It’s said that when you get married, you aren’t just marrying your spouse, but also your spouse’s family. Similarly, these days, you aren’t just buying a product or service, but also the vendor’s community.
The interest in community echoes back to the early days of online services, when people joined bulletin boards or forums to find kindred spirits trying to make their way through these new-fangled computer things. Then community progressed to Usenet, which ended up being overtaken by spammers (remember “Make Money Fast”?). At that point, the notion of community languished until major social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter came along.
Now, while some communities are situated on those social media platforms, others live on company websites and other independent platforms.
Needless to say, a major motivation sparking the new interest in customer communities was the advent of open source software. Imagine. You could get people to write software for free and give it away! Who knew? Since then, we’ve seen all sorts of other ways in which people contribute to a community to improve a platform, ranging from apps for the iPhone and Android to “recipes” for If This Then That (IFTTT), an Internet connection and automation service.
The logical conclusion to this development is “crowdsourcing,” or using a group of people to produce an aggregation of content, such as Wikipedia. A specific example of this is “crowdfunding,” using a site such as Kickstarter to promote a new product or service by asking for money from people, who then receive some sort of reward such as early access to the product.
In a sense, even Big Data is a kind of crowdsourcing, albeit a passive one. People may not explicitly contribute personal knowledge the way they do to Wikipedia. Yet a company like Facebook or Google typically makes money through marketing the aggregation of data it collects on its users.
The potential problem with community, crowdsourcing, and so on is that it is predicated upon people’s willingness to contribute. What is it that makes them contribute? The seminal 2007 book in the field, Wikinomics, said that people contributed to “peer production communities,” as it called them, because they liked solving problems. “People who participate in peer production communities love it,” wrote Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams. “They feel passionate about their particular area of expertise and revel in creating something new or better.” Essentially, peer production works both because it can attract a more diverse talent pool of people who enjoy the experience of group contribution, they write.
“Crowds, research shows, are energized by intrinsic motivations—such as the desire to learn—that are more likely to come into play when people decide for themselves what problems to attack,” confirm Kevin J. Boudreau and Karim R. Lakhani more recently in the Harvard Business Review. Creating and managing a community can end up requiring just as much effort as doing the work in-house, they warn.
The way to build and keep community, therefore, is to find a way to give those contributors the warm fuzzies that they’re looking for, like Tom Sawyer convincing his friends how much fun it was to whitewash the fence. However, it’s also important to continue making sure people get their satisfaction. And that’s where, in some cases, community is running into problems.
In the case of Wikipedia, for example, the number of volunteer editors is dropping because, as the system grew, it attracted scammers and marketers. Attempts to control those people ended up making it more difficult for the average person to contribute to Wikipedia, and they’re giving up. Similarly, the online discussion site reddit just discovered that moderators of the technology community were automatically censoring posts that included certain words, such as “Anonymous,” “bitcoin,” and “NSA,” because they didn’t want to have to deal with all the traffic and moderating work that discussions of those subjects could entail. It remains to be seen how that incident will affect reddit.
On the crowdfunding side, there’s the case of Oculus, a company funded by Kickstarter to the tune of more than $2 million that then was sold to Facebook for $2 billion. While the people who invested in the company got everything they were promised, and nothing was ever said about giving them a share should the Oculus strike it rich, the sale is giving some investors pause—which could end up undermining Kickstarter and the crowdfunding model itself, writes David Prosser in Forbes.
There’s also the concern that collecting a group of eager amateurs—as with the sharing economy—ends up reducing the income that professionals ranging from photographers to architects can earn, and perhaps causing increased risk as well. Other mistakes include trying to control the community too tightly, and not appreciating contributors enough, writes Esther Schindler in a 2008 CIO article that’s still relevant today.
Nurturing a community, then, is not unlike nurturing a garden (an appropriate metaphor for this time of year). You need to invest time and maintenance into it while it grows and becomes firmly rooted. And while you can harvest from it then, it’s important to do so judiciously—or you might find yourself needing to start over.
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