Virtually OK

I just attended a Social Media Club Meeting where David Hinds gave a lecture titled “How to Grow Vibrant Virtual Communities”. Hinds has definitely spent some time thinking about social behavior on the web and some of the things he said really got me thinking. I’m not sure how often he presents, but if you get an opportunity to hear what he has to say on the subject, I would recommend giving him your ear (especially if you are new to the subject). Just be sure to think critically. Here’s my two cents on this particular talk.

Before the presentation started, I made the assumption that “Virtual Community” would be mainly referring to the fact that the community in question is not one of geographic proximity. I was all ready to defend against the contemptuous use of “virtual” to lessen value of relationships based on physical distance. However, this turned out not to be what Dr. Hinds was talking about at all. What he discussed was at most virtual and barely a community. The definition of Virtual Community in the context of this presentation is this: Population of individuals with shared or complementary interests who interact across a host platform. By this definition, ebay buyers and sellers qualify as being in a virtual community. Multiple times, it came up that Hinds accepts the fact that members of a Virtual Community do not and shall never know much of anything about each other. To me, this lack of intimacy seems like a challenge that needs to be overcome, not a characteristic that should be accepted.

Hinds listed 7 types of virtual communities with examples:

  1. Socializing (Facebook)
  2. Gaming (Everquest)
  3. Content Sharing (youTube)
  4. Knowledge Sharing (wikipedia)
  5. Activism (Move On)
  6. Development (Linux)
  7. Exchange (ebay)

When inquired from a viewer about a community embracing more than one of the above listed characteristics, Hinds advised against. Stating, a virtual community should only strive to address one of the seven. In my humble opinion, the communities that thrive the strongest are the ones that incorporate most (if not all) of these realms. One instance of this is open source software. Most successful open source projects have a strong evangelical user base that helps each other succeed. At a glance you can see development, activism, knowledge sharing, content sharing, and socializing. There’s 5 without even really needing to think about it too much. Not to mention if you count aggregating street cred/good karma as having a bit of a gaming aspect. Additionally community members could sell their services to complete the virtual community bingo cover all round.

Hind’s presentation was certainly not a step by step system for growing a vibrant community, but there was plenty of food for thought. To me, it seems, if you want your community to really shine, you should work hard at removing the virtual parts.