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Building an online community shouldn’t matter

November 17, 2010

I’ve written about this very subject before. On that particular occasion it was borne out of a sense of personal failure at not having the obvious signs at having built my own online community.

This time I’m talking about something slightly different. I’ve moved on, you see. I’m not defending not having an online community. I’m actually wanting to point out – scream from the rooftops in fact – why in some cases an online community isn’t the be-all-and-end-all. And why – if you sense that somebody you’re talking to screws up their nose, wags their finger at you saying they reckons it absolutely is – you should make a point of snorting with as much derision as you can muster.

But first. Let’s start with a definition. A definition from my perspective. What is an online community? They’re easy to spot. They’re usually those things on Facebook which see a lot of people clicking the like button. Or they’re those causes or personalities on Twitter which get their tweets or their names referenced repeatedly in other tweets. Or where blogs are concerned, they’re those blogs or posts which garner a great deal of commenting.

For some people – usually those who are concerned with measuring success by the number of comments they receive or for whom anecdotal evidence of their audience influencing the author’s output is crucial to their very existence as human beings – statistics are everything. The argument about how it’s the people you influence rather than the number who you’re attempting to influence is usually lost on these people. For them it’s all about numbers. For understandable reasons it is as though the undisputable visible proof of online engagement with the apparently appreciative audience is evidence of a job well done.

Put another way – a simple, perhaps even crass way – if people comment and they comment ‘good’ then you have your insurance. It is that very thing which you can wave in front of the eyes of the naysayers when justifying your contribution to society and demonstrating how you successfully work for the greater good.

In some cases it’s good evidence. It’s valuable evidence. Justifiable. But you can’t apply to all aspects online activity. Because to do so is nonsense. And let me tell you why.

There are some things I can think of which do absolutely acquire their much-needed validation online by the sheer weight of numbers of those who sign-up to the brand. Facebook is one. Twitter is another. Those who buy into them are – for me as a user of both platforms – like-minded individuals. But just because I sign up to both networking systems doesn’t mean that everyone else who signs up to it someone I necessarily want to follow. Similarly, just because there are some things on the internet which galvanise followers into sharing their opinions about the subject they love, it doesn’t follow that the same is so for every aspect of life.

Not only that, the reasons I followed people like Rory Cellan-Jones or Declan Curry on Twitter when I first signed up to the micro-blogging service a few years back have changed. Back then it was about the thought I was tapped into thought processes of a celebrity. Now that the system has been around for a long time (relatively speaking) those feelings have changed. That experience has surely got to be replicated across the internet. I can’t be the only one.

I’m thinking this because a colleague at work asked me what the formula is for building an online community.

I did what I normally do. I said I couldn’t explain exactly why it was that the likes of BBC Breakfast had achieved a relative big following or why it was that @r4today had amassed 53,569 followers on Twitter. I said I couldn’t answer the question. I couldn’t provide a silver bullet. And that I didn’t believe anyone could either. There wasn’t any point in producing a ten point plan. Because if I did so that would suggest I was implying a guarantee of success. And when that failed to materialise I’d look like a complete fool (assuming I didn’t already by being so completely transparent about not knowing the answer).

All I could answer was that the most sincere – most authentic – examples of online communities were those which had either grown organically or at least projected the image that they had. I advised my colleague that I could tell those online efforts which had the might of a production company behind them or the work of an eager PR beaver feeding internet monkeys who in turn littered the web with their “I’m really looking forward to x” messages. I said these efforts stuck out like a sore thumb because they didn’t look sincere. People in real life don’t ALWAYS say those things. So why should they say them on the internet? You just get an instinct for those instances where someone somewhere along the line hasn’t really fully understood what the web is for, how it works or indeed how communities work.

And still, I know there are those around who will look on the absence of a thriving community as a sign of failure.

I can only think of real life. I don’t host many parties. I never did when I was a student either. There was a reason for this. I wasn’t hip. I wasn’t trendy. I was shit at hosting parties. So I didn’t host any. On the rare occasions I was invited to parties I rarely got invited back. And there was a good reason for that too. It wasn’t the right environment for me to bond with people. I either stood on the side, looking pathetically into my drink or screamed into the ear of the person standing next to me who either didn’t get me or who understood what I was trying to do but was aware long before I was that my efforts at humour were failing dismally.

I never wanted to go to parties anyway. I never wanted to be part of the crowd. What’s the point? Agreeing with everyone else is dull. I’d like to retain my identity. My individuality. And, in writing that, I’d like to think that the handful of people who might read this will feel the same way.

A ‘community’ might seem to others like the sign of undeniable online success, but fundamentally it is plain nonsense.Not all of the audience want to feel like they’re part of a crowd. Some do. But not everyone.

And while I’m on this particular bandwagon, there’s another pointed thing we might want to bear in mind about online communities. The whole point of the internet – the USP which attracts us narcissistic self-publishers in the first place – is the sense (or perception) of anonymity. The reason I feel inspired to write this particular post is because of something somebody said to me today. And yet in writing it, I feel sufficiently detached from everyone else I know to say exactly what I feel. You know, in a way I probably wouldn’t say in one of those dull business-like meetings when someone with a notebook and a sharp pencil is looking over the rim of their glasses and asking me how many ‘likes’ the Facebook page I manage has received. I’m not mouthy all the itme.

It is the anonymity of the internet – even now – which is self-publishing’s biggest pull. If I knew the community around me – if I had a sense of who it was who was reading this – then the freedom I experienced writing it would be lost. The joy would be lost in the compromise I’d have to accept in writing subsequent posts. Such is the cost of building online communities anyway.

That cost is considerably less with larger – probably more mainstream online propositions. It’s the niche stuff which is so tricky that an online creation that is such a risky business it’s probably not worth the bother.

In those niche situations you have to ask yourself the most important question of all: what exactly is it we think the audience we want to reach is missing out on by us not building an online community. And if you can’t answer that simple question, then really and truly it ain’t worth bothering with. Spend your time writing some scintillating copy instead.


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