“I’m going to put this program at the heart of the Pacific Northwest’s media community,” I told myself upon assuming the leadership of the University of Washington’s Master of Communication in Digital Media program in 2007.

But why was “community” so central to such a bold proclamation?

At the time, I had a geographic-centric definition of the word. My wife and I had recently produced and directed Independent America: The Two Lane-Search for Mom & Pop, a cross-country documentary examining the struggle between independent business owners and Big Box stores, a story inherently engaging community as rooted in physical place.

Through the production of Independent America, we reached out to our online community of followers, sharing our findings and taking their lead as to where to go next. This was a novel approach in 2005; I only began to understand its importance as I started shaping my graduate program’s curriculum—just as social media was beginning to explode.

It was then that I realized “community” also meant like-minded people pursuing a common interest, be it online or off. Thanks to the growing availability of digital content creation (including inexpensive cameras and mobile devices) and distribution tools (such as YouTube and Facebook), we as individuals suddenly had the power to inspire others to assemble, share and even take action through our stories. And we could do so independently of large institutions that once had a monopoly on such activities, be it corporate or state-run media. Barack Obama’s unprecedented grassroots campaign that funded his presidential victory in 2008 was the tipping point for recognizing the power of such “community” action. A few months later, a shaky video taken on a cellphone camera of a protester shot to death on the streets of Teheran and distributed on YouTube would inspire other communities around the world to form and galvanize their opposition to the Iranian government. In 2010, the “institution” recognized the “individual” when the Polk Award for Excellence in Journalism was awarded to the anonymous, amateur creator of the “Neda” video, broadcast around the world on YouTube, the BBC and CNN.

It is said that when you change how society communicates, you change society. In the past 20 years, digital technologies have disrupted the world as we know it, and they continue to do so. These increasingly social tools make it easier than ever for people to self-organize around a common purpose and accomplish remarkable things; they can also add to the chaotic noise and increasing distrust we’re experiencing in the digital age. At the heart of this upheaval lies the fundamental challenge: How can we design communities – online and off – using the back-and-forth of interactive communication to nurture the strong social capital needed to sustain them? Our reward for discovering the answer will be a newfound ability to overcome seemingly insurmountable societal and business challenges.

What brings these sometimes far-flung communities together? As we found with Independent America, it was the simple act of sharing the production process and our findings within a small, passionate group. By reaching out to people who shared a common interest and sustaining their attention, we built a level of trust that led to reciprocity (they shared with us, and later, bought our DVD and shared it with their communities).

In interactive ecosystems, the more communicators share with the communities they’ve convened the more trust is created, leading to more sustainable interactions and possibly more powerful actions. The change of the Tunisian and Egyptian political regimes in the so-called “Arab Spring” in early 2011 is testimony to what self-organized communities can do when their members realize that they’re not alone in their thoughts and aspirations. Suddenly, they recognize that they can come together as a makeshift community and effect tremendous upheaval. We will continue to see these self-organized “leaderless” uprisings occur, enabled by these social technologies. The Occupy Wall Street (propelled largely by Twitter) movement and the London Riots (supported by Blackberry mobile messaging) are testimony to this.

And yet, even as we adjust to these seismic changes, we must also recognize that as easily as these communities are created, they can just as quickly disintegrate. By making communication so accessible, these digital tools have also devalued the activity itself. Would Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak have abdicated simply from the threat of a million Facebook “likes” registered on an opposition page? Facebook brought these protesters together, but it was their willingness to physically face the army and police that catalyzed the fall of the government.

As the glue that holds society together, community is crucial to communication. If we want to continue to design and build around the places where humans physically gather, wouldn’t it help if we understood what, in this digital age, inspires and enables acts of sharing, collaboration and collective action in the first place? What this assembly of journalists, academics, communications professionals and thought leaders share in the coming feature may surprise you. Thanks to our networked world, we are in a constant state of disruption, where well-established hierarchies are giving way to informally created, bottom-up, self-organized communities. This newfound community power will demand a more interactive, consultative approach to how designers think and work.