It is driving me $^&*ing bonkers.
You have a group of people who love what you put out. They tell you you're great. They buy your merch. They watch your content. They consume your product. You appreciate what they do for you and that they support your existence. You create more things because of them, which they in turn also love. They tell their friends. The cycle continues.
Congrats, you have fans.
Now go back to that paragraph. That cycle does its thing. But it's a little different. You don't just appreciate what they do for you, you make that appreciation an active part of what you do. You communicate and interact with them. Not in a superficial head-nod sort of way but an actual interaction where you're more a person than a concept. Their responses to you shape at least some of what you do. You foster connections with them and with each other. You take an active role in how they consume your product in a way that is deeper than where you choose to put it. Your fans come together in a way that if you were to drop off the face of the planet right this very second they would all still continue to gather for a while.
Congrats, you have a community.
It's great to have fans. You need fans to keep doing your thing, and creating something that brings a fan-base into existence is no small feat. You don't need to have a community, and keeping the relationship with the people who support your endeavors one-sided is a perfectly fine strategy. It gives you some freedom and flexibility to make business decisions that could be to the detriment of a community and require more effort from you. A fan-base is a constant stream of flux. People, especially those who dwell online, are fickle and can decide at the drop of a hat that they don't like what you're doing anymore and go on their merry way, ceasing to be a fan. But just as easily a new person can suddenly join the ranks. When your bottom line is numbers, who is behind them is of little consequence.
Fans look to you as their common factor and don't have a group identity beyond "people who like your thing".
A community is a two-way street. They have a relationship with you, but you also have a relationship with them. That relationship doesn't have to be individual (meaning you don't have to have a personal relationship with each and every member of a community), but it is the difference between hearing someone and listening to them. Calling a group a community doesn't make it so, and it requires an active effort on the part of whoever is the focus of that fan base to take it to the state of being a community, creating a group where the group itself becomes the focus and can function without the original focus for periods of time. The bottom line is no longer just the numbers; who is behind them is now a part of your equation.
It also requires an active effort to keep it in that state.
A community is not a "set it and forget it" thing. It's a living thing. It requires care and relatively constant input. A strong community can be self-sufficient for stretches of time, but it will deteriorate overtime without intervention. The fractures from that are hard to repair. Think of it like a GPA; it is a LOT easier to keep it in a good range than it is to try to recover from a bad mark. The nice thing about a community is it fosters friendships that will persist beyond you, and even if you disappear or your community reverts back to being a fan-base there are parts of it that will remain friends and continue their relationships without the need for you to be a factor.
There is nothing wrong with having a fan-base over having a community. A community is a lot of work and is harder to maintain as it grows. If that's not where you want to focus your energy, that's perfectly acceptable. If you have a community and let it slide back towards being a fan-base, that's okay too. You have to realize, though, that those who were deeply embedded in that community are going to see that shift. If you continue to sit there and talk about your "community" and how much you appreciate it you'd best be prepared for some salt. It's like you broke up with them in secret, privately ignoring them but publicly telling everyone how wonderful they are. You're telling your "community" that you value them without actually doing anything to back it up. And they know it. They know. And now they're insulted because you're acting like they're too stupid to know. So now they're really mad, and the people who should be your allies in bringing in new fans or helping to rebuild a community after you slide backwards are going to do the opposite.
Why do I say this? Because I've worked with a number of communities and have seen too many entities that doesn't seem able (or maybe it's that they aren't willing) to discern the difference between having fans and having a community and are damaging what they have without realizing it. Or without caring that they're doing it. It's hard to tell sometimes. Anyone who has been a fan for a while can tell when you're no longer community-centric. If you're carrying yourself and making business decisions in a way that moves you towards having fans versus having a community that's fine, but you have to own up to that being what you're doing. And if you're not sure? Your community will tell you, you just have to listen.
In conclusion, here's some puppies.