Tag Archives: social networks

Importance of Place and Context in Online Communities

I realized something very interesting about my computer usage patterns a few days ago. For most tasks, I use the GUI environment on my Mac, since I mostly live in my web browser, IM, Twitter apps, and RSS reader. However, my background as a sys admin takes over whenever I am doing certain tasks, despite the fact that I haven’t been a sys admin since the mid 1990s. I found that I shift to the command line automatically for any tasks that I associate with Unix. For example, to edit any configuration file, I’ll go to the terminal window and use vi without even considering editing it using the various text editors that I would use to edit almost any other file on my hard drive. I realized that context plays a very significant role in my computer usage.

When I talk about “context” throughout the rest of this post, I’m referring to the set of circumstances or facts that surround a particular event or situation.

Bear with me, I am going somewhere relevant with this discussion after one more minor diversion. I was talking to Amber Case a few weeks ago about the role that context plays in human memory. We tend to recall past memories more accurately if we are in the place where we first heard them or in a similar context. I started thinking about the role of context in my strange computer usage patterns. In a context that I associate with Unix or sys admin tasks, I revert to the command line without a second thought even for tasks that could be done as easily using a GUI tool.

I started wondering and thinking about the role that context plays in our social behavior as we interact in online communities and social networks. These online communities and social networks are the location or place equivalents of the local pub, coffee shop, library, or university, but in a specific online context. They are the places where we hang out (virtually) with friends, colleagues, family, and even strangers with common interests. We use our online communities and social networks to learn new things, gather information, and keep up with news about the other people in our lives. These are the new places that become the context for our interaction with people online.

I have noticed that I tend to behave and interact in very different ways depending on the community or social network that I am using. My interactions on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are very different. I use Twitter for conversations and sharing information with people; Facebook for finding non-work information about my friends, and LinkedIn for find work-related information. Realistically, I could send people messages using any of those social networks, but I tend to use Twitter to send messages to people and engage people in conversations; however, I have friends who would say that they primarily use Facebook to engage in conversations. I suspect that all of this comes back to context. We each associate certain activities with our personal context for that situation.

OK, so this is an interesting abstract topic, but what does all of this really mean? For anyone tasked with building online communities for your organization, you need to focus on creating a sense of place, like the neighborhood coffee shop, where people want to hang out and chat with other people who have common interests. Spend some time thinking about how to create an environment focused on discussions and connections between people. Provide other relevant information for your community members, but keep the community as focused as possible on the people and discussions that facilitate connections and interactions between those people. Let your community members develop a sense of place in your community and with it a meaningful context for their interactions within your community.

I would be very interested to hear from other people in the comments about the role of place and context in your interactions with online communities and social networks.

Related Fast Wonder Blog posts:

Social Strategies for Revolutionaries Session at sxsw

Social Strategies for Revolutionaries was Charlene Li’s presentation to a full audience in one of the big rooms at sxsw. She will also be posting the slides on SlideShare after the presentation, so this post just covers a few of her key highlights.

There have been a few social revolutionaries driving campaigns like reviving Jericho with peanut shipments. This is a groundswell, a social trend where people get information from each other (also the name of her upcoming book).

Four-step approach to groundswell:

  • People – assess customers social activities.
  • Objectives – what are you trying to accomplish
  • Strategy – Plan for how you will get there
  • Technology – decide which technologies to use after you figure out the above 3 points

Age is a major driver of participation. Participation in social networks tends to drop off as you look at older populations, since much of the content isn’t geared to older people on social networks, but this is gradually changing.

Blendtec has increased sales dramatically from the viral nature of the “will it blend” videos on YouTube. Ernst & Young is successfully using Facebook to recruit college students, not by using it as a marketing tool, but by having conversations with students and answering questions at the executive level. She also used Josh Bancroft as an example of someone who made something happen inside a big company using social software (wiki) to create Intelpedia under the radar of the executives (bonus points for a little Portland geek cred) 🙂

Find and support your revolutionaries within your organization, and let those people use their passion to make the company better, but this involves education for executives to help them understand what is happening and why. You also need to make it safer to fail for the people who are driving these initiatives. It also helps to start small, but think big and iterate to make corrections and adjustments as you figure out what works and what doesn’t. The social strategy also needs to be the responsibility of every employee and not just one person or group. These transitions and cultural changes take time. It can’t happen overnight and requires a great deal of patience.