For the Love of Communities
What is it about an online community?
Just what, exactly, draws people together online? Perhaps that is the better question.
When you look at Groundswell, the authors have the thing all figured out, or at least it seems that way. Internet users are divided into various social technographics profiles. People who join online communities are called Critics (about 25% of the United States). People who create content, including not just making and contributing to discussion topics and blogs but also uploading photographs and other media are called Creators (approximately 18% of the US). And the lurkers, the folks who watch but don’t participate, are Spectators (48% or so of America). People overlap and can be members of any or all of these groups, or of other groups I won’t get into here. Plus, of course, this only covers people who are online. Note: this is a tool created by Forrester, based upon extensive research, and can be found: here.
So, it’s in our nature, or at least in some people’s natures. But there may be more to that so what follows is my own personal story which I hope will be of interest.
I first really got online socially (although I had used computers offline for years before then) in 1997. Princess Diana had just been killed, and for whatever reason I wanted to discuss this with someone, and my husband was not being too terribly cooperative. We had a fairly new computer with Internet access. I don’t know what possessed me — I just felt the need to talk to someone about Princess Diana, someone I hadn’t even been a particular fan of before. Perhaps it’s because her death, at the time, was so shocking.
I found mirc, a chat client. There wasn’t anyone to specifically discuss the matter with, but there were people to talk to. And so a love affair with social media and online communities began.
By 2000, I wanted a more challenging group of conversationalists. The Presidential election was so close and so interesting that I wanted to talk to someone about it. A colleague from India was even asking me: Are all American elections like this? and I did not have a good answer for him. I wanted to learn. Plus, it was the same feeling as in 1997 — I just wanted to have a conversation. I found Abuzz, which was owned and operated by The New York Times and The Boston Globe (the Globe is important to me because I live in Brighton, Massachusetts). Here were intelligent people who were just as fascinated by the extremely close election! It was exciting.
By 2002, Abuzz was losing steam and my friend Robert Gentel contacted me. He told me he wanted to teach himself PHP and create a forums website, but that he didn’t want to manage the community. Would I do that? Would I become the Community Manager? Of course. And so Able2Know was born. I’ve been managing it ever since.
In 2005, I joined Trek United — again, with the username Jespah. I even did some moderating there, but it was too much to do that, my regular work, Able2know and also work seriously on my own health. I wrote a column for the original Hailing Frequencies Open ezine, and enjoyed it, until it, too, became just one more bit of overwhelm and so I put the column to bed, in 2009 if I recall correctly.
In 2009, after my Reporting Analyst job was outsourced and I came to a personal understanding — given that I already had over seven years of Community Management experience under my belt and hence had more to say about it than many experts — I decided to shift gears in my career and go into Social Media marketing.
What does this all have to do with the price of tea in Poughkeepsie? Well, perhaps nothing and perhaps everything. My Internet identity was forged over a decade ago, and in a very different set of circumstances than one that is seen these days with online collections of users.
As a professional Community Manager and Social Media Specialist
(I work for a startup called Neuron Robotics), there is much more of an emphasis on staying on message and keeping the talk within the confines of what the company needs. It is a startup so things are looser than in a larger corporation but the principle is the same: get people their information and then move on to answering the next inquiry, or at least getting someone who can answer it. Socializing, per se is not totally out, but it is limited, and not just on the company side of things. It is the users, as well, who do not wish to socialize. After all, do you go out for a beer with the guys manning your local Help Desk?
And so, as we hurtle into the teen years of this century, online communities are becoming far more specialized and almost scripted. User asks question. Answer is obtained. Second opinion, perhaps, is offered. Lather, rinse, repeat.
I occasionally get together with fellow Community Managers to talk turkey and they were surprised when I told them I’d written seven, perhaps eight, user obituaries.
Yes, really. I have done that (for Abuzz and Able2know).
And I’ve written user newsletters, not only for Trek United but also for Abuzz (that one was called AARON — An Abuzz Regular Online Newsletter — I loathed that acronym, still do).
Users are going to communities and are finding that they have their own intrinsic values. One of the things that online communities have over Facebook (at least for now — never underestimate the power and ingenuity of Facebook’s IT staff) is that it is possible to carry on a truly sustained conversation here. People talk, and not just for a few hours or days or weeks, but for years! The Trek United Countdown Club started back in 2005. Yet here it is in 2010, continuing.
Online communities have shared values and in-jokes which other communities do not have, either on or offline. It’s like the Masons’ secret handshake, or wearing a Mogen David around your neck — you let yourself be known to others subtly.
Trek United has the countdown and Hailing Frequencies Open. Abuzz had nutella and a mysterious green Chevelle. Able2know has capybaras and Asian carp. SparkPeople has (or at least my little corner of it has) the Top SparkPeople Pick Up Lines and diet haikus. Those who are in, understand. Those who want to be in, make an effort to know. And those who don’t want to be in, can never seem to understand.
It is a small jump from this kind of enclaving to creating one’s own community, and then the process repeats itself and, like all good little processes, it winds down and then winds back up again as users come together, break apart and reconfigure like so many amoebae in a petri dish.
But it is more than user cycles and outside determinism like access to the Internet which drives this dance. It is the music of the spheres and the essence of what it means to be a social creature. It is hard and soft, slow and lightning fast, familiar and different and a billion more things.
Merrily we roll along, for it is love which, to misquote The Captain and Tennille, brings us together.