It’s been a few years since TIME magazine decided the «person of the year» were the people, in their online communities. We’ve come a long way both in usage and in public awareness. So much so that it’s hard to point at what has become of it. New technologies, business models and management fads have mixed things quite a bit.
When I became interested in online communities, it was because of two things: the connectedness and culture-building (say the deeper «social» side) and the shared-knowledge, value building (say the «collaboration» side). I still think both of those sides need much more theorethical work, and they’re still going strong. They’re changing, and that change makes it easier to see what’s essential and what’s just purely circumstantial in the concept.
This year, there’s a whole lot of rebranding going on. That may be a good sign, or not.
Luis Suarez at IBM joins the charge to exchange «social» for «open» (as in «open business» instead of «social business»). It’d be fun if it wasn’t because «open business» has a specific meaning and agenda. Just as «open government», «open data» and any other recent «open», they don’t just aim to be socially connected but also designed in a way that allows specific types of interplay. The key in all of them is not in the social angle, but in the open angle. By confusing both concepts they risk making (for instance) an «open government» initiative based on having twitter accounts and facebook pages, instead of on significant transparency and a workable exchange of ideas with the public on policy and government action. It happened, just look up oGov Navarra.
«Social» is just an aspect of «Open». This slide deck is rather better at the whole picture… and yet not there.
«Open» and «social» also get confused with «community-driven». Or «emergent» as some would say who still haven’t quite got around to mentioning specific causes. Or «crowdsourced», confusing the tool with the motion. In short, recently we’re getting quite a bit of efforts to either channel or engage the public. From Pepsi’s 2010 effort to mix marketing and corporate social responsibility with the Refresh Project, to the ongoing idealistic CAN idea of letting people directly choose where the foundation’s money is spent: a theoretically simple idea that is spawning a full industry of facilitators, mobilisers and accountants, where the «social» gets drafted in essentially as a promotional tool. And, of course, everything in between.
2013 is being an interesting year. Just like the past decade saw the end of «ebusiness» as a tag, because every business was an ebusiness, these days it’s absurd to highlight the «social» too much: it’s already permeated the way we live and work, it’s already a prerequisite for connecting with partners and customers in the way they need and expect. It’s an accepted channel and an internalized change, at least at the conceptual level.
So the tag-changing will continue. Consultants and sales people (myself included) need to find new and shiny packages for the value they try to sell, because the buyers become jaded way before they have really applied it. Even the Lean Startup management philosophy is fast turning from a useful thought framework into an exploitable course franchise and then a set of tools used without reference to their real value. In fact, it borrowed the «lean» term from another set of then-popular ideas.
Tags change. Shiny packages change. Angles evolve. But the need to communicate with like-minded people in an effective and easy way, building and gathering significant knowledge along the way, just keeps growing with the world’s complexity.
That’s why Facebook and LinkedIn’s killer app and retention engine is not their «graph». It’s the work they’ve been putting, in the last few years, at making it easy and effective to start, manage and promote communities inside them. You can change social networks at the drop of a hat… unless you’re involved with a community. And a community can be multichannel, but it usually isn’t. Communities gather self-selected people in a way that no other creature can. Communities enable us to grow and deepen our «graph» online and offline. Those networks that survive are increasingly looking like community incubator environments (new ones always look like content sharing hubs, but that’s a different story).
Crowdsourcing requires a crowd; a crowd of like-minded, involved people bent on creating something. You can skip the conceptual fudge and call it a community. Openness requires communities (in setting practices, in supporting them, in moving the product along). «Employee engagement» requires a focus of people, also called a community.
We have gone quite a way beyond what we did in 2003 with the Community Quadrant (pages 4 and on, if you dare), but communities still are, and will be, at the forefront of any «open» or «social» or «crowd» initiative. Rebranding is nice, but it would be nicer if it didn’t put the spotlight in the periphery of the value-adding mechanism.