Thursday, June 5, 2008

Let a thousand communities bloom

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2008

Every time disaster strikes a local area, we hear about the “sense of shock in the community” and the “anger in the local community”. “Community leaders” we hear, are pressing for action. So what is this “Community”?

Maybe you live in Albert Square or Coronation Street, and know all the people who live around you. But I don’t (and I suspect most people don’t), and I’m not really aware of a community.

Cynical maybe, but I always suspected this was just a part of the journalist’s lexicon – they’d perhaps spoken to a couple of people on the street, and somehow “community feeling” sounds more authoritative, more rigorously researched than “a bloke in a pub told me”.

People are thrust together in local areas, brought together by economic factors and accidents of birth and it seems to me are unlikely to share interests with one another, except perhaps by chance.

Which is what makes community on the internet such an exciting phenomenon.

Hundreds of millions of people across the globe participate in real communities, online. They may never have met the people they talk to, but these places are often more real and relevant to them than their local community.

Drawn together by interest, people of all ages are taking part.

Stardoll (a site I’ve written about before) is a tween girl website – aimed at 9-13’s and has 60 million registered users – 8 million of who use the site regularly. Like a virtual paper doll, users can buy clothes (using Stardollars of course) for their dolls and dress them as they like, using clothes from DKNY and Sephora as well as Stardoll’s own lines.

Celebrities like Heidi Klum, Hilary Duff and Avril Lavigne all have deals to have lookalike dolls in the site that users can collect, and some fans spend two hours a day on the site.

This is primarily a solo activity amongst younger users, but as they get to 10, they start to use it to chat with each other, and as one user puts it “you can have friends you don’t know, but you’re really close to them”.

Facebook is probably the best known of the community sites, with the Groups function allowing anyone to set up a special-interest group. Most of these are trivial “I think someone should make Ghostbusters 3” type groups, but many are serious and help people to create and maintain real friendships based around hobbies, professional interests and occasional obsessions.

But Facebook causes expands this out to fundraising for charity – letting any user easily set up a means of donating and encouraging others to follow. From political causes like supporting presidential candidates, to Darfur and global warming, sixty thousand people have created these.

These sites aren’t just a feature of the English-speaking world. Cyworld in Korea has over 90% penetration of 16-24’s, and Hi5 is the most popular social network in Thailand, Portugal and Mexico.

These sites have revolutionised the way we communicate – freeing us from the ties of geography that bind us. They have allowed us to make new friends, and to stay in touch with a closeness that would simply never before have been feasible.

They have changed the shape of conversations – users report that when meeting up with people they stay in contact with via social networks, they cut out that ‘so what have you been up to’ phase and get straight into talking – no preamble or catchup necessary – they already know.

If community ever existed before, it was driven by constraint. Whether you lived in a village in the Cotswolds or a town in Idaho, your neighbours were your community, like it or not.

But now you can choose. Whether your friends live next door, or ten thousand miles away, the internet has, perhaps for the first time in history, allowed us to know the people we like, rather than just like the people we know.