What Gary Vaynerchuck & Joe Rogan Can Teach Us About the Importance of Community
Christy Vines is President of the IDEOS Institute.
Two words, Gary Vaynerchuck. Two more words, Joe Rogan. If these names are unfamiliar to you, welcome to the 21st-century world of YouTube rockstars and podcast celebrities. These two names might just be akin to Madonna, Prince or Bono – all recognizable as first names only - for us (ahem) older types. Typically reserved for A-listers and Hollywood’s newest marquis faces, Vaynerchuck (aka Gary Vee) and Rogan have quickly skyrocketed to super-celebrity status. And while many might question the “how” of their rise, I find the more interesting question is “why?”
In 2017, author Ana Guerra wrote a blog post on the rise of Gary Vaynerchuck titled “How Gary Vaynerchuck Built a Brand Community Through Vlogging.” In it, she surmises that successful brand communities (i.e. specialized, non-geographically bound communities based on a structured set of social relations between admirers of a particular brand) share three important qualities: shared consciousness, rituals and traditions, and a sense of moral responsibility. In the post, she defined these three qualities in the following manner:
Shared consciousness - when members share a connection that makes them feel as if they are part of something that others, outside of the community, are not.
Rituals and traditions - an environment where members honor and respect the culture within the community and preserve its history. Members often feel the brand belongs to them and that they know as much about its core values as the company itself.
Sense of moral responsibility - the moral duty members feel to the community overall, as well as feeling responsible for taking care of others within the community.
While true fans of Vaynerchuck (aka VaynerNation) might not easily attribute these qualities to their once unknown guru, all three find homes - in different measures - in his essence and branding. However, what members of VaynerNation might tell you is that not only do they understand Vaynerchuck’s business philosophy, they understand his life philosophy as well, and even share it in some way. As members of the community, they have become a part of Vaynerchuck’s journey and maturation and, hence, share a similar if not exact cultural and methodological consciousness. What Vaynerchuck does brilliantly here is create an almost spiritual experience for the VaynerNation community.
For those fascinated and inspired by all things Gary Vaynerchuck, the mere process of watching one of his regular YouTube videos or consuming one of his social media posts becomes ritualistic in and of itself. Here is where the community communes, descending upon the topic or issue to which he is speaking with incredible regularity. This is also where VaynerNation excels in an almost feeding frenzy like fashion as each member contributes a new idea or strategy – all inspired by Vaynerchuck’s words and the values he espouses. And make no mistake about it, the Gary Vaynerchuck approach is predicated on a very specific and well-articulated value proposition developed as a result of his early business success and honed over his many years as a social media guru.
When it comes to moral responsibility, Vaynerchuck does not disappoint. Though if you don’t allow yourself to move past the somewhat aggressive persona or vulgar language you will miss what he does best – articulate his belief in everyday people, e.g. the average folks, the overlooked, the undervalued, the underdogs - the ones who might just have the world’s next best idea but come to it without formal education, a position of agency or title. Yes, Vaynerchuck believes in the possibility that exists in each and every one of us, not as a result of intellectual prowess or academic brilliance, but by adherance to the mantra of passion, hard work, and social connection. For Vaynerchuck, the overuse or perhaps even abuse of social media is the means by which one connects to the masses; the platform through which messages are universally communicated; and, the basis for community building (though without a clear distinction as to whether a brand community is the same as or can take the place of a true community).
Yet, if you are not a member of VaynerNation, you might not easily guess that Vaynerchuck’s rise to superstardom actually began in the early 2000s when he took his father’s traditional retail liquor store online and branded it “Wine Library”, shortly followed by “Wine Library TV”, a YouTube show and daily webcast where he discussed different types of wines. In just a few short years, Vaynerchuck took his dad’s small, one-store retail business from a $3 million to a $60 million operation.
As a result of Vaynerchuck’s success and his extraordinary ability and desire to communicate the strategy behind his business success, he now runs VaynerMedia, a multi-million dollar digital media agency focused on social media with offices globally and a YouTube channel with over 2.3 million subscribers.
So how did he do it?
Before I attempt to answer that question, let’s dive into another case study: Joe Rogan.
A standup comedian for over 20 years, Joe Rogan now hosts one of the most popular podcasts in the world, The Joe Rogan Experience. Part talk show, part entertainment, part news, and commentary, the show regularly ranks in the top 5 of all listened to podcasts globally. A study conducted by Coleman Insights in 2019 revealed that The Joe Rogan Experience ranked the highest in the unaided awareness category, double that of any other podcast. So why is Joe Rogan, and the experience of listening to him talk for 2 hours per episode, coveted as a daily ritual by so many? It’s because Joe Rogan, not unlike Gary Vaynerchuck, has learned how to build a community of followers who not only identify with what he has to say but believe they are a part of a unique community of (primarily) men whose ideas, perspectives and activities are valued. And Rogan’s listeners feel it.
A former full contact Tae Kwon Do black belt and US Open Tae Kwon Do champion, Rogan would also become the color commentator for the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) and host of the competition reality series Fear Factor on NBC. He then turned to acting with film credits including Here Comes The Boom (2012) and Zookeeper (2011) and host of Joe Rogan Questions Everything (2013) for the SyFy channel.
However, despite his off-kilter resume, what Rogan has truly mastered is the art of community building.
In an August 2019 article in The Atlantic titled “Why is Joe Rogan So Popular?”, author Devin Gordon described the unprecedented rise in Joe Rogan’s popularity thusly:
“Few men in America are as popular among American men as Joe Rogan. It’s a massive group congregating in plain sight, and it’s made up of people you know from high school, guys who work three cubicles down, who are still paying off student loans, who forward jealous-girlfriend memes, who spot you at the gym. Single guys. Married guys. White guys, black guys, Dominican guys. Two South Asian friends of mine swear by him. My college roommate. My little brother. Normal guys. American guys…As popular as he seems to be with quote-unquote regular guys, that’s how unpopular Joe Rogan is with the quote-unquote prestige wing of popular culture—Emmy voters, HBO subscribers, comedy nerds. Thought leaders. Thought followers. There are plenty of Joe Rogan fans among them, too, but they tend not to bring it up.”
But here is where Gordon gets to the meat of his well-plated reasoning:
“Most of Rogan’s critics don’t really grasp the breadth and depth of the community he has built, and they act as though trying is pointless. If they decide they want to write off his podcast as a parade of alt-right idiots and incels (as opposed to a handful of cretins out of about 1,400 guests) they will turn up sufficient evidence. And his podcast is a parade of men. So many men. Talking so (so, so, so) much about the things men talk about in 2019 when they think no one’s listening.”
And there it is…community. What Joe Rogan and Gary Vaynerchuck have masterfully created is a community of listeners, followers, believers. People who desire to see themselves as Vaynerchuck and Rogan do…as “potenialites” with unlimited potential, intrinsic value and basic humanity. They believe that Vaynerchuck and Rogan truly “see” them and love them all the more for what they see.
So how can this translate to the world we are experiencing right now? A culture that masterfully builds digital communities of people totally disconnected geographically, yet are finding some level of connection through them?
I believe that this kind of brand community is the recipe many of us are searching for today. One that offers us even greater benefits if we’d only apply these same ideals to the people who live within arm’s reach: the neighbors to the right and left of us, across the street, or around the corner; the ones sitting across from us at the coffee shop or those we recognize as regulars in the local supermarket. It’s the harkening back to the kind of “local community” that provided us with the best friends we invite to stand with us at weddings, celebrate with us at life’s milestones, even the ones that color our stories as we describe where and how we grew up. In essence, the local community of yesteryear is the one we suddenly recognize still has a grip on us today. So why have we so easily abandoned this type of community to the shadows of the digitized, shallow versions we now race towards on our phones and electronic devices?
The lure of technology – a community we can hold in the palm of our hand – can easily become an ever-present danger to the community we should have in our heart. For it is the people we know and, more importantly, who know us that make the greatest difference in our lives. They are the ones who help make us feel less alone, and by extension, less lonely – a condition that is increasingly being treated as a dire public health threat.
Even Forbes – a magazine for the business elite –recognizes the real impact of what is now deemed the “loneliness crisis.” In a May 2019 article they highlight the results of a 2018 survey from The Economist and the Kaiser Family Foundation that found more than two in ten adults in the United States (22%) and the United Kingdom (23%) say they always or often feel lonely, lack companionship, or feel left out or isolated. The article goes on to state that “figures like these have been ubiquitous in the press lately, with alarming statistics about loneliness now accompanied by equally alarming warnings that it’s stunting our lives and outright killing us. The scourge of loneliness is an issue that we’re going to hear ever-more about in the years to come.”
Even more alarmingly the article cites an October 2019 BBC national survey which found that “nearly half of Britons over 65 consider the television or a pet their main source of company.” And in Japan, “there are more than half a million people under 40 who haven’t left their house or interacted with anyone for at least six months.”
Loneliness has long been a part of the human condition. It is a social and even primeval warning sign to seek out a primary resource: connection. We are creatures who require social bonds much in the same way we need hydration and nutrition. Community is essential not only to our soul but to our survival.
But despite the many ways technology allows us to digitally connect with any manner of persons near and far, we increasingly find ourselves isolated and alone. What was once an adaptive tool has become so misaligned with the way we live that it’s causing, in the words of the former surgeon general, Vivek H. Murthy, an “epidemic”. Loneliness is now believed to elevate our risk of developing cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative diseases, cognitive decline, and metastatic cancer. It weakens the immune system and makes us more susceptible to infections. Left untended, even situational loneliness can ossify into a fixed state that changes brain structures and processes, says Stephanie Cacioppo, director of the Brain Dynamics Lab at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine.
But can community truly be the non-pharmaceutical Rx to this burgeoning crisis? Might it be a much easier pill to swallow than the ones under clinical trial like pregnenolone and allopregnanolone? I certainly hope so.
Until there is some magic pill that makes us all feel loved, welcomed and accepted, perhaps the renewal and building of personal community might be in order.
In his book Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, personal favorite and guru of the new business and marketing set, Seth Godin, describes a tribe as “a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea.” He also believes that a group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate. For Godin, the building of tribes (i.e. community) might just be the medicine we’ve all been longing for.
Though Tribes is filled with insightful and, in some ways, groundbreaking lessons, it is some of the big ideas that Godin posits that I find so compelling:
One: Be personal. If you want to reach other humans, act like one.
Two: Be generous. People don’t care about what matters to you; they care about what matters to them. If you want to build a community, stop thinking about yourself and start thinking about how you can help other people.
Three: Show up. Show up when you say you will, do what you say you’re going to do, and allow others to show up in their own authentic way. In other words, be open to people different from you.
Four: We need each other. Human beings can’t help it: we need to belong.
Though simplistic and perhaps even unworthy of the high acclaim Godin received following Tribes' publishing, one thing is certain: Godin gets to the heart of what it takes not only to build community but to be a productive member of society. It is the essence of the Golden Rule: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matt. 7:12). It is also the core of what most of us learned during our formative years: that sharing is a requirement to make friends in sandboxes and on playgrounds. Sadly, building community in adulthood isn’t all that different, yet it is ultimately, a recipe for how not to be lonely. So why then has loneliness so consumed us as a global society?
Loneliness is not part of God's grand design. After all, God invites us into fellowship with himself and with one another to enjoy the love and relationship of being a part of a spiritual family. After creating the Heavens and the Earth, God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18). In creating mankind, God’s desire was for us to participate in this thing called community, and to know the perfect and joyous experience of being in direct and holy connection with one another.
Author Paul Tripp describes this essence of community beautifully:
“We weren't created to be independent, autonomous, or self-sufficient. We were made to live in a humble, worshipful, and loving dependency upon God and in a loving and humble interdependency with others. Our lives were designed to be community projects.”
While Vaynerchuck and Rogan have both built an incredible digital community and have created in large part the tribes Godin describes in his book, we are discovering that those communities do not serve as an antidote to the loneliness epidemic. And while both have created a powerful network of followers and loyalists around themselves and their brands, many of those same individuals who find incredible acceptance and support as members of these communities, also find their loneliness unabated.
What we are learning is that the digital communities many of us are a part of cannot so quickly replace the natural and needed experience of being in personal and direct relationships with other people. To know and be known personally and completely. To be a part of something that serves not just as a social connector but as a life supporter.
So whether we look to science or the pharmaceutical industry to discover the next scientific breakthrough, or to tech titans to create even bigger and more advanced platforms for finding one’s newest tribe, the truth is we need to be in living, breathing communion with one another, and to trust, rely on, and depend upon one another. As author Christina Fox puts it in her piece Don’t Go It Alone, You Were Made for Community, “Not only were we created to be in community, but we also need community. As I learned hiking in the Alaskan mountains, there is safety in numbers.”
Christy Vines is President of the IDEOS Institute. She is a published writer, international speaker and strategy expert, and has served as an expert and advisor to government leaders and agencies in and outside of the U.S. on issues related to women’s leadership and global gender equality; conflict mitigation and peacebuilding; international religious freedom and countering violent extremism. Her work has been published in the Washington Post, Religion News Service, Capital Commentary and Christianity Today.
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