Wednesday, September 29

Creating Social Networks: Colonies Before Communities

With increasing regularity, companies that have adopted social media find themselves asking the next most logical question. How do I develop a sense of community? There are plenty of answers, but there is only one right answer. You don't.

Online communities aren't developments. They are evolutions of other social structures, much like corporate cultures.

But unlike corporate cultures, you do not "control" the participants. There is no tangible contract. They don't owe you anything on the promise of a paycheck. They aren't likely to invest eight or more hours a day in your organization. And, as virtual nomads (or tribes if they are connected), they aren't likely to identify with fledgling ideas beyond recognizing common interest.

Colonies Before Communities.

Companies don't create communities. At best, they create colonies on new continents such as Facebook or those of their own design. And very much like the American colonies, they are founded for very different reasons and will have very different outcomes.

In 1585, Sir Walter Raleigh had received a charter to establish a settlement in North America within ten years. The intent, much like many companies that want communities, wasn't much more than to exploit the riches of the new world. How they would do this, beyond raiding Spanish treasure fleets, was unclear in some cases. This colony, Roanoke, disappeared without a trace.

Subsequent colonies were established for different reasons. Virginia was established for trade and profits. Plymouth for religious freedom. New York for trade and profits. New Hampshire for looser economic rules. South Carolina to produce rice. And so on and so forth.

The earliest colonists didn't identify with their location as much as their homeland, but they all recognized they generally shared one or two common interests. One colony, Plymouth, did establish a Mayflower Compact, loosely based on the idea that the colonists would agree to certain rules for mutual benefit beyond their understanding of English law. The point of interest here is that the colonists, not England, wrote and signed the compact.

The Risk Of Colonization.

Some colonies take shape much like the visionaries intend. Others do not. And the reasons are as varied as the American colonies. Sometimes colonies are abandoned for greener pastures. Sometimes neighboring tribes invade and take over. Sometimes charismatic leaders emerge and have more influence than the appointed governance of a community manager.

But more important than any of that is to always remember surviving colonies will eventually not be managed by the people who fund the charter, but rather by the people who populate it. In less than 200 years, even early American colonies would eventually develop a sense of identity so strong, they would rebuff the crown and claim sovereignty in the face of change.

Thus, companies and organizations hoping to build communities, especially those designed for trade and profit, may have a few surprises in store for them. Whatever design they have in mind may not work.

South Carolina, for example, was founded for rice production but the cash crop eventually became tobacco. New York, which was originally a Dutch settlement, was taken over by the English. When puritan leaders became too hard in New Hampshire, the colonists began to spread north and inland. In Connecticut, founder Thomas Hooker was asked to leave. And so on.

You can match any of these stories with various company community efforts or fledgling social networks. Some disappear. Some are taken over. Some have member revolutions. And so on. It's amazing, when you think about it, that some do develop into loyalist communities at all.

The Reward Of A Loyalist Community.

When you think about it, the goal of many companies eventually becomes to own a loyalist community. They want people to participate, buy, and encourage their friends to participate and buy as well. It's possible, but not probable, with rare exception.

• Are you confident that the colony will receive as much support at it needs during bleak seasons?
• Are you prepared to hire a community manager or managers with more experience than an intern?
• Are you certain this representative will reinforce the community vision and not a rock star image?
• Are you up for guiding behaviors that reinforce the vision of the community being created?
• Are you flexible enough to know when the vision won't mesh with the participants you attract?
• Are you resigned to the idea that you may own the technology, but not the culture that develops?
• Are you ready to defend against invaders that disrupt the safety and sense of security people expect?
• Are you restrained enough to avoid sweeping changes that shock the community in the morning?

Then you might be ready to fund a colony, with the hope it will return a loyal community. But if you think a social network (even if it is on Facebook) is a campaign or a technology, then your expectations will not likely be met for any sustainable amount of time. The net is littered with more Roanokes than Facebooks and more New Hampshires than Reddits.
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