Yesterday I moderated a panel on building and planning online communities as part of the E-Marketing Summit Austin. We were speaking to a large room filled with marketing professionals. The description of the panel said that “every company owner or C-level manager is talking about how to develop an online community strategy.” So there’s unprecedented interest in online community development, and I found that the other panelists were very smart about building and sustaining communities in a business context, and very clear about the strategic business value of the communitie they’ve built. This hasn’t always been the case. In the 90s, there was a surge of interest in online community development, but at many companies it was a shallow afterthought. This decade there’s been excitement about social technology, social media, and social networks, but not necessarily on the nuts and bolts of community development. Excitement about social networks doesn’t necessarily translate into community development. Social network platforms are good for manifesting connections to people you know, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that community will form. True community is a set of people who, beyond establishing relationships, share knowledge, experience, and history over time. This won’t necessarily happen on a blog or a social network platform, though it could happen anywhere that supports consistent conversations within a persistent group of people who come to know each other.
So if I make a blog post and random readers post comments, but they don’t return to sustain the conversation or join other conversations on my blog, community isn’t forming. However if I blog in a way that invites conversation, and I get a persistent audience of commenters that build relationships with each other through the comments as conversation, a community may evolve.
Community is scalable to some kind of mass converation only by forming “neighborhoods.” It’s inherent in social bandwidth – there’s a limit to the number of people who can have a sustained conversation without losing coherence or group cohesion. On a larger virtual community like The WELL, the thousands of members don’t all know each other. They hang out in conferences or forums, and focus on particular topics or conversations within those forums. Community forms based on affinity. A majority of community members tend to lurk – i.e. listen to the conversation without contributing. The lurker ratio isn’t always a majority, it will vary depending on the size and composition of the group, and the nature of the conversation. I suspect without any academic reference that lurkers stabilize the conversation by delegating the floor to other speakers, and “uncloak” only when they have a compelling thought that isn’t represented by the more vocal participants.
If you assume a 20% ratio of vocal participants to lurkers, and you assume that the best conversations are limited to a dozen speakers (an average number suggested by some of my colleagues, like Ross Mayfield), then a conversation with lurkers would top out sixty persons.
Given that number, you can’t really have mass conversations. Democracy, seen as a conversation about governance, doesn’t scale unless you can determine how to chunk the larger community into smaller, manageable conversations (which is hard) or, as an alternative, have a few surrogates in conversation and a massive number of lurkers – that’s the broadcast way of working, and done that way, you get a conversation that’s dominated by few individuals, probably all operating with similar cultural assumptions. I.e. how diverse could culture and thinking be among east coast pundits?
The social web, as an aggregate of many voices and many conversations within many communities, has created a post-broadcast reality where we have the many “chunks.” The online community movement, now facilitated not just as a few casual community sites but also as business and professional communities of practice, gives us more and more chunks of conversation, and more and more comfort with best practice for making those chunks strategically effective. For more democratic governance, the challenge is to aggregate chunks of citizens in a way that’s relevant to governance. In my final post as guest blogger at DrGreene.com’s Perspectives, I want to challenge you to think about your role in the conversations that are relevant to you. Given all that you do in your world every day, are you missing time to join citizen conversations and communities? Do you have a responsibility to be part of a larger daily conversation about how we can make the world work, safely and effectively?