Community Is About Enabling People To Be Heard; And You Need Community To Succeed Online

from the enabling,-not-silencing dept

A bunch of folks have been sending in Paul Ford’s recent essay entitled The Web Is a Customer Service Medium, which I’ve been thinking about the past few days. I think the title is somewhat misleading, and might have turned some folks off, but I believe there are (at least) three separate (but related) points that Ford makes that are worth highlighting and discussing. And they all touch on points that we regularly discuss around here. Let’s take them in order. The piece starts off with a response to the standard Andrew Keen/Nick Carr-style elitism about how the web is so full of riff raff that it takes away from the value of the really smart people (i.e., the people who matter). He highlights how these people who play up some sort of cultural elitism as being important, and how it’s missing the point of the web:

I call the people who say such things the Gutenbourgeois. They believe in the cultural primacy of writers and editors and they feel good–even a bit superior–about working in publishing. They believe it is their job to drive culture forward. The web, they are a little proud to admit, confuses them. They say: “We gave away all those short stories on our website but it sold no books.” Or: “We built a promo site for our famous author who does the crime novels and it was just a total boondoggle with no traffic.” Or: “The magazine can’t get enough pageviews, even after we hired the famous blogger. Now management wants to make people pay for access.”

“Look,” I say, “maybe you’re doing it wrong.”

“But,” they say, “we tweet.”

This sounds all too familiar, though in other areas we deal with. We’ll discuss a musician successfully building up a business model involving a huge following and community — and we’ll hear from someone saying “but I use Twitter and I didn’t have the same success, so you’re wrong.” The problem is that they’re doing cargo cult copying — copying the superficial aspects (using Twitter, hiring a famous blogger, putting something out for free) without really understanding the underlying reasons why communities form online. They just see that others have done one or another of these things, and think that this single action is the key step, rather than recognizing what it takes to actually enable a community.

Why? Well, that’s where Ford’s second key point comes in. The web is often seen through the prisms of what came before. As each new industry jumped on the web, it tried to reinterpret the web in its own image. As Ford notes:

A medium has a niche. A sitcom works better on TV than in a newspaper, but a 10,000 word investigative piece about a civic issue works better in a newspaper.

When it arrived the web seemed to fill all of those niches at once. The web was surprisingly good at emulating a TV, a newspaper, a book, or a radio. Which meant that people expected it to answer the questions of each medium, and with the promise of advertising revenue as incentive, web developers set out to provide those answers. As a result, people in the newspaper industry saw the web as a newspaper. People in TV saw the web as TV, and people in book publishing saw it as a weird kind of potential book. But the web is not just some kind of magic all-absorbing meta-medium. It’s its own thing.

Again, this is a point we’ve discussed before (less eloquently), in noting how the entertainment industry keeps trying to remake the web into a broadcast medium, when it’s power is really in the fact that it’s a communications medium that also does other things (such as broadcast). But if you ignore the communications element, then you’re in trouble. Of course, too many people think that adding a communications element means “just add comments.” But, that’s (again) a form of cargo cult copying. Yes, comments can be a component of building a community, but comments alone do not a community make.

And that brings us to the third key point that Ford raises: the one thing that the web does really really well is answer the “Why Wasn’t I Consulted?” question.

“Why wasn’t I consulted,” which I abbreviate as WWIC, is the fundamental question of the web. It is the rule from which other rules are derived. Humans have a fundamental need to be consulted, engaged, to exercise their knowledge (and thus power), and no other medium that came before has been able to tap into that as effectively.

This is such a good point that cuts through to the heart of why so many people have trouble understanding what makes a real community online. It’s not just about turning on a set of technologies or “using Twitter,” it’s about actually enabling people’s voices to be heard. I imagine some will still get this point confused, but there’s a difference between allowing people to speak and helping people get heard, and I believe that’s the key that Ford is getting at with his WWIC concept.

There’s more in Ford’s piece in terms of how people might go about setting up these sorts of communities, by thinking of the web as a customer service medium, rather than a publishing medium, but I actually think that point isn’t as strong as these first three. Still, the whole thing is worth reading, especially all of his examples of sites that have succeeded by focusing wholly on the WWIC issue. While there were certainly a lot of key points in the article that I’d thought about separately, I hadn’t really put all of them together, and it’s definitely making me think about how best to enable successful communities online.

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Comments on “Community Is About Enabling People To Be Heard; And You Need Community To Succeed Online”

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Hephaestus (profile) says:

“The problem is that they’re doing cargo cult copying — copying the superficial aspects (using Twitter, hiring a famous blogger, putting something out for free) without really understanding the underlying reasons why communities form online.”

Communities form online because people of “like” interest get together. Simple as that. If I wasn’t interested in IP I wouldn’t be here.

The Invisible Hand (profile) says:

The content producers don’t want a community.

Catering to the needs of the community is hard work. They’re always asking “Do this now!” and “Sign my autograph!” or “You should do this in your next movie!”.

And then they’ll ask for more. The community will have the audacity of remixing songs! Of mashing um videos on youtube! And FanArt? The horror! The common man outdoing me, the artist!? Unthinkable!

If only there was a way to bring back the good old days. Where artists crapped something and gigantic crowds would rush to be the first to get it. Those ancient times where the artists, newspapers and producers controlled what people thought and what they would buy next.

Ah, I miss the good old days…

/Sarcasm! Yikes!

Mike C. (profile) says:

An OLD analogy...

I’m reading the latest Stephen King book and the story 1922 has that year as it’s initial setting. At a couple places in the story, characters mention party lines that were common back then. I see the Internet as very similar to a party line in that it allows people from mutliple locations to carry on a conversation simultaneously and feel as if they “belong” to the group – whether or not that is actually true. It also has the side effect of keeping some people OUT of the conversation when they don’t make an effort to participate – much like the main character who does not have a party line.

Chris Eastvedt (profile) says:


I’m not on board with communities forming around shared interests alone either; it takes more than just that for something to thrive and build up a fan base. I think the WWIC question is key because all too often what people do is talk at others, rather than to them, which tends to limit conversation.

You’ve got to provide quality content, obviously, but you also need to follow up by giving people reasons to care about what you’re doing and inspire them to spread the word.

Techdirt often calls out stupid behavior and lapses in logic, which both informs and inspires its more rational thinkers to take some sort of action to restore balance- as in Dan Bull’s videos, for example. Mike also jumps on the comments board and engages further which helps readers feel like he cares (whether or not this is true is another issue). Then they started CwF + RtB which connected with fans on a whole different level: merchandising and experiences- taking readers’ appreciation of Techdirt off the screen and into the real world. Everyone wants to be heard, but if Al doesn’t like writing comments, he can wear a Looooooots of T-shirts logo on his chest and start a conversation that way. The goal is to find ways to expand the conversation, not control it.

Hephaestus (profile) says:


” The goal is to find ways to expand the conversation, not control it.”

You should consult with the newspapers. That is a lesson they need to learn. Even when they do “Allow” commenting on articles it is so severly censored that most people with discenting view points stop commenting. The big newspaper sites seem to only allow what fits their agenda.

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