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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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”

Online Community Business Forum in Santa Fe 2008

I’m writing up my notes incredibly late for this event, primarily because I ended up with a free evening and some thoughts on the gathering. One thing that is obvious after going to multiple events organized by Forum One is the nature of the ongoing community around these small conferences. Any successful run of conferences tends to create a community of regulars, and in this case they are regulars who know and care about how online community works. I’ve been fortunate to be on quite a run of attending Forum one events. The chicken and the egg of course is that I really enjoy the people who come back, as well as the new voices and thinkers who turn up.

I had thought I might be out of town this summer for another in the series, but last minute changes made it possible to sign up for the next one, the Online Community Unconference, next week. Last year’s unconf was terrific, and I can’t wait for this one. An unconference has the advantage of being almost utterly flexible, allowing all kinds of formats. Visionary presentations given to a handful or a crowd of other event-goers. Open round-robin discussions or brainstorms of any size addressing specific issues. Little breakout conversations that are the conference, and that others may wander into. An unconference will not be terribly interesting if there is not a lot of experience, enthusiasm and intelligence in the room at the start, and that’s why the community that has formed around all the Forum One conferences (including the more formal and the informal unconferences) leads to such satisfying events. It’s all about all the interesting and interested people there.  So what did we talk about?

Continue reading “Online Community Business Forum in Santa Fe 2008”