Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Communities build themselves

In the past few weeks I've spent a lot of time.... a lot of time ....in the virtual world known as Second Life. It is strange, lovely and addictive. And I'll have to make an effort not to get consumed by the place.
I heard about this online world months ago, but it didn't catch my interest then. I knew it was some sort of online gaming environment where people created "avatars" that "lived" in the virtual world. And it just seemed silly to me.
Then I read about Anshe Chung, a woman who was amassing real-world riches for her work in the virtual world (a second article that mentions her can be found here.) I'm an entrepreneur, and I'm always looking for opportunities. And I found myself wondering if there was a business opportunity for me in the virtual world. I wanted to know if a newspaper or magazine existed in Second Life, or if I should launch one.
So I logged on for a free trial.
As it turns out, there is a newspaper in Second Life. And it's a pretty good paper -- full of actual news, albeit about a fictional world.
But far more interesting to me was that the world itself -- this pretend community where people can fly, this imaginary place where people talk through written messages -- was so much fun. And after a half-dozen visits, I felt somehow that I belonged in this community of possibility and conversation.

I've been thinking a lot about community of late...and how B2B media companies can foster it. Community is, in a very real sense, the goal of publishing. Or at least it should be. We create content, share it with others, and together we consider that content's meaning. To an old-media guy, community is the trade show that his B2B magazine sponsors. To a new-media guy, it's the feedback function on his blog. But put those differences aside and note the similarity -- both of those guys are in the business of fostering connections.
And that's a tough business to be in.

On a fairly regular basis, B2B media executives ask me how they can build community.
What I tell them is that doing so is nearly impossible. What I tell them is that communities build themselves.
And I tell them to read Giant Robot.
Giant Robot is the most interesting -- and most unusual -- magazine in my mailbox every month. It's a consumer magazine about "Asian Pop Culture and Beyond." But it doesn't look, feel or read like any other magazine I know.
The young guys who started GR sensed there was a group of people that needed a place to be. In other words, they believed a community would exist as soon as it had a "place" to gather.
And the founders of the magazine were right. There was a community of young, hip people, most of them Asian and Asian American, who related to the wider culture in a way specific to them. It wasn't that this group of people had shared interests. That's commonplace. Lots of people share interests with lots of other people. What was important was that this particular group had a shared sensibility. People don't join a community in order to belong. They join because they belong.

When communities have blossomed in the B2B world, they have followed a similar pattern. The community exists -- united by emotions more than by interests --but has no central location at which to interact. Then a B2B publication creates a "space" in which conversation can occur. Web sites seem to work best for this. Trade shows are still good at this too. Print magazines seem to be very poor choices (one of the many miracles of GR is that a community made up almost entirely of kids from the Internet generation formed around a print magazine. The key to that success seems to be that the community is also linked through GR's retail outlets and the products of the magazine's advertisers. When I walk around in lower Manhattan, I can spot a Giant Robot reader. They wear their sensibility -- a hip, anime-flavored, pan-Asian and all-American, anti-Orientalism sensibility -- on their shirt sleeves. )

I've come to believe that community is most likely to occur in B2B media that serve industries where strongly held emotions are the norm. People who work in such industries do more than share interests, they share a belief system. And when people work at something that is more than a job, then they tend to think of the B2B publication they read as something more than a magazine.
Thus it's not in the least bit surprising that a vibrant online community has grown around Cygnus' Firehouse.com.
Community also seems more likely to form among people trying to enter an industry than among those already working in it. Job seekers are united by a single common sensibility -- the belief that they are in the wrong place in life.
Thus I'm not surprised that MediaBistro attracts dozens of people nearly every weeknight to its classes, seminars and social gatherings. Whereas I can't imagine that Folio or Editor and Publisher would have similar luck attracting working journalists.

So is there anything a B2B journalist can do to help foster community?
Yes.
The great lesson of the blogging phenomenon is that there is someone who feels passionately about any subject you can think of. And if that person starts a blog, there are always a few people who feel strongly enough to post comments.
Any B2B journalist can tap into that power. You don't need to start a blog, but you do need to become more bloglike. If you allow readers to speak to you and each other, then you have created a place where community might arise. If you let people speak, you may find that they will listen. And together you may find the sense of emotional connection that is the basis of community.
And let me be clear, I'm not suggesting that anyone start another talk-among-yourselves service on their Web site. I don't think a discussion group, live chat or online forum is the best way to connect your readers.
Rather, what I am urging is that you allow your readers to talk to you and each other in public about your work. I'm talking about feedback functions. I'm suggesting that allowing comments on your stories will do more to foster community than any other thing you can do.
Feedback functions are the single best way to find out if there are any readers who share your sensibility -- the strongly held emotional belief that your product is important.

tags: , , , , , conversational media, ,

4 comments:

  1. I'm glad I stumbled upon this entry. I launched a B2B web app three days ago. My goal is not only to provide the service, but offer an open forum for my users to discuss issues facing their businesses and allow them to help each other be successful.

    My plan is to discuss these types of issues on the blog and link it to my forum for more discussion. Comments are fine and dandy, but once there are a few more entries in the blog, the discussion fizzles away. A B2B company should spark discussion and link to a forum because a forum allows for more long-term discussion of a topic since it places the latest commented topic at the top.

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  2. Hi Chad,
    That's an interesting point. Discussion does tend to fade away as new items are posted.
    There are exception. Lots of readers arrive via search. They don't read blogs in chronological order and seem to have no hesitation to post comments to older posts.
    For example, just yesterday someone posted a comment to this post from June.
    http://paulconley.blogspot.com/2005/06/looking-at-digital-editions.html

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  3. Hi Paul,
    I thought I'd offer some additions to your potential reading list of news media covering Second Life from the inside:

    New World Notes (operated by Linden Lab, the company that runs second Life)

    The Second Life Herald (SL's unofficial juicy tabloid)

    Clickable Culture (my blog, SL entries specifically)

    These are all blogs with "news" or "tabloid" style writing by Second Life residents. Most Second Life blogs (of which there are many) tend to feature more first-person / diary-style content. There's an excellent group-blog located here if you'd like to see something in between journalism and journal-style posts.

    With regards to Chad's comment about forum vs. blog functionality, bloggers can invite and maintain discussions by featuring recent comments on their front page. My blog, for example, currently contains a "most discussed" column and a "recent comments" column, each of which link to articles that have usually slipped off the main page (giving old discussion topics a longer lease on life). But I do recommend a forum for any community that is expected to engage in a lot of discussion. Linking to a forum from a blog post is a good way to stimulate conversation.

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  4. Hi Tony,
    Thanks for the links, the comments and the ideas about forums.

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