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Friday, Mar. 2, 2007 at 10:37 am

Do Message Boards Equal Community?

By Howard Kaplan
March 2nd, 2007

Peace, love and ROI Don’t you just love buzzwords? In the 80′s, “synergy” was one of my favs. When Nasdaq was a tad closer to 5,000 than it is today, thinking “outside the box” meant you were someone who “got it”. Yesterday, I was hard pressed to choose between “long tail” and “Web 2.0″. But today, Web 2.0 is the clear winner.

As meaningless as the word is (and as much fun as it is to toss around mockingly), it’s being furthered under the guise of a seemingly simpler word: community. I’m always in favor of true simplification, but this one has been bugging a bunch of us around the office for some time now. I have to ask (in my best Carrie Bradshaw imitation), is a bunch of overweight, balding, 40 year olds, banging away at their keyboards from their mother’s basement a community?

I know that’s an unfair stereotype of fans of America’s third most popular sport (you intentionally clicked the link above, didn’t you?) but, if it were accurate, perhaps it would better fit a textbook definition of community:

com·mu·ni·ty [kuh-myoo-ni-tee] Pronunciation Key: noun, plural -ties.

1. a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage.
2. a locality inhabited by such a group.
3. a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists

Why is it that every major corporation is trying desperately to jump onto the consumer-generated content / social networking bandwagon without stopping to consider if they really have something that facilitates a real community? They’re so focused on trying to build it, they’ve yet to fully consider what it actually is, and where it is actually found.

This little rant is just the tip of the iceberg, and we’ll certainly be weighing in more on the topic in the weeks to come. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from any “citizen journalists” out there with stories of communities that aren’t ;)

Comments (7)

  1. Hellooooooooooooo:)

    I love your mention of communities……

    I am in the process of building a fantastic community…..

    Please check out http://www.learnandconnect.com and YOU will get an instant feeling of I want to know more about this and how can I join…….

    Click on the hot air balloon and listen to my introduction and then scroll your mouse around your village…..

    I personally invite YOU to explore all the wonderful possibilites I am creating in this preview and share it with your friends…….

    Have a delicius week,

    Barbara

  2. The question isn’t whether the corporations know what a community is but, rather, if they have a sound business objective in creating one. Most of the social communities of today are tomorrow’s burst dot com bubble.

  3. Howard, you highlighted the wrong part of the “textbook definition” in your post. It’s the “locality” that counts.

    A community doesn’t usually arise from a group suddenly deciding to get together and be “distinct” from everyone else. A community is created when a place exists to bring a group together, be it a spot of land where a group decides create a city or a developers’ forum where techies with common interest show off their mental muscle.

    No one has ever created a community. We can only create places where we hope communities will develop. The community creates the community, the personality, the culture. MySpace was a place for the LA art scene to get together online. The current community has made it something quite different.

    So, why shouldn’t companies be asking “can we create a place that will attract a community?” Well, they may not like what they get.

    The answer to your question “Do Bulletine Boards = Community?” is YES. The participants have common interest. There is a trust system in place (number of posts). The community creates something of value–often advice on a category.

    Forums are a place–a locality–where communities grow.

  4. Howard,

    Speaking as someone in a large corporation, who is desparately trying to build and grow a community, your definition includes the “raw materials” but not the “catalysts”.

    Some catalysts – Value. Connectedness. Individual identity. Relationship.

    There has to be a benefit to members of a community. Common interests, locality, or distintiveness are just the raw materials. The community has a value to add – as does each member.

    I’d argue that without value – particularly to members of the community – it will never develop. It is not like a “Field of Dreams”. Just because you build it doesn’t mean they will come.

    A bulletin board often meets the basic “value” part of the equation, like access to informatino. But is that a community? It seems other catalysts are still needed.

    If you keep writing on this topic, I’ll share more of our thought process behind our desire for an online community and can give you progress reports on how it’s going. Here are a couple of elements of our community “value equation”:

    1. For us – an opportunity to deepen a relationship with our customers and partners. In some ways, this is as much about changing our own behavior as anything.
    2. For our customers – a way to solve problems. Hopefully they also find value in the relationship with the other members too.

    Jason

    PS. Is this site a community? What makes it so?

  5. In reverse order:

    Jason- it’s a deal, we’ll keep the community discussion going, and we’ll welcome you sharing some of your large corporation’s thought processes (note: I’ll leave it to your decision whether to out which organization you represent)

    As for your comments, I’d respectfully add facilitate, enable and nurture to your action item list of what you’re desperately trying to accomplish. I’m not sure it’s possible to *build* a community. As you wrote, just because the means to communicate exists, doesn’t dictate they’ll come.

    I like the distinction between raw materials and catalysts. Where do passion and common goal(s) (two important pieces of a successful community) fit?

    (PS- I think it’s too early to tell. If you asked me now, no, Grok has yet to become a community, though I’ll argue it’s a destination. 3 months from now, we both may be surprised at the answer…)

    Brian- if you ask me, you’ve contradicted yourself. As such, I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly and disagree vehemently, all at the same time ;)

    I couldn’t agree more- you can’t create a community explicitly, but you certainly can give people the tools to form one on their own, and nurture it while it seeds. Of course, as you correctly point out, when a community matures, those who founded it will inevitably have less (or no) control over where/how it goes. But in the world we live in today, I’ll argue you have little choice but to develop your product or service to succeed in a transparent environment, and not worry about trying to control the masses.

    Here’s where you lose me in your argument though- if communities can’t be explicitly created, how can you be so confident that message boards guarantee them? Boards certainly may be a component of some successful communities, but they hardly guarantee anything. Have you spent much time on the new NBA boards? You’ll see much passion for anything other than flaming, and the deepening of relationships is few and far between. Number of posts no better represents “trust” than does number of connections on LinkedIn.

    Susan- I tend to agree that most social communities of today haven’t exactly nailed the solution yet… and many will litter the next graveyard. But don’t discount their impact on the rest of the landscape, there is something to be said for acting. The ones who are learning from the early players, and innovating as opposed to blindly copying what hasn’t proven effective as of yet, will be the ones leading the next wave of successes.

  6. Sorry Barbara, I didn’t mean to leave you out- I checked out your site tonight from my handheld, and was left with an experience that fell short of an “instant feeling of I want to know more about this and how can I join…….” I visited again from a full browser tonight and I must admit, I’m still left with many more questions than I have desire to look for answers. Please feel free to follow up with me offline, and I’ll gladly share more.

  7. We are a small software company and have spent the last 7 years building a community of more than 40,000 farm-acy* professionals. I would say building a community takes much more than discussion boards (although we have those too), and having things people find value in is a big part of it.

    [*Editor's Note: Word purposely edited to be incorrect due to the comment s p a m it was attracting.]

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