30 Apr 2013

What’s So Social About Social Communities?

In the old days we didn’t call it “social communities”. We didn’t use our real names either. This is how I know men like to refer to themselves as “Stallion”.

When I first cranked up my 9600 baud modem wired to the kitchen phone line, I chatted it up on AOL groups as “Dancing Thunder”. No matter how many mistakes I made or how newbie I sounded, I wasn’t about to admit who I really was or where I came from. Looking back now, I wonder why we called our chat places “news” sites, like “Deja news” and “net” sites, like “UseNet”. What the heck was IRC? (Internet Relay Chat) and “listservs”, which were the countless email lists I belonged to and moderated.

In fact, an email list is how I learned about the September 911 attacks. I was home working and my desktop pinged me with notice that a new email arrived from one of my “listservs”. It was from a friend from Australia shouting in all caps, “WHAT THE FARK IS GOING ON OVER THERE!” I was the first on the list to reply. “What do you mean?” I typed back to him. “TURN ON YOUR TV!” he urged. So I did, just in time to see the second plane hit a tower. It still amazes me that somebody from another country alerted me to what was happening 2 hours away from my home.
Old Chat sites
By 1998 I stopped being Dancing Thunder and switched to “Cre8pc” because by then I had a web site and domain called Cre8pc.com. I launched a club about SEO to share what I knew and meet other SEO’s. Still not referred to as “social” sites, we were calling them “groups” and “chat rooms” and “clubs”. Chat rooms had the best names by the way. As a single mom with names for myself I no longer recall, I met many Stallions looking for Mares.

When my little SEO club became Cre8asiteforums in 2002, the format was by then forums with posts and threads. There were other forums already in the Search Engine Optimization industry like WebmasterWorld, JimsWorld and MarketPositionGold. Some people used their real names, while others were well branded as their alternate selves. Chat rooms were assimilated into dating sites. Instant messages came out in different formats. Usenet, Deja news, and email lists faded into history.

Finally, after years of global conversations and meeting people online, the term “Social” and “Communities” are the new thing. Advertisers target them. Search engines hunt for social “signals”. We’re “liked”, “followed”, “friended”, “added” and “pinned”. Our conversations are rated with stars and thumbs. Communities offer badges to members. Some pack their houses with ads, while others offer fee-based private areas with perks.

Like it or not, the fast growth in online discussions can be attributed to adult sites. The one big area for discussions is always sex. The most popular sections of Playboy and Penthouse print magazines were always the letters and stories, so just imagine the joy felt by millions of people when the Internet offered countless more stories and letters! Expert sex advice was accessible in chat rooms or via web site subscriptions. All the questions that were never before asked were now not only asked on the Internet, but the answers were provided by search engines!

Adult sites led the way in various technologies and scripts by sorting photos, offering directories of erotica, and forming niche communities. These sites required search engine optimization too, as well as other highly competitive industries. Even so, in the days before video and YouTube, the most popular adult sites were those where people had conversations, shared stories or the site’s owners engaged in discussions. The appeal was talking and sharing.

Are social communities a fad that will die off?

I believe “social” is a poor choice of term for sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Pinterest. On Facebook and LinkedIn my network consists of people I already know or am connected to by my work. I’m not out there meeting and conversing with a ton of new people. My Facebook is my tiny meeting place where I can find friends, family and coworkers in a sort of pre-screened way. Twitter is not social either. It’s a constant one-way stream of gab with rare occasions of engagement. Mostly, my tweets are just there and unless retweeted, I never get any feedback. Twitter isn’t a place for conversations. With Pinterest, it’s about the images rather than dialog with anyone.

I’m not convinced that what we’re doing on those sites has anything to do with being social. We’re too disconnected for that, by choice and by the nature of how this is all set up. In fact, we’re so desperate to share pieces of ourselves that in sites like Facebook, we post famous sayings by other people and kitten videos just to offer some insightful clues about who we really are.

Online communities form for a variety of reasons but the ones that stick are those where the people come together as a family. That kind of community takes years to become a true “community” where everyone feels like they belong.

In the next few weeks of my Tuesday blog posts, I’m going to share more on community building.