Friday, August 24, 2007

Confused about Communities

The latest "Facebook foray" over at confused of calcutta shifts the front of the battle over to "community building." The first shot in this case is an unabashed advertisement for an out-of-print book (reinforced with endorsements from Howard Rheingold, Kevin Kelly, and Jon Katz):

It’s rare for me to buy more than three copies of a book, and Amy Jo Kim’s seminal Community Building On The Web is one such book. It’s so good that, over the last seven years or so, I have repeatedly bought it and given it away. Which was fine when the book was actually in print, but started getting a tad expensive when I had to go into the secondary market for it.

While the book continues to be “out of print” in a traditional sense, I’m glad to see that Peachpit now make a PDF download available, albeit at a price.

This then provides the opportunity to put out more Facebook flags:

What does all this have to do with Facebook? Well, I wanted to get you hooked into the way I was thinking when I first came across Facebook. I didn’t think of it as a “social networking” site. I saw it as an online community, one that had been built by people who understood the precepts and guidelines of people like Amy Jo Kim.

The scope of those precepts can best be grasped through the table of contents of the Kim book:

  • Introduction: Calling All Community Builders
  • Purpose: The Heart of Your Community
  • Places: Bringing People Together
  • Profiles: Getting to Know Your Members
  • Roles: From Newcomer to Oldtimer
  • Leadership: The Buck Stops Here
  • Etiquette: Rules to Live By
  • Events: Meetings, Performances and Competitions
  • Rituals: Handshakes, Holidays and Rites of Passage
  • Subgroups: Committees, Clubs and Clans

This then provides the grounds for the "big gun" thesis statement:

Facebook is not a “social networking” site. It is a community of communities. Now this is potentially of immense value in an enterprise, if we use it sensibly.

Fortunately, Balaji Sowmyanarayanan was there with a comment to put things into a most useful perspective:

All of this is true with Usenet too.
But FB is sugar coated blackhole trap.

This transported me back to the realm of cautionary remarks (particularly Marx') about those who ignore history. Usenet has much to teach us about the “community of communities” phenomenon; and, as old-fashioned as I am, I felt that, at least in its earlier days, the content was richer for being limited to text. However, I think there are more lessons to be learned than Balaji chose to invoke in his comment.

Most important is that Usenet was not about community building. It was about creating forums for discussion of topics of shared interest. This is neither a necessary nor a sufficient attribute of a community. Communities certainly emerged within many of the discussion groups, and that emergence could lead to the formation of new discussion groups. However, the very concept of community building seems to be invoked the most by those who have never seriously studied the social theory of communities and, as a result, quickly cotton on to all the surface features (as in the topics of the chapters of Kim's book) while in blissful ignorance of the “deep structure.” (I took my flame-thrower down this road back in the days of the communities-of-practice fad.)

So Usenet was primarily about enabling conversations (one of those "four pillars" of enterprise software that I recently tried to unpack); but it was also about providing the option to moderate those conversations (which is why I continue to argue for the need for quality editing). A Usenet moderator was, first and foremost, a filter. However, other forms of moderation surfaced, with responsibilities often shared by members of the group. An important one was keeping the discussion “on topic.” Another, which I would often do voluntarily, was to “review the bidding:” When a discussion got hot and heavy, going down many different paths at once, it was useful to synopsize the key points and contributors and identify the outstanding issues and questions that still needed to be resolved.

Finally, while Usenet preceded the Internet with its use of gateway management technology, its population was extremely limited compared to today’s Internet demographics. The opening of the Internet killed many (most?) of the discussion groups, for the simple reason that people flooded in for no other reason than to babble. Content quickly sank to the lowest common denominator (if not lower); and many of the original participants who had engaged Usenet as a resource began to see it as a waste of time.

Marx’ remark about repeating history, as many know, was that what is tragedy the first time comes around as farce the second time. The deterioration of the quality of discussion on Usenet may have been the first great tragedy of the Internet. Perhaps what Balaji called a “sugar coated blackhole trap” is just the farce of the second appearance.

Meanwhile, I hope that those who are seriously interested in community-like behavior in either the virtual or the physical world will spend less time with books by technology evangelists and more time with the more serious (but just as exciting) social theory literature!

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