Jeny Staiman is a serious knitter. In the knitting world she enjoys rock-star status similar to Elvis Costello. A dedicated, if niche, following.

Staiman, who daylights as a usability research engineer, is credited with inventing sophisticated stitches and patterns, which she meticulously illustrates using computer software and then shares using graphics and demonstration videos on her blog,
Curious Knitter.

Last Spring, Staiman was asked to teach her new “Double Heelix” sock pattern at the 2011 Sock Summit in Portland, Oregon. Over 6,000 attended this annual gathering specifically created for the worldwide knitting tribe. The Double Heelix elegantly solved an age-old knitting problem: how to knit a spiral heel of a sock with no ends to weave-in. In the knitting community, this groundbreaking design is nothing short of genius.

With the advent of virtual communities on blogs like Curious Knitter and sites like ravelry.com (think Facebook for knitters), people need not ask permission to lead. Staiman and others share their creative designs with their virtual communities as soon as they have them, and in this way participate actively in these spaces. With that said, the Sock Summit’s popularity illustrates the increasing interplay between virtual communities and place-based activities; at the conference, attendees who regularly access information remotely from Curious Knitter had the valuable chance to meet personally with Staiman. Many Sock Summit attendees took one look at her nametag and exclaimed, “You’re that Jeny!” Staiman’s virtual identity and reputation as the Curious Knitter precedes her.

Virtual communities connect like-minded individuals and form fruitful platforms for identifying and voicing solutions to address both boutique challenges (like sock patterns) as well as some of the world’s most complex issues. 350.org, a grassroots movement to promote climate change awareness, bases its operations strategy on the strength of new media networking to form proactive virtual communities. In the first 20 months of their existence, 350.org coordinated 15,000 discreet climate change awareness events in over 180 countries—much of this through mouse clicks. For most of the 350.org staff, offices are laptops and the scope of their efforts is unprecedented.

350.org relies on localized efforts inspired by the instinct to collaborate. As Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker writes, communities manifest “the impulse toward collective problem-solving that’s so central to human society.” 350.org taps into this hard-wiring, bolstered by the new speed and reach that virtual communities provide.

However, 350.org’s impact will only be felt if there is genuine leadership both on the ground and online—an impressive number of events alone cannot change policy, nor can a slick interface truly inspire a virtual community. Given the increased blur between offline and online communities, leadership influences communities regardless of the platform. Strong leadership is more important than ever before, given communities are built by emotional connections. Leaders act as the storytellers, the motivators and the curators of our online worlds, which require bridges to physical communities in order for individuals to enact long-term change.

According to 350.org social-media coordinator Joe Solomon, they built their high-level of community engagement by encouraging leadership at all levels and localities, connecting them through social networks that galvanized a community centric movement. This on-the-ground training married to virtual communities creates the perfect combination for growth. But growth is not synonymous with impact. “Technology no sooner creates social change than a hammer builds a house,” Solomon said. “People do.”

While there have been a multitude of gatherings of individuals who share common interests well before the digital age, virtual communities have provided a forum where traditionally unaffiliated groups or individuals can institutionalize what binds them, create a center stage for leaders and cement deeper ties through problem solving. Community is no longer defined exclusively by place, proximity or time. Individuals now select their own spaces and regularity of engagement. Virtual communities thrive from asynchronous involvement—there is no waiting around a conference table for everyone to arrive. Sites like Ravelry and 350.org highlight that communities are no longer limited by geography; indeed, they benefit tremendously from their global reach. Virtual communities allow us to become found in a world of our choosing; they are important extensions of our communities that have been rooted primarily in place.

Our natural inclination to seek solutions, combined with the rich possibilities of the digital landscape, means that leaders everywhere can craft messages that have wider reach and greater impact. Strong leaders now seamlessly weave communities between the physical and virtual worlds.

Just like a Double Heelix.