“As long as the roots of relationship are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the community’s garden. There will be growth in the spring!”
– Chauncey Gardiner, from Being There
Online communities are not virtual. They don’t exist only in the bits and bytes on the series of pipes known as the interwebs. To the contrary, I have found, in the 26-years that I have been online, that the relationships and bonds that people form online are not only real but in many cases are more authentic because they’re chosen by each member rather than being thrust upon them by history, family, or cultural expectations.
Before the advent of the Internet, folks needed to physically move places to find birds of a feather—people like them. Affinity groups were hard to come by, so if you were smart, you’d go away to college; actors went to LA, writers went to New York; if you happened to be alt-boy or alt-girl, then the cities called, or Europe. Birds of a feather flock together, after all—everybody hungers to find others like them. Post-internet, nothing has changed for some people—plenty of smart kids still flock to Boston every year—but everything’s changed for lots others.
I bought my first computer in 1983 and even back then, folks were in search of each other at the end of the beep beep beep tone of a 300 baud modem. That beep beep beep screech was the sound of folks searching for and finding each other.
Online communities are an extension-of-reach of this same desire to find people and connect with them. Even if the person you see when you wake-up doesn’t get you, even if your parents and those losers at school don’t get you, even if you have a deep secret, you are never stuck—you can supplement the demands of your daily commitments with people who don’t merely come close to meeting you on the same general ground of interest but your exact twin.
When you meet your twin—when you meet lots and lots of people just like you—you are then free to be open and honest. Everyone understands you . . . better than your own mum. You have time to bond, connect, and simply spend time together.
Evolving beyond Second Life
I’m talking about self-organized, self-sustaining communities of purpose, communities of action, communities of circumstance, communities of interest, communities of inquiry, communities of position, communities of place, and communities of practice—real people, bonded into a tribe, protective of the members of their family. I will say that the Second Life Community takes care of its own. They love each other, they protect each other, they take care of each other, and they stick up for each other.
Second Life is the modern exemplar of how and why online communities are authentic—even though one can (and often does) hide behind a posh and dead-sexy avatar and a posh and dead-sexy nom de plume. Second Life might even be more authentic because it allows members to cast-off the shackles of family names and the genetic inheritance of body and shape, and redefine oneself as one desires to be—arguably, as one is more authentic on Second Life, where one may become the man or woman (or purple pony) that one is on the inside.
Marketers need to recognize that every Second Life (SL) and World of Warcraft (WoW) avatar is a person pouring time and resources into community, that every tweet by every tweeter through every Twitter handle is a person who has taken finite time and resources and poured it into community, and every blog post by every blogger are time, energy, and resources that could be spent elsewhere and elsewise, are spent on the blog and this time and energy is shared with the blogger’s community in comments and conversation.
These are really wonderful people who actually are willing to meet you halfway towards friendship. They’re not an exclusionary boarding school, they’re an “inclusionary” public school—open to everyone! I’m not playing “tra-la-la” here, however, because even in a school with open admissions, there are groups of smart kids, cool kids, quiet kids, trolls, lurkers, and losers. As a marketer or as a corporate entity, you enter the online world as the new kid. Folks are, by their very nature, skeptical and you will probably be approached and challenged to see where you are in your intent, where you are in the pecking order, and which table you’re going to have lunch at.
That’s the good news…
If you want to become part of the conversation, if you want to market or engage with online communities and online citizens, if you want to leverage their reputation and tap their community and influence, you need to make the same sort of real effort that you would if it were neighbors in your new neighborhood, if it were parents in the PTA, or even all of the editors, writers, and journalists you currently covet in the big rolodex cheese wheel you still maintain on your desk as the only representation of how powerful your years of work have made you.
What does it all mean?
- Virtual community is not fun and games, really—it’s serious business just the same way that the Red Sox might seem like a game but it’s serious business. Mess with the Sox and you’re messing with Boston.
- When someone enters a community online, you’re not just dealing with people who happen to live in the same city or neighborhood, you’re dealing with people who have filtered to that online space from around the entire globe.
- Finally, if you engage, you’re not on holiday—even when you’re on holiday you’re not on holiday because all of the people you meet wherever you are—even on holiday—are real people. Just because the people around you in Hawaii make you feel loved and adored, you’re still a paycheck to them.
I promise you that if you’re willing and able to do the above, you will have a rich and rewarding experience—you, your brand, and your company.