I just attended a breakfast here in Dallas where we talked about social networking and communities as they apply to businesses. The attendance for a non-technical conversation was pretty impressive. The talk focused primarily on the big mega-communities (Facebook, MySpace, Youtube, the list goes on…) and the speakers had some excellent examples from 2008 political campaigns to the Dove YouTube! videos.
But for each of these wildly successful examples of how “community works” or “social media” (or whatever you call it) works, how many didn’t work? While I agree that the move to “individual addressibility”, i.e. content tailored to you, makes sense — how much of it just becomes more noise for me to sort through? So while the talking heads are pushing this move towards individualism and targeted marketing saying things like “traditional marketing doesn’t work” the market ends up creating more noise for those individuals to have to sort through. In other words, yes there is content that I’m interested in, but it’s getting a lot harder to find. So as individualism increases so does the amount of content that isn’t something I’m interested in. What a conundrum.
A move to micro-communities
The trend that I’ve been watching more closely (mainly from our customers) is not the trend to more mega-communities (for lack of a better word) but a trend towards micro-communities. A community is after all a group of people with a common interest. There is a certain size that a community reaches after which the original highly personal “community” feel just gets lost. This is a theme we’re focusing on for Community Server 2008 (our next big release) but that’s off-topic for now.
I’ve been playing a lot with Facebook lately (profile here) what I really like is how they make it feel small. Instead of pushing millions of profiles and discussion on me they only focus on the people I’m interested in. I get that and I love it. It reminds me a little of the early days of building the ASP.NET developer community while I was at Microsoft. I’ve thought about the original ASP.NET community a lot lately and what really sticks for me isn’t that the technology was “cool” (although it was) … it was the people. It was the daily interaction between like-minded people that wanted to get together, discuss problems, find solutions, and generally just help each other. Out of that “community” was born a large number of friendships that I still have today.
Does social networking make you less social?
Mega-social networks help people connect (facebook and myspace.com actually do a pretty good job). But I don’t think they help make you more “social”. Scott Cate posted on my Facebook account, something akin to “… what is facebook, another popularity contest…”? He makes a good point. In some ways it does feed that competitive urge to win the most number of friends! But does it really help me become more social? What’s sad is I now know a lot more about my friends than I did before I started using these tools. But, I also spend less actual time with them. The relationships have become virtual too. In other words I’m time slicing so much that I’m now trying to manage my friendships asynchronously and offline too (like email). To me that just seems broken.
What we’re doing about it
We’re on a mission at Telligent. We want to bring back the personal feel of the community. We’ve helped a lot of our customers build communities, but many are still too impersonal. Maybe the sign of a truly successfully community is one that exists outside of the browser too. For me, at least, that means that as a community gets bigger in some ways the original value starts decreasing! What’s worse is that the community and the sponsor of the community are typically at odds with one another; the business wants millions of members, while the original members want it to remain small and personal. I think there is a way to both build a thriving community and keep it feeling personal.
At Telligent we’re interested in building tools that enable communities to flourish. In the next year you are going to see us get laser focused on figuring out how to make the community around that tools (forums, blogs, profiles) work better, enable niche communities and groups, and feel more personal.
P.S., if you want to be part of this, we are hiring. Just drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.