Community is a hard thing to pin down and talk about constructively, but I was overjoyed to have a chance to give it a shot at the Software & Information Industry Association’s Brown Bag Lunch Meeting on Wednesday, 31 October, held at the McGraw-Hill Companies in New York. The title was deliberately provocative: “Content is Dead, Community is King? The promises and risks of social networking in the information industry” and I had a wonderful group of panelists who tolerated my bullying about PowerPoint and worked very hard to provide the audience–we had over 150 people signed up for in-person and webcast attendance–with concrete examples and advice. I won’t say we were entirely successful (as one person said, we could have organized a whole day of discussion and workshops around this theme), but it was a worthwhile essay into what is largely uncharted territory for publishers.
The webcast is here, at the Scribe Studio site. (I must put in a plug for Scribe Studios here. They are inobtrusive and yet always give me a sense of being really engaged with what we’re doing at SIIA. And the quality of their work speaks for itself.) It’s going to be obvious that I wrote out my introductory remarks, and at the last minute, so I might as well share them here:
Halloween is actually great day to be talking about building communities, because Halloween is a true community ritual. Itâ€™s the only occasion in many of our lives that brings us together with neighbors â€“ many of them strangers – and with people of different ages and backgrounds and beliefs. But whatâ€™s most interesting to me is that it depends on something that we talk about a lot in terms of communities: trust. Think about it. On Halloween we send our children to the door of total strangers to threaten them with tricks and then ask them for candy! But tonight we wonâ€™t be strangers. Tonight weâ€™ll celebrate our connections of locality and culture.
Ironically, we live in a time where the desire for community seems to grow in proportion to our sense that it is declining. You probably read the recent report that found that 25% of Americans have not a single person to turn to in a personal crisis. News reports like this are worth keeping in mind as we talk about how community can help our businesses â€” can even be a business â€“ because there are emotional and psychological aspects of community that we need to consider.
I want to give you a little background on this program, which was designed to ask some tough, practical questions about community building.
I got interested in the idea of community after publishing my first environmental book. There is a lot of interest in the idea of community amongst environmentalists, because living in close proximity to others, buying locally, and sharing things like cars and lawnmowers is a way to reduce our carbon footprint. My problem was that as I got to know a lot of environmentalists, I realized I wouldnâ€™t want to live next door to them. They were disapproving, sanctimonious, and not a lot of fun.
I talked to a friend about it. â€œI hate community,â€ he said. â€œBusybodies, rules and norms, and fear of strangers.â€
I mention this as a reminder that community isnâ€™t all sunshine and roses. Community â€“ like other kinds of relationship – has its downsides.
My interest in community has grown along with my company, because Iâ€™ve discovered that the really exciting part of developing massive information projects is that they depend on tapping into global networks of experts. Big collaborative publications require us to build relationships, and to build knowledge communities. Like many of you, Iâ€™ve been wondering how best to use the vast array of social media tools available to expand and grow my business.
This event is sponsored by the Content Division of the SIIA, and our four expert panelists are going to help us think more rigorously about how the worlds of community building and content creation intersect.
But what is community, anyway? A famous article, from 1955, listed 57 definitions – like ketchup. Just what kind of community are we talking about here today?
I usually say that communities are human webs that provide essential feelings of sharing, belonging, and meaning. Tom Bender, a historian at NYU, wrote that community is â€œa network of social relations marked by mutuality and emotional bonds.â€ But I emailed Tom this week and he pointed out something else worth keeping in mind, that the ability to collaborate, to create a sense of community, with people who are different from us, might be the most important thing for companies to develop. Thatâ€™s quite a different thing from cultivating communities where there are already strong ties.
And there are different cultural perspectives to take into account. A concept that intrigued me from the moment I heard it was guanxi, the Chinese and Asia concept of a personal network embedded in a web of long-term relationships, where there is a strong sense of reciprocity. Working in China â€“ or partnering with other companies anywhere in the world â€” often depends on the communities we can tap into and become part of.
I know youâ€™ve already seen our speakersâ€™ biographies, but I thought Iâ€™d mention a few things before we get started. Leslie Forde, VP of Strategic Alliances at Communispace, helped me out back in August as I was preparing to speak at the Global Information Industry Summit. I have to confess that I hadnâ€™t realized till I talked to her how many major companies have community building initiatives. Leslie tells me that Communispace uses some of the methods of anthropology and Iâ€™m hoping get into that.
Kim Patrick Kobza is a co-founder of Neighborhood America, another company that helps companies build and grow communities. Kim has a great interest in leadership practices as well as community building â€” another angle to consider as you look at your own enterprise. Leading is hierarchical, but what about community? Communities, too, need leaders, and youâ€™ll want to think about the kinds of people you need to attract to build the energy and activity youâ€™re after.
Scott Parry has over 15 years of experience in the financial industry and is now the General Manager of AdvicePoint, Reuters’ Web 2.0 online community that connects investors, financial advisers, and investment product companies. Although his project is in beta, heâ€™s done a great deal of work on analyzing needs and figuring out how to do early market testing, and thinking about types of community.
David Teten is a highly experienced entrepreneur, who has built and sold several successful companies, and the founder and managing director of Nitron Circle of Experts. He also writes a column for Fast Company magazine, and from our conversations itâ€™s clear that he has thought deeply about the social and business impact of online relationships.
Weâ€™ll be posting recommendations and resources online and all of us welcome your comments and questions.
To register for the next Brown Bag Lunch, Users as Editors: What’s the Key to Quality Social Media Content, visit https://www.siia.net/events/prereg.asp?eventid=784.