Community starts with people who know they have something to share.

The other night I heard a woman introduce and dismiss herself as “boring.” I was at an event where a lot of people were meeting each other for the first time.

“I’m sure you’re not boring,” I said, hoping my tone projected a respect for her humility (serial networkers have little of it). “What’s your story?”

People have this sense that what they know, what they like, who they are and what they’ve lived is not worth sharing beyond a close circle of friends. These are often the same people who tell me they’re not on public sharing sites like Twitter because they have nothing to say. They’re wrong. Every one of them. Every time.

I became a journalist partly because I’ve always believed everyone has a story. The enduring contribution social media has made to society is to prove it.

A question I’m often asked about my following on blogs and various social media sites is: “How did you do it? How did you build a following this large/significant/noteworthy?"

I understand the question and why it’s useful, but I don’t like it for three reasons. One, it reduces the people who chat with me to a number. Two, it frames a multi-way community relationship with many beneficiaries as a one-way relationship with one beneficiary—me. And three, it projects intention and strategy where there was only self-perpetuating fulfillment. How did you do it? As if the only people who can share interesting things that draw others are those lucky, enviable people who have a plan.

Seattle-based design visionary August de los Reyes wowed the crowd at the HIVE design conference in September with a presentation that analyzed historical trends and emerging behaviors to arrive at a series of succinct truths about 21st century community. My favorite was this: In the old community, you belonged in order to learn.

In the new community, you learn in order to belong. I think the same type of idea applies to sharing. In the digitally-empowered 21st century community, you don’t belong in order to share. You share in order to belong.

It’s no wonder then that people have a hard time figuring out just what they should share through all these easy and rewarding communication channels. When that choice begins with you, it’s paralyzing. What communities do I want to be a part of? the thought might go. Once I decide that, then I can begin sharing. That goal-oriented approach works for companies, organizations, causes and other pinned-down “brands.” It doesn’t work for people—at least not if people make the most of what today’s porous, flexible, scalable digital communities can do. They are as ever-changing as we are, and they can finally reflect and engage us at every moment, even as we change, even as we doubt, even as we surprise ourselves.

I’ve always had trouble with the term “personal brand.” Now I know why. Brand have definitions. People need to be at liberty to change—even when they don’t realize they’re changing.

Many people who participate in today’s online communities share the things they see – photos uploaded from their phones, perhaps – and the things they like – an article, a video, a joke. This says a lot, but it doesn’t say it all. To think about what one could share to make the most of community in the 21st century, I turn to someone from the 19th:

“A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light that flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre and firmaments of bards and sages,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Yet he dismisses without notice his thought because it is his.”

No one is boring. No one can’t share. No one can’t belong. The sooner we know that, the sooner we’ll work together to build the worlds we need.