Last time I started writing, it was titled “Why Communities Matter“. Again, I’d like to reiterate that I am not yet even starting to delve into the whole talent community debate. It’s important for me to step back and see just where this whole discussion came from before throwing it back in the buzzword soup.
Communities used to be limited by geographical proximity. If you were close to a community, you were kind of in it, for better or worse and when you moved away, you kept tenuous ties but were no longer part of that community.
As we ventured online, user groups became a sort of wavery, online mirror of what communities looked like in real life, with the exception of the anonymity factor (yes I just named it that). Whether you were using Prodigy, America Online or Newsgroup, you could generally be anonymous. While this is an older article, it credits a 1984 user group called The Well as being one of the first to encourage the use of real names.
The ability to go online and share your view points with the seeming protection of anonymity gave rise to and abundance of vitriol and exaggeration, still seen today on virtually any Youtube video ever posted :) In my mind’s eye, I see this as kids racing through a candy store…blindfolded. MySpace and AOL were the stars of this generation, teaching generations how to behave or misbehave online. But these tools were beginning to be used by groups of people, schools, universities, military spouses to generate ties that were stronger and that stretched over longer distances than before.
As people began to see the internet as a place for professional discourse and even social interaction, as opposed to a giant library, weblogs and media sites became communities in and of themselves. Like spoke to like, and vast numbers of people congregated under a banner they had a hand in creating.
Fast forward past Terminator 2 and The Net, until we see entering stage left the big three, the undeniable stars of the current day community. Facebook obviously, centered once again around the proximity premise, with the original service being used within universities and then primarily for college students. Compare that with the behemoth social network that itself is a platform for thousands of communities centered around the benign (Tide, Oreos), the career oriented (BranchOut, Work4Labs), the ironic (Protesting Facebook Change) and the professional.
Twitter, has contributed to the online community platform, if for the sole reason of evening out the playing field of digital media for a little while. While it’s less community and more distribution service, it’s still a powerful service for brands, individuals and yes communities, who use the service to bolster conversation via the use of hashtags. While a seemingly insignificant part of the conversation, twitter chats are actually much more powerful than most people realize and share some of the same social loyalty based characteristics as ye olde tyme radio shows, which is why many of them have a radio component (internet based of course) that run alongside them. Same time, same channel, identifying call letters. These are all behaviors we understand and are familiar with, whether we used them to tune into a “fireside chat”, watch Family Ties every week or are LOST devotees. Traditional media taught us how. The exception being that it combines media we consume with media we participate in, underscoring that feeling of community.
LinkedIn. Most HR pros/recruiters would say this was where they first started building community. Here’s how it worked back in the day. You had a group of business contacts, recruiters and sales pros had more than most (stacks of business cards because stacks of contacts), you could share articles and job openings with your friends but that was about it until….groups. Groups made it so that anyone could create, manage and moderate a large group of people from a professional standpoint and because the platform was new, create almost instant “expert” status. Enterprising recruiters used in particular to turn candidate databases into “talent pools” that they could connect with on a regular basis and even begin to educate. Communities around companies, professional associations, disciplines, causes and localities sprang up by the hundreds, some numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
When I started building communities, ning was big, as was kickstarter. Now we seem to be having some trouble defining community. Maybe we’re having trouble redefining it. When something that comprises part of the definition suddenly becomes untrue or now needs a qualifier to make it true (as in locality or proximity now not necessarily a part of the definition of community or needing the qualifier of online to make this exception), it seems to spark a debate or underline the importance of semantics.
The history of online communities is one that shows a shifting line in the sand, with parts of it obliterated by the new waves of innovation that come crashing to shore, quicker and quicker now. This is by no means a comprehensive or heavily researched account. But as I said, I am looking to get my thoughts together on communities and what they mean to marketing, HR and other disciplines.