(the title of the post should be said outloud like Jan on the Brady Bunch yelling “Marsha Marsha Marsha!”)
I think Micah’s post on the Lie About Community hits the mark pretty well. “Community”, like Social and Participation and Conversation has been the buzzword for a while now. Everyone wants one. Clients want the “network effects” and the “just add water” efficiency of having a group of interested individuals focused on their product/service/brand. Every company would love to have a community. Every Brand and Product or Service would love to have dedicated, passionate fans who check in all the time. Agencies would love to sell their clients on this day-in-and-out. Every agency out there would love to sell a client on building a community around there
Just showing up doesnt make it a community. If that was the case, then Grand Central Station in NYC would have a new community every 5 minutes. Just because people go somewhere doesnt mean they are engaged, that they care, or that they are something more than a collection of individuals checking something out. Just because we all like airbags in cars doesnt mean there will be a Ning site tomorrow dedicated to our love and fandom of all-things Airbag.
Then again, survivors of car accidents thanks to Airbags could be a community.
Community is something that grows over time and connections (shallow and deep) are made, broken, strained and strengthened. A forum isn’t a community. A chat room isn’t a community. A blog isn’t a community. A wiki isn’t a community. But a community can be found on all four (and more platforms). It has to start with something that people care about or have an interest in. Then comes the participation. Then comes the quality of interaction. Then comes the exchange of the member’s attention for value (sense of belonging, information, catharsis, etc.). Then comes the investment of time/effort/attention/love.
Its kinda like porn – we know Community when we see it:
Where we see individuals self-organizing around a common goal/topic/crisis/effort/idea/joke
Where we see a company facilitating and acting as a host – encouraging and participating in the community’s interactions, acting as a guide (and sometimes a hall monitor) without being a shill, a censor or drill instructor
When the members of the community take ownership and a stake in its ongoing existence by policing their own, sharing and helping, acting like members instead of guests
More importantly, like a startup, or neighborhood, within a community a culture develops. Shared expectations of behavior and action are mutually agreed on and evolve over time.
childrenwithdiabetes.com is an amazing community that developed from one dad’s desire to share and interact with other families whose children were diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes (Jeff’s story is awesome and I am going to be begging him for an interview in the coming weeks). The community managers were there to keep things moving, to keep an eye on things without being heavy-handed. The community – kids and parents – share and interact and help each other online and off. They had a common interest (kids with diabetes), a way of connecting (the website and meetups) a culture that evolved and grew as the community did. They built trust and love between the site and the members and between the members themselves to the point where, when the management of the site let the community know that they were going to be bought by J&J the community gave them the benefit of the doubt because “we trust Jeff”.
You can’t buy that – you can only earn it.
After all that rambling, whats driving me nuts is this idea that community managers can be outsourced or provided by the SaaS platform provider. Thats plain nuts. Its like “ghostbloggers” who blog for someone else. How can a company claim to be more authentic and trying to enter the conversation when they hire outsiders to communicate? Authenticity by proxy? Community managers, in my mind, need to function as a both hosts and facilitators – helping the newbies, participating, adding to the conversation, and listening to the community – they are the lighting rods for trust between members and the management. Agencies/Consultants/Community Gurus should be “teaching the skill of fishing” instead of being fishmongers. Otherwise, communiy managers are just moderators/hall monitors/crossing guards – involved but not really committed.
A company can only show it’s committment to community with actions: honest dialog, engaging the members, listening, asking permission, being authentic not talking about it,paying it forward.