In the mid to late 1990’s, before I began working professionally within the social media industry – we called it the online community industry back then – I spent a number of years researching and writing about life online. My particular focus was on how individuals create an identity, form relationships and build communities in what were, at that time, largely text based online environments.
Many of the things myself and other social scientific researchers back then, which included people such as Howard Rheingold, Sherry Turkle and Barry Wellman, observed and wrote about are taken for granted as truth today – online participation can sustain social connections and help form new ones, participants in online communities think of that participation as real, and it’s impacts can be felt offline just as much as online, and that anonymous participation could lead to the loss of inhibitions, leading to both good and bad outcomes, etc.
At the time, one of the things that struck me as important was that online behaviour could be purposefully shaped through the introduction of participatory frameworks that reinforce positive behaviours through technology, editorial steering, and human intervention.
In my post yesterday on using technology and social business strategies to blur the boundaries between inside and outside the business I noted that some of these ideas aren’t dissimilar to techniques used by architects to do similar things with internal and external spaces. It’s long struck me that, in much the same way, some of the better examples of urban planning are similar, in some ways, to the techniques we use to plan, build and manage spaces conducive to meaningful social interaction online. Because of this, I’ve long been fascinated with Celebration, the town created by Disney in Florida, and other examples of modern, purpose built towns and suburbs.
At Celebration, which I’ve both read about and visited, planners set out to correct many of the problems they’d observed in modern American suburbs – primarily the privatisation of community, where families were disconnected from their neighbours by large gardens, a car centric lifestyle, shopping in distant shopping malls and other features typical of modern life. The first thing you notice, when visiting Celebration, is that amenities such as shops, the school and parkland are all located at the centre of the town. Homes were, at least in the initial phases of the development, located close to the centre, with pavements made deliberately wide and roads narrow to encourage residents to walk into town. Unlike typical American suburbs with large gardens, both front and back, separating the homes of residents, gardens in Celebration were kept small, with houses located close to the front of the plots they were built on. Every house also has a covered front porch to encourage people to spend time outside, close to where neighbours might be passing by, making the neighbourhood both feel safer and encouraging the sort of daily familiarity that often leads to the sort of random discussions that often lead, in time, to new friendships.
When we build social propositions online, we try to think about many of the same things. What are the features and spaces that all users will want or need to use? How can we build familarity between users who may or may not have previous contact with each other? How do we support positive behaviours that support use cases we want to encourage?
A few examples. Last year, we built a recruitment website for a large multi-national corporation. After speaking with recent and potential recruits, we learned that the largest failure of the current process was that applicants were asked to spend a significant amount of time and effort filling out pre-questionaires, undertaking pre-qualification activities, and submitting an application before they had any human contact with the people inside the business. Potential recruits wanted to know what people working in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) related roles studied, what their working environments were like, and what they actually did from day to day as part of their careers. The resulting proposition, which we devised and implemented for the client, was essentially platform that allowed students to do exactly this. The proposition included staff profiles, blogs and video blogs, with the ability for students to ask questions directly. We deliberately spent a lot of time thinking about helping students to make new connections with staff, and one of the more successful things we came up with was including not just the names and job titles of staff, but also their home town, the degree they studied for, the university they graduated from, and other personal, but not private, details that helped students very quickly find staff who come from a similar background to themselves. We also thought carefully about how students might interact with staff through the site, and came up with a variety of ways both to encourage positive interaction through the editorial and participatory framework we devised – for instance, instead of allowing anyone to ask any question, opportunities to ask a question were limited to specific topics – and we limited staff resource required to participate by offering opportunities to ask questions to a percentage of staff, who had been given time away from normal tasks to provide responses, at any one time.
In another project, MetroTwin for British Airways, we wanted to encourage participants to post reviews of places they’d enjoyed visiting themselves, but weren’t particularly interested in the places that had failed to meet expectations. The participatory framework helps ensures that, rather than being populated with complaints about the airline or negative reviews, almost every contribution has been largely positive, and of benefit to other users.
It’s not just external facing projects where we’ve created participatory frameworks that, through technology and human intervention, help ensure positive engagement. We’ve used, with great affect, these techniques within internal facing collaboration systems too. For example, one of our clients, which operates across around 25 countries globally, has engaged our community management services to help drive participation. We welcome new users, create new topics, highlight the best content, make introductions between people, and run competitions aimed at incentivising staff not only to make high value contributions, but to explore, rate and comment on the contributions of others.
Back in the late 1990’s, those of us in the social media industry often talked about the importance of allowing the user communities we helped create to “own” the community. The benefits of this approach were that the users often times knew better than we did what they wanted to achieve, and with a sense of ownership also came stewardship – the users would help build their communities, and defend it from those seeking to disrupt it through inappropriate behaviour. Whilst I still think it’s true that we should encourage users to take responsibility for some aspects of community building and management, those of us who have been working in social media for a while also understand the importance of purposely creating participatory frameworks that encourage positive, goal oriented behaviours, and to do this requires both technology and human intervention.