Earlier, I promised to write a few updates of what has changed in online-community thinking and what has not, since the days I finished my dissertation on knowledge sharing in virtual communities almost five years ago.
I will start with – probably the most obvious – similarity.
Number 1 is over-reliance on the power of communication technology and neglecting community.
Much of the common debate… seems to carry a deterministic mark: if a set of tools or channels is available, it is inevitably assumed that people will adopt it in building their communities. (p. 21)
There are various reasons to sticking into this rather dangerous mindset, but one of the most prevalent is the social media fad. Five years ago, the hype around social media had just taken its first steps, starting from blog revolution in 2004-2005 and followed by phenomena such as social networking services (Facebook, LinkedIn) or video sharing (YouTube). I would have guessed the fad to settle down already, but it has not been possible.
For that small percentage of people who today produce most of the content in social media, much of its logic and limits have long been obvious. However, there is still a huge mass of non-active users and organizations, to whom everything around the social Web is rather new. Just think about older generations, poorly connected people, developing countries, traditional product manufacturers, not to mention a few public sector organizations. Learning is on its way.
Respectively, much of the general debate around online interactions is still dazzled about the idea (!) of even being able to share something openly with others. The next phase was already there in the 1980s and 1990’s, but it remained a property of a few pioneering geeks and digital culture enthusiasts – historically, it seems we needed the social-media phase to make the phenomenon better known among large crowds.
The next step is how communities are created and maintained online. This is something we need to understand, if we want to harness the creative potential of the networked world. New knowledge is created within and between communities, not in online platforms. If people lack a shared context, no information becomes understood – no matter how much data you may access.
We even label the idea of open sharing as “social”, even if pumping out pics, videos or text onto social media is by no means more social than putting a notice on the wall in the traditional coffee room. Unless there are people with whom you interact, engage in conversations, get feedback and process your content further. Naturally, social media services have broadened the repertoire OCs apply for their interactions, which is good news. But only the one side of the coin.
In online communities, there are people having the same interest AND engaging in continuous interaction around such interest, to eventually establish a set of shared conventions. My favourite example: when people post and share photos online, that definitely is a shared interest. But not yet a shared practice – photography – that would induce online-community conversations around how those photos were taken, for example.
To conclude, my argument still is that technology is never enough. When looking at thriving online communities and how to best facilitate them, you need to understand three levels at the same time: individual behavior, communication technology, and social processes.
A logical consequence would be that online community facilitation is not a task to be done alone. To gain the best output, collaborate as a team with people who have complementary knowledge and abilities.