with former strangers embracing all around. The collective joy was tangible – the experience of social ecstasy and oneness was experienced by the enthusiasts who had come together for a shared purpose.
The Value of Communitas
Whether it be the Woodstock or Live Aid, the Olympics or Le Tour, Octoberfest or the Edinburgh Fringe Fest, successful events embrace this thing called communitas. This includes public protests and is highly evident in public marches, another example of the value of communitas.
In a powerful demonstration of how influential events can be the ’Women’s March on DC’ brought over 500,000 people together on January 21, 2017, and created the largest ever Facebook event for a single cause. International Women’s Day was the No. 1 most talked about moment on Facebook, with people around the world talking, sharing and posting in celebration of women and related issues.
Burning Man is a gathering of commununitas, a temporary city built in the Arizona desert each year, a place for a moment in time, an experiment in community and art, driven by principles such as “radical” inclusion, self-reliance, and self-expression, as well as community cooperation, civic responsibility, and participation. The event takes its name from its peak moment when all participants come together for the symbolic ritual burning of a large wooden effigy (“the Man”). The gathering has become a global movement and is typical of many events we see achieve iconic status. Formulated by a small group of like-minded friends in 1986, it grew to become a 70,000 person event, sold out annually. And now scaled to include regional satellite events, all formed on the same principles of participation and community. And of course, the moment of impact, of the Burning Man, has captured imaginations and been an image amplified, to generate such a following and profile. An example of communitas the experience of social joy that is experienced when a likeminded people come together to form a tribe. The impact in a feeling of oneness when people come together for a shared cause. Communitas creates scale, in shareable events, that influence in today’s world. Event people know Communitas creates a collective joy.
So how do we bring Communitas to our event?
We create Communitas as we invent or reinvent your event. The Experience Design Playbook creates a MATCH between the audience and a shared purpose. A defined purpose for your event, and your organisation, which can be heightened as we MAP the journey.
3 Questions to ask about Communitas
- What is the shared passion for your event audience?
- Does your audience have a hierarchy? Can you remove this at your event, and focus on a purpose?
- Has your event (or one like it) achieved a feeling of collective joy in the past? Can you capture this, so that it can be shared again?