Boris asked me this question recently and it made me think. In fact, I got lost this morning down a rabbit hole reading about people who are most definitely members of the Flickr community.
Though the relationship quite strange, Thomas Hawk, the CEO of competitive photo sharing site Zooomr, is one example of a devoted Flickr community member. He has solid credentials and cares about Flickr - even though it manifests itself in negativity from time to time. I point to Thomas because he is an example of a vocal community member and one who has an influence.
Me? I do not consider myself a community member. This may surprise some, as I love Flickr, I evangelize, I watch it. I use it everyday. I have 1000s of photos shared on Flickr. I have a group of "Flickr Friends" and have met new friends through the web site. I care about it and want it to succeed. But I still don't consider myself a community member. Really, I'm just an admiring user.
Why? I'm not a member because I don't identify with the larger Flickr community. There is a community there - I can see the members in action. It works within Flickr Central, it communicates with the designers, it brainstorms how Flickr could be better, it reports problems, it criticizes when it sees the need, it helps one another. It joins groups and connects with other members on an ongoing basis. It feels a connection to the individuals who also identify themselves as part of the community. Members may not be active/producing/working members, but this does not preclude them from community membership. They are members if they feel it.
Me - I just like Flickr. I am a customer. It's a fun place to share my photos. It seems to me that community membership is all about perception. I may have membership at a website and use it often, but this doesn't mean I'm a member of the community. I am only a member of the community when I feel like a member of the community - and this may have very little to do with the web site. No label, brand or good intention can make that decision for me.
For organizations that are interested in "community" the key point is that your customers are the ones who decide if there is a community or not. All you can do is set the stage.
How do you encourage the feeling of community? Listen to them and help them become aware of one another. Let them tell you how to improve or fix something in public view. Give them a little ownership in the process. Appreciate and act on their input. Show that their participation has a positive impact on the organization/product. Help them work together and connect. Put on a personal face. Be real and honest about the realities of the business. And, as you do this, remember that it can be messy.
It's all much harder than it sounds, but it's becoming a necessary skill and it can produce amazing results. Check out this thread in Flickr Central. That "Stewart" is the Flickr co-founder and one of Time's 100 Influentials. Though he is now the Director of Product Mangement at Yahoo, he's right there in the forum working directly with users. Why? My guess is that it's because he knows that inside the community is where he can have the biggest impact. It's a big part of what made Flickr great in the first place.
Want another example? The creators of 43 Things, The Robot Coop, also created ideas.43things.com as a way for their community to inspire the next versions of their sites. As Josh said once to me with a wink "We don't have to come up with new ideas anymore".