Appreciating people who reach out: influencers revisited

3 five year olds, originally posted to my Flickr photostream.

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About a year and a half ago, “The Tipping Point” got toppled (or at least wobbled) when Duncan Watts challenged the popular concept of powerful Influencers who determine the adoption of trends.

The commentary in response to this heresy was great — one of my favorite exchanges was where a member of a well-known formal influencer program — a Microsoft MVP — replies to Sean O’Driscol, long time leader of that program at Microsoft. I loved this comment in the replies to Sean’s post: “Maybe it’s down to being British but I don’t like being labelled as an influentials/mavens/advocates. Expert isn’t so bad … and Enthusiast is pretty much how I feel about myself… As soon as the 10% is highlighted in some way you have two dangers; 1) their standing as independent in the community is affected … and 2) the way they are treated by the “products” they are enthusiastic about changes.”

I’ve seen this before, in years past at The WELL: “I’m doing this here for free because I want to participate – don’t patronize me.”

Yet anybody who works in online community knows some people do add tremendous value. We know it intuitively, and we have seen it mapped statistically. (Check out slide number 13 in this sequence for an example where Marc Smith’s math identifies desired behavior by individuals in a peer technical help group.)

Now that we are in the year that everybody knows about Twitter, one of the simplest tools mass numbers of people have been able to play with, we seem to be back to a world where we want to count our importance by tallying up a group who are artfully labeled “followers.”

People are putting a good deal of effort into deciding how to count … for example, carefully comparing influential science-content twitter feeds … and into deciding how to display the counts and secondary calculations as a business venture… here’s another one, called “Twinfluence”.

Most of these counts seem to still be thinking in broadcast mode. From years in an online community where actual human influence is much more complex and much less linear, this looks simultaneously like going backwards and like picking up the thread of wanting to see how continuity, attention, context and meaning are developed in a group. One thing that I wonder about in the attempts to quantify Twitter impact is the dilution created by a follower who has your twitter feed mixed into a mighty stream of hundreds followed, versus one who follows a dozen carefully chosen twitter feeds.  I guess I always come back to the power of familiarity and context.

What can we give to those who are providing community connective tissue? I wish we could give ever-improving tools, though in my work we can’t move as swiftly as we’d like to. I wish we could pay a living wage for being part of a community and being fabulous, but that dedication has to be its own reward. It’s neither appropriate or desirable to give money or significant barter items because of tax and labor laws, as AOL learned back in the last century, and as gift economy research has shown. Realistically, in my world, working at Salon.com and specifically with Table Talk and The WELL, the one gift I can give is the genuinely valuable gift of human attention, and of being present. It doesn’t scale very well, though. There’s no simple solution for giving people the attention they deserve. There are times when a nice form thank you letter is appropriate, so long as the mass communication doesn’t have any whiff of spam or propaganda about it. (After all, moden citizens understand that a press conference is all one can realistically expect from a busy government official, for example.) As a rule of thumb the attention has to be unplanned, human and authentic, within the community or privately one to one. But in these online social contexts, at least some of the time, the information we get back when giving that respectful attention has a more profound value than in any other environment.

After all, we do say it’s conversation.

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Round-up of OCTribe posts on this topic.

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Beer, community and online social networks

Dots connecting, worlds colliding

I’ve always been fond of walls, doors and other useful boundaries for conversation. It’s nice to have the ability to make subgroups of the populace, and to stay more or less on a topic as you choose.

That limitation pays off when it gives you some idea of who else is “in the room,” for context and shared vocabulary. Last year at the Online Community Unconference I was discussing Twitter with some social networking geeks and gurus who asked me why I was not using the now-famous microblogging site more. I said, “I recently took an exam to become a beer judge, and I want to talk with my new expert brewing and beer-tasting friends about things like flavors in relation to strains of yeast. I don’t want to drop that kind of geeky obscurity into the stream for my pals from The WELL community, for my professional colleagues like you guys, for people I care about who don’t drink or for my obsessed photography geek buddies with their own specialized lingo.”

Sadly, there’s not a ton of general interest in the strains of Bretanomyces and other “wild” yeasts except on a beer networking site, nor about how to reduce visual “noise” in long digital exposures except for places photographers hang out, such as the Photo conference within The WELL or in groups and photostreams on Flickr. These are not communication-technology preferences, they are context preferences, to reduce the chance of boring or annoying anybody.

Frankly, I think older pre-web social software did some of these things better than Twitter and Facebook do now, and that some of the best ideas and mashups to come will look familiar to some online pioneers.

However, today I am connecting a lot of the dots and tossing them into the mixed-metaphor stream. Hopefully happy chaos!

I met Brian Yeager, an enthusiastic craft-beer blogger and author of Red, White and Brew, at least a few times before and during the delightfully ad hoc and vibrant beer-community-driven SF Beer Week 2009. That week he did a reading for my pals in the Mad Zymurgists homebrew club, who I’ve collaborated with in producing beer tasting and evaluation events.

One of the things that we do at The WELL, the classic old-skool online community where I’ve worked for seventeen years now, is two-week author “interview” conversations that (unlike most of the site) can be read by anybody. These leisurely asynchronous talks feature authors who are active WELL members, as well as some invited by community members. I seldom suggest authors to the team of hosts who put the events together, but hearing good things about Red, White and Brew, I decided this could be a good time to mix channels!

So Brian started his Inkwell conversation today! His book is wonderfully readable, about brewers and brewing families in the midst of this gentle and delicious revolution, and it is an interesting picture of America whether or not the beer renaissance matters to you at all.  The permanent archive will live here:   Brian Yaeger’s Red-White-and-Brew discussion, on The WELL

Reminders are sprinkled around The WELL, I’m tweeting and facebooking, posting at Open Salon, etc.   So I am repeating myself in the eyes of anybody who actually reads a lot of my stuff.  That can’t be good.  There are real complexities of mixing too many of your specific interests in general feeds or contexts. I’ll give this a try during May 2009, and see if it is a better approach.  If not, I’ll move (most) all of the beer conversation back to BeerbyBART.com again. (Be sure to tell me if I bore you to tears — don’t just forget me!)

Exciting unconference for online community pros

The best get-togethers for online community professionals are hosted by Forum One. Their sold-out summer 2008 Online Community Unconference was just held at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. This year the demand was huge, and the percentage of participants from major institutions was up, too. I didn’t present at this one. I wanted to soak it all in.  I dropped in on some great sessions and sorely wished I ‘d gotten around to others, such as Jake McKee’s sections.
community manager brainstorm - worst case scenarios

I’m interested in best practices, all kinds of group behavior and tool-design patterns and also in pitfalls and worst case scenarios. I jumped in to session on what happens when things go terribly wrong from Heather Champ of Flickr and Derek Powazek of the edgy and elegant magazine, Fray. The discussion led to a list of things to remember in the midst of conflict. The items on this big list vary in applicability, based on the culture of a community … and can that ever be different!

My suggestion for the list was to try to let all parties have a way to save face in a dispute. This is one of the ways to do what Derek had advised: avoid creating motivated super-villains. Or noble martyrs, as they may feel if they do not think they were very villainous. I think that in most cases respect and the ritual conveyance of respect through good manners are key in resolving these matters. Even if expulsion is the resolution, there are advantages to having the exiled member accept that they won’t continue to have access to the gathering place for the group. While being all casual with peers works just fine in the good times, courtesy becomes bizarrely important when relations are stressed. That’s just one reminder I sometimes need! Continue reading “Exciting unconference for online community pros”

Net Squared – the Mashup Olympics for Doing Good

N2Y3 - the dinner

Mashups for the greater good. Net Squared, year three: Nonprofit web innovators congregate.

Last month I was honored honored to be able to convene a Net Squared session on how to do community building using Flickr. My interest is in how people can build community and passion for their cause using the photo sharing site with or without integrating Flickr image feeds into an external site. The smart people in the room during the Flickr session had plenty of interesting challenges, questions and suggestions. It was fun and totally impressive.

To recap my own primary simple suggestion: If you want to get quality attention to your images (for their subject matter or their artistry or out of loyalty) try to give quality attention to other relevant image makers within Flickr. If you don’t you can stiil use the powerful toolset as an image (and short video) presentation platform, but you miss out on the even more amazing community-building aspects of Flickr, which is designed to be one of the great online social settings.

Net Squared is a project of the long-running CompuMentor organization, which originally got me online in 1990 when I was doing community outreach and donor relations work for a non-profit theater company that needed database help. CompuMentor got me a volunteer consultant who gave me a modem to make assisting me easier, and an email address back in that pre-web, all-dialup era. I became fascinated with the richness of the culture of The WELL which led me into a new world as well as a new career. They are responsible for Net Squared and Tech Soup, an ongoing support system thousands of non-profit organizations turn to for advice, free or inexpensive software and networking.

Check out the amazing projects — not just the winners of the grant prizes, but the whole array of finalists.

Watch for next year’s mashup challenge — the entries are getting better and better: http://www.netsquared.org/

How Global is your Sympathetic Audience?

Noam Cohen wrote a New York Times story, The Global Sympathetic Audience in the Fashion and Style section, about caring for strangers over the net. (By the way, online sociology and psychology is fashion now? Hmmm. Still an orphan subject.) “Audience” not “community,” you’ll note, which was accurate and to the point in that context. I enjoyed the article for some noteworthy Twitter support stories, after it started off with a weird reference that is close to home.

Weird to read, because as a long time member of The WELL it is freaky to see Blair’s – or would that be Mr. Newman’s – suicide cited in the Times so many years later, without any details about the impact on the then emerging community at The WELL, or his peculiar role there.

As a newbie on The WELL at the time, I was shocked by the diverse set of reactions to Blair’s initial destruction of so much conversational content. The anger was the eye-opener. The violent disapproval quite few members expressed at his “vandalism” of hundreds of his own posts – not seen as a “suicide” until later at Blair’s death – confused and startled me at the time. What was only later seen as a “virtual suicide” pissed people off to a degree that presents a stark contrast to the Twitter support dynamics cited in the article.

People will likely tell a stranger not to commit suicide. However, if the “cry for help” is less obvious, people are sometimes judgmental, sometimes supportive. Your own global audience may be sympathetic to a specific action you describe, or they may be inappropriately harsh and critical because the stakes and the context is not clear or not universally agreed upon.

Howard Rheingold’s classic account of Blair’s death gives some of the context from up close (scroll to the bottom of that section). Guilt and blame fueled widespread rage. Newer members like myself were astonished at all the hidden subtexts and alliances that emerged. As Howard said, “the feelings ran just as high during the virtual part of the grieving rituals as they did during the face-to-face part — indeed, with many of the social constraints of proper funeral behavior removed, the online version was the occasion for venting of anger that would have been inappropriate in a face-to-face gathering.”

There are many stories from The WELL where people were sympathetic and deeply kind to strangers. There have been others where the kindness was not timely or well-distributed, and this was one of those. It’s a famous example, here in the times it was boiled down until all the humanity and insight was removed.

I’m thinking about the man’s family too — how odd years later to have a son or brother famous only as a suicide who deleted first. And my posting this may only make that dynamic a little worse, I know. I am sorry for extending any pain.

Our power to be kind is clearly equaled by our power to be cruel, using any technology we invent. It’s odd to see this complex, troubling example used in conjunction with the global kindness of strangers, but with a little context, it reveals the other side of the problem of seeking support from distant friends and kindred strangers.

Ideas from Online Community Summit

Kim Baine after the session at Online Community Summit

I was pleased to attend Forum One’s Online Community Summit again this October. It’s not the wine country setting but the intoxicating ideas that bring me back for another year. For me some of the most exciting ideas on design and group behavior came out of the “Recent Research in Online Community” session.

Paul Resnick of the University of Michigan presented on design and group behaviors. He is starting a project to build an open design handbook on the web, based on actually testing and quantifying the gut design choices we make when designing for interactive groups.

Fundamental findings so far:

  • The ease of discarding identities does matter to the quality of discourse. (We all know in our gut that this degrades interactions, he designed a test and confirmed it.)
  • A “can’t trust newcomers” attitude grows if sockpuppets, reincarnation with another persistent identity and driveby posting are too easy.

Solutions and useful approaches include:

Continue reading “Ideas from Online Community Summit”