Community in Denial


Christopher Koch, who is the Executive Editor at CIO Magazine, has a provacative post on his blog about "community" being the code word of denial in the current burst of activity commonly called Web 2.0. He compares it to the word "collaboration" which fueled the B2B bubble in the late 90's. Using the c-word allows you to "slide past any discussion or proof of real value."

Chris points out three things necessary to get and keep visitors to any Web site:

  1. Perceived value
  2. Safety
  3. Clear exchange of value

You could probably argue the first of these draws visitors, the second enables the transaction, and the third keep them coming back.

Chris uses MySpace and YouTube as examples and while I found myself nodding in agreement with that he said about MySpace, I couldn't help but disagreeing when it came to YouTube. Maybe it's just a generational thing with MySpace, but I think Chris hits the nail on the head when he says:

All in all, the perceived value on the home page of MySpace comes across as the opportunity to enter a hopelessly large, undifferentiated lonely hearts club that's potentially unsafe and embarrassing and provides little hope of real value exchange.
From CIO Blogs - Web 2.0: A Community in Denial |
Referenced Sat Feb 03 2007 12:33:22 GMT-0700 (MST)

That said, I couldn't help but think of a recent Wired magazine article about the role MySpace played in the life and death of Daniel Varo and his friends--not to mention enemies. Months after his death people were still leaving comments on his MySpace page. It was like his online memorial. Value? I don't know--but it was definitely compelling for these people.

On YouTube it's easy to lose the value in the sheer volume of material. It's easy to dismiss it as a home of pirated material (and Viacom appears to agree), but the user generated content is compelling. A recent Bear Sterns presentation by Spencer Wang claims that 75% of the top 20 videos on YouTube was user-generated content on November 15, 2006.

YouTube has also become an important political tool in the 2008 race. Supporters and detractors of Mitt Romney, not to mention the campaign itself, have used YouTube. Rather than firing multi-million dollar ads back and forth at each other, for now, they're fighting with low-budget videos that can be linked, shared, and embedded.

As far as I can see, YouTube's "community" isn't the draw. Humans are amazingly social animals, so they will find ways of using almost any tool to congregate and that's happening on YouTube despite its poor support for such activities, not because of them.

Chris finishes with a discussion suggesting businesses look at recommendations to build "community" on their sites with a critical eye. I think that's good advice.

Most businesses are likely to look at community building as code word for "lock-in." Most businesses aren't designed to cultivate and profit from relationships with their customers. Instead they are focused on direct value exchange in transactions. That's a function of accounting and metrics. Relationships are hard to quantify on the bottom line.

If your company's efforts to create "community" are being talked about in terms of customer lock-in and growing average transaction size, then stop the conversation. You're wasting your time. I suspect most successful community related efforts in companies will grow out of customer support, not marketing or sales. Some customer support organizations are starting to realize real value, in the form of reduced support costs, from activities like forums, blogs, and other activities which give customers more information, build reputation, reduce customer frustration. I wrote about this a while back in a piece called Customer Starts With Custom.