Recently in Community Category

How to start a movement

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Brilliant video here from Derek Sivers, who discusses with real insight what would otherwise have just been an amusing video of a guy dancing.

This makes me think a couple of disparate thoughts:

1. Nurture your early community members: They are the ones who will bring in new people to your community.

2. That explains why the early social media leaders are mainly now eclipsed by followers: later followers don't follow the leaders, they follow the early followers. That says something strange about human nature, but I'm not quite sure what!

Hat tip to Johnnie Moore.

Involving your community

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I just spent five or so minutes reading Randall Munroe's fascinating blog entry about the colour survey he recently ran. Randall writes and draws XKCD, "A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language," which is a pretty popular amongst geeks.

XKCD's popularity gave Randall a rather large pool of people to draw upon for his survey: In the end, "over five million colors were named across 222,500 user sessions." That's not bad going and certainly produced some interesting data to chew over. I rather liked this chart of dominant colour names:

Randall's survey is a great reminder that your community, whether internal or external, are an amazing source of information that you can easily tap into. Services like Poll Daddy or Survey Monkey let you ask questions of your community, through which you could potentially be learning a lot about your business, your community's needs, topics of interest... possible areas of enquiry are limited only by your imagination.

Well, in truth, you are limited by your imagination, your relationship with your community, and its size. There's no getting away from the fact that if you have a tiny community, you won't get a big enough response for the results of your survey to be meaningful. Equally, if your relationship with your community is poor, they won't feel inclined to take the time to answer your questions. But if your survey answers questions they have themselves, taps into a vein of curiosity or, as in the case of Randall's colour survey, provides a novel way of procrastinating, then you are much more likely to see success.

It's worth having a think before you put any survey together on how best to do it. You have to get it right first time, because you can't run the same survey twice and expect people to engage the second time round. I have learnt the hard way that you can read and read and read your questions over and over, and there will still be errors. So make sure you have time to do some test runs with friends and colleagues so that you can locate and fix errors. I'd also say that it's important to understand how you're going to analyse the answers before you formulate the questions. Services like Survey Monkey allow you to automatically create graphs to visualise your data, but if you get your questions wrong, the graphs won't save you.

There's so much potential for businesses who enter into dialogue with their customers and staff, and surveys/polls are just one way to realise some of that value. It just surprises me that more businesses aren't nurturing their communities and collaborating with them to gather useful information that both parties can then benefit from.

Five counterintuitive rules for building community

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"Communities aren't built through grand visions," says Julian Dobson his a great post about community building. A grand vision is nice 'n all, but it takes action to build a community and there's a skill in knowing which actions are the right ones. Julian runs through a list of five, and I think all of them are applicable to business communities as much as third sector communities. For example:

2. If you want to be a leader, start by serving.
Creating community, by definition, isn't about ego. There's no room for celebrities. Leaders prove their worth by mucking in and helping out. You win respect by being ready to serve. If you're out to make a name for yourself, why should anyone trust you?

If you want to start a brand community or an internal community of interest, think about how you would engage with it and what you could do for others in that community. How would you serve others?

Julian's post is very thought provoking, even more so when you put it in the context of enterprise community building.

Do you want a community or a following?

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Fabulous blog post from Richard Millington today. Richard asks a very important question of companies who are trying to do community building: Do you want a community or just a really big following? Most businesses, he says, just want (need?) a big following and aren't really suited to having a community.

You only need a community when your audience has a desire to talk to each other and when there is a benefit (to the audience!) from talking to each other. Very, very, few organizations fit this criteria. Perhaps as low as 1 in 10.

If you don't understand what you want or need, you won't have the right strategy to achieve your aims. Read Richard's whole post for more insights.

(Hat tip to Stephanie Booth.)

How many friends can you make in a week?

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The New Scientist reports some research by Susan Jamison-Powell at Sheffield Hallam University which seems to show that prolific bloggers are more popular, regardless of the quality or tone of their posts.

[She] studied the popularity of 75 bloggers on the site Livejournal.com. She looked at the number of friends each blogger had, the number of posts they made, the total number of words written and the overall tone of the posts. She then asked the bloggers to rate how attractive they found each of their peer's blogs.

She found that the more words a blogger posted, the more friends they had and the higher their attractiveness rating. The tone of their posts - whether they contained mostly positive or negative comments - had no effect.

The BPS goes into a little bit more detail, explaining that the Liverjournalers were invited into a new community and then asked to rate their fellow community members after one week. I'm not sure if this falls within the bounds of Bad Science, but it's certainly not an accurate reflection of how communities build in the real world.

My first problem is that you just can't extrapolate from communities on LiveJournal to blogs in general. LiveJournal has always had a different demographic to, say, bloggers using Typepad or Wordpress. LiveJournal has always had a gender bias towards women, for example: currently it has 62.5% female and 37.5% male, the rest unspecified. And the bulk of users are between 18 and 34 (with an impressive spike at 30), historically much younger than demographics for other tools.

Furthermore, LiveJournal is culturally different to many other blogs and blogging platforms and has traditionally been the meeting place for people who felt that other platforms were too open for them or who felt disenfranchised by mainstream tools and wanted to be with their peers. LiveJournal, for many, was where you could be yourself and enjoy the company of people like you, no matter how weird others thought you were.

LiveJournal isn't a typical blogging community and results from studies on LiveJournal can't be applied to other bloggers.

But furthermore, after only a week of getting to know someone, you have very little information to go on. Those who talk most will almost certainly get higher rankings than those who are quiet simply because they stand out and can easily be remembered. If you are trying to get to know 75 people in just seven days - and you have to ask if that is even possible - you're going to rank the noisier ones higher just because they are the people you've had most exposure to. If you've had very little conversation with someone you are bound to rank them near the bottom simply because they are still strangers and humans tend to be stranger-averse.

How would this study have turned out if they had got to know each other over the course of a month? Or six months? Or a year? You know, real human friendship timescales. And how does the nature of the community change how people react to each other? The study doesn't say what the raison d'être of the community was, and whether these people were gathered around an issue they cared deeply about or were just mooching around online, killing time.

The lesson that this study appears to be teaching is that bloggers should write more, and not worry about quality. Frankly, I call bullshit on the whole thing. The way that we form relationships through blogging is a complex and nuanced process, just like the way that we form friendships offline. We get to know people over time. We decide whether we agree with their points of view, whether we like the way they present themselves, how they interact with others and we build a picture of them that is either attractive or not.

That this study should get headlines in The Telegraph and BusinessWeek shows how poorly social media is still being covered by the mainstream press and how little understanding or critical thinking they do.

We do need a lot more research into the use of social media and particularly its use in the UK. Studies like Jamison-Powell's, however, do not advance the debate in any useful way.

How does the Digital Economy Act affect your business?

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As a social media consultant and an occasional digital rights activist, I paid a lot of attention to the Digital Economy Bill as it was frogmarched through Parliament. Like many, I was disgusted by the ill-informed nature of the debate about key problems with the bill and frustrated at how the politicians seemed to have been entirely captured by the music industry lobbyists, particularly the BPI.

The Bill is now an Act and whilst there are many aspects which are appalling, such as the threats to disconnect accused copyright infringers without any recourse to a proper hearing, I am very concerned about the chilling effect that this legislation is going to have in industry. Not just the internet industry, but all industries that use the internet. If you have a marketing campaign that solicits contributions from your community, if your business model includes any kind of aggregation, if you provide a wifi connection free of charge to visitors or guests, you could be affected by the Act.

Indeed, I've already noticed the chilling effect on my own thoughts about social media. What would I advise a client to do to ensure they are as safe as they can be of the unintended consequences of this bill? Is that even possible? What role will encryption now play in day-to-day interactions with the internet? Should I be advising clients against using third party tools that could potentially get taken down because they might possibly be used by others for infringing acts?

I'd very much like to hear your thoughts about how you think the Digital Economy Act might affect your business. Please do leave a comment.

Leopards don't change their spots

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Angela Connor points out that, just because you've built a lovely new community doesn't mean that people will change their habits and visit yours over their existing networks:

Your new community, no matter how great will not change habits. What I mean by this is you will not be able to stop potential members from posting on Facebook or twitter or their favorite Ning community. If you are assuming that your new community will become the new gathering place for those belonging to the niche, I think you will be disappointed.

Whatever your community is, whether it's a brand community or an internal social network, people will only create a new habit around your offering if it consistently gives them something really valuable. Communities take an awful long time to build. Like everything else in social media, there's just no 'quick win'.

Why I'm a fan of small talk in business

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Derek Sivers reminds us that on the other end of our keyboard there lies a real person, someone who has real feelings, who will have real reactions to what we say.

When we yell at our car or coffee machine, it's fine because they're just mechanical appliances.

So when we yell at a website or company, using our computer or phone appliance, we forget it's not an appliance, but a person that's affected.

It's dehumanizing to have thousands of people passing through our computer screens, so we do things we'd never do if they were sitting next to us.

He's right. I've recently had an experience with someone suffering a total empathy failure, who didn't seem able to put himself in my shoes and ask himself, "So, how would I feel about this situation?" It wasn't very pleasant. This chap seemed to have entirely forgotten that their was another human being, with real feelings, who was being directly affected by his poor behaviour.

But I think we can do something about the dehumanising aspect of device-mediated interactions, and that something is to use more social media, particularly the tools that encourage small talk and phatic communication. In 2004, David Weinberger said in his JOHO newsletter:

[...] Art expresses something big in something small. (If it expresses something small in something big, you leave during the intermission.) Likewise, in small talk, we express ourselves in the details of what we talk about, the words we use, the ones we don't, how far we lean forward, how tentatively or aggressively we probe for shared ground. Because all of this is implicitly presented, it tends to give a more accurate picture of who we are and what we care about than big, explicit conversations.

[...] I'm more of a constructivist than an archaeologist when it comes to social relationships. My aim isn't to expose my buried self to you. It's to build a conversation and then a relationship that eventually is so deep that we can't disentangle the roots. For that, we need lots and lots of ambiguity.

He is still spot on. I responded to him in a post on Headshift's blog, where I was writing at the time, and said:

What are the best aspects of conferences? The bits inbetween the panels and Q&A sessions where we get to chat with our peers. What is the best bit of the working day? Those watercooler conversations or lunch down the pub. Why do smokers have an advantage in the workplace? Because they take regular smoke breaks where they get the opportunities to chat and exchange scraps of information that become important later on.

Small talk is part of the 'social grooming' that is required to create and maintain social bonds. Through small talk, people reveal contextual information that they couldn't otherwise share, particularly in a business setting. It's around the coffee machine that you're most likely to find out that your colleague was up all night with their sick child, which is why they looked like they were nodding off in a meeting. This extra nugget of information allows you to sympathise with them instead of getting annoyed - the context turns a negative reaction into a positive one, and helps keep the team working together instead of fostering mistrust and other destructive emotions.

Yet small talk is often despised, particularly in a work environment where one 'should' be concentrating on the task in hand, not chatting. But without small talk, without those bonds and the trust that they engender, teams fragment and become inefficient. The strong work ethic that has become prevalent since the industrial revolution has lessened tolerance for the social grooming activities upon which a sense of community depends, yet some companies spend a lot of money on team-building exercises which are really nothing more than formalised (and therefore often ineffective) opportunities for small talk.

The demise of the communal teabreak in offices has probably done more harm that good. The habit in many offices is that people work through their breaks, including lunch, and the idea of taking a short break mid-morning and mid-afternoon is very much frowned upon. People also have a tendency not to take breaks communally anymore except for the odd lunch or drinks after work. These trends decrease the opportunity for face-to-face small talk in the workplace.

Instead, people use email, instant messaging programme or external blogs or bulletin boards in order to get their fix of chitchat. The social requirement for small talk hasn't gone away, it's just moved online.

At the Social Tools for Enterprise Symposium, Euan Semple talked about his experiences implementing social software internally at the BBC. He found that a significant fraction of posts on the bulletin boards were not overtly to do with work, but either passing on experiences gained outside of work or the sort of small talk that glues communities together. But, as Euan says, "People get to trust each other through small talk, and I actively defend it against those who say it is not work related."

It's as true now as it was then.

Models of authority

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When I talk about social media culture to people, I often wind up talking about models of authority, i.e. the different ways in which we view what makes someone a person worth taking notice of. As I see it, there are four main models of authority:

  1. Claimed authority: "You must respect me because I say so"
  2. Institutional authority: "Respect me because of my affiliation"
  3. Historical authority: "Respect me because I've been doing this a long time"
  4. Earnt authority: "I have been consistently reliable on this topic"

When I look at how people react to these different modes, the only one I see gaining any traction in social media circles is the last: earnt authority. If you are consistently helpful, reliable or accurate you will be given kudos for that. Furthermore, anyone can earn respect and authority online, if they are willing to put the legwork in.

Claimed authority is particularly reviled, and you can see this in the sceptical way people deal with journalists who claim to knowledge of something but can't back it up with actual facts. The internet is rife with blogs debunking rubbish journalism of all stripes, whether in the mainstream or fringe media.

Institutional authority gets ignored or challenged. Just because you're affiliated to a big brand doesn't mean that you get a free pass. If you're boring or predictable, you'll wind up just talking to yourself. If you screw up, you'll be held to account.

And historical authority - whether of the "Est. 1723" or "I've been on the internetz longer than you have so nyer" sort - doesn't really wash either. You may have been doing what you do for ever, but if you're rubbish at it people will notice.

Clearly there are other cultural issues at work here too. Speaking in generalities, America is much more open to new people coming into a space and showing what they are made of, whereas in the UK there's a lot more of a "Who the hell do you think you are?" attitude, with appeals to traditional models of authority much more common.

But where I think this is important is in understanding why some social media projects fail - whether they are internal or external. There are many, many people who are well versed in social media culture and who have a very solid set of expectations, often informed by books such as the Cluetrain Manifesto. And because this culture revolves around individuals exchanging value with each other as equals, they are very keep to preserve a dynamic that they see as beneficial to both themselves and their wider community.

When people steeped in traditional behaviour sets, more focused on extracting value than exchanging it, start dipping their toes into social media, they do so with the wrong models of authority in mind. They think that they'll be successful because of who they are, how long they've been around or simply because they just believe it should be so. That, of course, doesn't happen.

Instead, businesses need to enter social media humbly, with the assumption that they are going to have to earn respect by consistently being a good and valuable participant in a wider community. And I'm not just talking about how to do social media marketing, but also about internal use. There's no point just chucking up blogs or a wiki and saying to people, "Right, use these. It'll be good for you." You have to understand that social media is about an exchange and ask yourself, what are our people getting out of this?

A web for introverts, privacy gradients and trust

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Adam Tinworth draws attention to a blog post on GigaOM about how the social web is great for extroverts but not so good for introverts, whether or not that introversion is a general mindset or specific to the internet. From Kevin Kelleher on GigaOM:

Much less noticeable is another trend: the rise of the web introvert. But while some web introverts might be introverted in the classic sense -- that is, uncomfortable in social settings -- many of them aren't shy at all. They are simply averse to having a public presence on the web. And in time, they are going to present a problem for social sites like Facebook and Twitter, whose potential growth will be limited unless they can successfully court them.

Web introversion isn't a question of technophobia or security concerns. Anyone who has tried to build out their online networks on Facebook knows that there are a lot of people they know in real life that they can't friend online. Many people who have been involved in technology for years -- or who are entirely comfortable shopping at Amazon, paying bills online, buying songs from iTunes -- will have nothing to do with social networks. Others see it as a chore necessary for their jobs. Still others have accounts languishing on all the major social networks.

Adam says:

Unless we can find a way to draw these people into the social web - and that probably means more thought around both privacy and data ownership - we're only ever going to get a subset of a subset of people involved. And that, in turn, will massively limit its potential.

The main issue here is privacy. Many social networks haven't really give that much thought to how people will emotionally respond to their progression through the site, i.e. along the privacy gradient.

The idea of a privacy gradient comes from architecture and refers to the way that public, common spaces are located by the entrance to a building and as you progress through the building the spaces become more private until you reach the most private 'inner sanctum'. If you think of a house, then the most public part would be the porch (in the UK, a fully or semi-enclosed space around the front door, in the US, it's often open or screened). The hallway is common space shared by everyone, and spaces like the kitchen and lounge are semi-private. As you progress deeper into the house you end up at the bedroom (and in some cases, the en-suite) which is the most private part of the house.

Understanding the privacy gradient is important, because when buildings ignore privacy gradients, they feel odd. Think about houses where there's a bedroom directly off the lounge and how uncomfortable that can make visitors feel. I once had a friend who lived in one of the old tenements near Kings Cross, now torn down. To get to his bedroom and the kitchen you had to walk through his flatmate's bedroom, a deeply uncomfortable act.

Websites work on the same principles, welcoming people via a publicly visible screen, and progressing into increasingly private spaces as the user's interactions become more personal. A well developed and carefully considered privacy gradient is essential to social sites - even incredibly simple sites/services like Twitter do it, with the public timeline being like the front porch and the direct message like the bedroom.

Facebook, on the other hand, has gone for a walled garden model, which provides an illusion of security for users: even before they set their own privacy levels, they feel they are in a private space, despite the fact that it is shared by several million others and that information can quite easily leak out of it. Facebook's recent changes to its privacy settings have made its walled garden a bit more like an old, knot-holed fence, letting people peek in through the holes and see glimpses of what goes on inside. This is problematic because it has exposed information that users used to think was private, blurring further the line between private and public.

The inability to see inside a walled garden can alienate people outside the system, who can't see what or who is inside and may feel that they are being made unwelcome. This brings to mind certain shops (some Abercrombie and Fitch stores do this), that obscure the windows and ensure that one cannot 'accidentally' see inside when the door is opened by creating a shield around the doorway. They also have a privacy gradient internally, with more open public areas at the front and fitting rooms at the back.

As one moves along a privacy gradient, one is also moving along a parallel trust gradient. As you invite me deeper into your house, so you are displaying increasing trust in me. If you only talk to me at your front door and don't invite me in, you're displaying (in certain circumstances) a lack of trust, or that I have yet to earn your trust. Letting people move up the trust gradient too quickly can cause all sorts of problems, perhaps resulting in a betrayal of that trust.

The same, again, is true on websites. The more we communicate, the stronger our relationship becomes, the more I trust you, the more of myself I am willing to reveal and share. Different people, of course, feel comfortable in different areas of the trust/privacy gradient, so some people prefer to keep things private and require a lot of communication and relationship building before they are willing to trust someone. Others are happy to plunge in at the deep end, revealing everything about themselves to everyone, newcomer and old friend alike.

Both extremes can have negative repercussions. The shy user may fail to realise full utility of social sites because they cut themselves off from helpful strangers. The extrovert may find themselves swamped with many shallow relationships that they can't maintain or strengthen and, sometimes, being hurt by people using their trusting nature against them.

What is key, though, is that people understand the repercussions of their behaviour and that their expectations of privacy and trust are met by the site they are using. When websites reveal items that were thought to be private, as Facebook and Twitter have both done, then people's trust in the site is violated and the social consequences for them as individuals could be dire. Equally, when a website makes people feel as if their interactions are private when they are not, they will fail to understand who can observe them and may make mistakes that they would have avoided if there was no implication of privacy.

What I see in this discussion about web introverts is a reflection of the fact that most social sites have been built for gregarious people, often by gregarious people. The privacy gradients aren't clear to the outsider, or simply haven't been thought through in enough detail. Twitter, for example, makes it very easy to accidentally respond to a direct message via SMS with a public message instead of a private direct message: That's a huge violation of privacy and potentially can be extremely embarrassing.

Until social sites get their act together and start to view the web from the point of view of the web-introvert, considering exactly how their sites embody the privacy gradient, shy people will just stay away. And every time companies like Google make mistakes of the magnitude of Buzz, trust in companies to respect our privacy is whittled away. Personally, I can't blame people for wanting to keep themselves to themselves. With the social web the way it is, I would never attempt to persuade someone to use it if they felt uncomfortable with it. It's much more important to respect their privacy.

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