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Lessons From the (Long) History of Online Communities

Written by Molly Talbert | on February 20, 2017 at 8:30 AM

Lessons from the (long) history of online communities

Some people think that online social networking began with Facebook or MySpace - but they couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Even before the invention of the World Wide Web in 1989, people used the internet - a massive network of computers - to congregate virtually. (Believe it or not, there is a difference between the internet and the web.) Communities sprang out of that connectedness - communities such as The WELL, UseNet and ARPANet, which began as early as the ‘70s and ‘80s.

If virtual communities have been around for so long, are we just repeating past mistakes? According to Vanessa DiMauro, CEO of Leader Networks and community historian who spoke at 2016 Super Forum, we have a lot to learn and it pays to study online communities from our past.

“Human nature doesn’t change,” she said. “A lot of people are trying to restart the car, but there is a rich base of methods to convene and grow community to draw on or build upon.”

Let’s take a look at what the history of virtual communities and the internet can teach us.

We need to create industry standards

Think about it: every industry, from logging to marketing to finance, has standards. Industry standards are a sign of an industry’s maturity. Although community management is fairly new as a profession, it's grown enough that Vanessa thinks we need to start creating community standards.

“Right now, if a community leader is at one company, she has to invent her own dashboards and metrics,” said Vanessa. “Then if she moves it’s a complete do-over. You can’t even compare outcomes of one community to another, because there’s no standards of measurement.”

This is a big problem. Not only are community professionals forced to constantly reinvent the wheel, but we can’t even reliably compare communities to each other. The result is a stunted industry - an industry with many dedicated professionals and upward momentum, but no cohesion between people or communities.

The same could be said for the web back in the ’80s and ’90s. It was such a new thing and accessible to so few, that people just made up the rules as they went along. But as more people gained access to computers and dial-up, leaders in the industry decided to come together and create a set of rules to ensure things like HTML compatibility and consistent webpage sizes. The organization behind many of these regulations is the World Wide Web Consortium.

It sounds basic, but creating standards helped allow the web to take off to the level it is now. Imagine if you couldn’t load certain pages because the code wasn’t compatible with your computer or the webpage didn’t fit your screen? In a way, community builders deal with similar problems every day - how can you compare communities, share best practices and communicate with each other if there are no standard metrics or dashboards?

We need to build strong relationships with community members

Back in the day - meaning the ’80s and ’90s - it was a big deal if you belonged to one online community. Computers were expensive and internet access cost about $3 a minute. Now, the average professional belongs to three to five online communities (e.g. LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and a professional community).

Even though the barrier to entry was high, those old communities, like The WELL, were incredibly vibrant and members formed deep connections amongst each other. Since internet was expensive, rather than keeping a window open while reading and composing replies, it was common for people to download content off the community, think about how to craft their response, and then log in again to post it.

That type of commitment is unheard of in modern online communities. Any community professional can tell you time and attention is a very competitive commodity these days. But just because your average member isn’t going to spend an hour thinking of and composing the perfect response doesn’t mean you shouldn’t continue to focus on building deep relationships with members. If you want members to spend more time on your community, the most effective tool you have are strong relationships. Not only do those relationships differentiate your community from all others, but they are the heart of what a community is - connections between people - and why members signed up in the first place.

“My biggest fear is that we’re so obsessed with proving ourselves as a proper business and using robotic interactions that we’ll forget about the fact that there are humans behind the computer screen,” said Vanessa. “Good human practices never change, whether it’s 1985 or 2017. We now have the power to blend personalization with automation triggers to create the perfect dynamic of frequency, recency and human connection”

That’s where off-topic discussions come in handy, to connect people on a personal level. Mentorship programs also facilitate deeper connections, as do offline, in person events. Be creative and see what works for your specific community - but never forget that your community is comprised of human beings.

We need to go back to intention

“Nothing brings two people together more than a puzzle,” said Vanessa.

Many original virtual communities fostered such deep relationships between people because everyone was there for a common cause - whether it be Deadheads (fans of the Grateful Dead) who needed to plan for the next concert, or scientists trying to solve some of the world’s greatest problems. The focus was on relevance and intention, not on the size of the member list.

“Size doesn’t matter for community success,” said Vanessa. “Have the right people at the table doing meaningful work together and that will do more for your organization than having a giant number of registered members who never engage … because that’s a website, not a community.”

Due to the current focus of community as a digital marketing and awareness channel, a lot of current communities, particularly business communities, fail because no one has a puzzle to work on together. The secret sauce is to design community around your members’ ongoing needs throughout their journey with your organization. Starting with awareness, sales and onboarding, moving to support and retention – the community should cater to all the customer needs to be truly effective.

This is one reason why association communities perform well. “Their mission and vision are so clear and upfront,” Vanessa said. “All association community members know why they aligned with their chosen associations, have clear connections with their peers and the organization, and associations are typically outstanding at listening carefully to their members to deliver on their promises.”

We should learn from past communities - and association communities - by ensuring our community members and users have a clear mission and a common puzzle to solve. Make sure that mission and vision is well articulated and upfront so people are drawn to you and regularly gather.

Topics: Community Management

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