I just got back from vacation. Well, technically I am typing this on the plane coming back from vacation. Those who know me, know I am not a fan of vacation. I do what I love and am perfectly happy with the social activities woven into my job. But I had this planned for a long time, so I went through with it. It ended up being a harrowing vacation, filled with stress, a couple of injuries and too much intermittent travel, but I also had some amazing experiences, saw places I had never seen and got to see and spend time with a ton of old friends. So it netted out fine in the long run. 🙂
One couple that I was lucky enough to spend time with have been living in Florence, Italy for almost a year now. They are both huge advocates of the slow food and eat locally/sustainably movements and one of them is a chef by profession. This is a very big trend in my home city of Chicago too, so we talked a bunch about it.
One point that we spent a bunch of time on was the effect that food had on culture. In Italy, there is a fear that the influence of other cultures is making their children stray from valuing the food culture that the individual regions and communities have had for generations. There is even a community in Tuscany that has outlawed non-Italian ethnic food stores/restaurants from the city center to help curb these feared effects.
The chef recently spent a month working on a rural farm in the mountains on the border of Tuscany and learned that region’s art of artisan sausage making. While chatting about the intricacies of sausage craft might bore some to death, I was fascinated and we talked at length about it, even spending one afternoon visiting the farm where he worked. He explained that each region has special breeds of pigs and cows and special preparation techniques for their sausage – some subtle, some drastically different. Each region values their style and is fiercely proud of it. The chef felt very privileged to be able to study at the saluminera that he did, as our FDA regulations will not allow the same procedures in the states.
You see, we require pasteurizing as part of the process for most of our food, including sausage. I am all about preventing sickness and spread of bad bacteria, but this is one of the cases where our American tendency to go overboard may have had a negative effect. When you pasteurize, you homogenized. You take out the bacteria that could make the meat (or milk, etc) bad. But you also speed up processes that nature (and gifted chefs over the years) have perfected, specifically in curing the meat. The slower process (and not killed bacteria) allows the meat to develop different flavors that just can’t be found through the pasteurizing process. Those subtleties in the different regions can be impossible to replicate.
Just like salami, it’s the subtleties that make all the difference. In sausage, maybe it’s an extra couple months of aging, or the way they tie the string, or special kind of fennel they use that has been grown in that region for years. In community, it’s the vision of the brand/property, the age of the users, the ethos and spirit of the game/world/community. Treating every online community the same is a sure fire way to lose the possibility of having that magic in your community. And it’s the magic that the members want.
Now I am an American, a midwesterner even. I can enjoy a homogenized summer sausage and store-brand cheddar plate at party as much as the next person. 😉 And many cookie-cutter techniques work just fine for basic online communities and can serve their purpose (you see this especially in customer service communities). But those truly special communities, the ones that last and last, or the ones we talk about years after we stop participating, or are still talked about after they close down – chances are, they had a community management vision reminiscent of a small artisanal sausage maker in Tuscany. If you put the same care and integrity into building your community as those tiny sausage makers do, you will reap the same kind of benefits.
And if you are ever in Pisa/Florence area of Italy, take a day trip to Pavana in Sambucca di Pastoia and visit the restaurant, Laciosteria, and butcher shop owned by the Savigni family. It’s a truly inspiring (and delicious) trip.