I recently ran across an interesting, if not over the top, article about Communispace-style community and whether it’s “totalitarian”. It’s a bit extreme, but it’s interesting to see others talking about this topic. This article linked to a very interesting look at what the problem with non-organic communities is. Outlined below are the author’s main points.
Off the top of my head, I believe that there are five important differences bewtween the “Communispace”-stype constructed community and the organic variant that arises on its own, which I have been participating in for the last two decades (I was a dedicated Compuserve member for a while in the 1980s, and participated in BBSs long before the wonders of Mosaic, deja.com, and usenet readers) and have been studying for the last 12 years.
1. Motivation. I question the difference in participation and information that extrinsic (rewarded by corporate payments, as with focus groups, panels, depth interviews, and so on) and intrinsic rewards (I love or hate the brand and want others to know about it and share in it).
2. Anonymity. Online anonymity is paradoxical. There are so many tags, cookies, trails and tracks that the online world can be a control freak’s dream. In many ways the Internet has turned into a gigantic panopticon. However, this tracking is counterbalanced by an amazing freedom. I think that a balanced combination of freedom and loss of privacy creates a very fruitful level of engagement in onlin communities, one that has a decade-plus long history. People will have multiple identities to express different ideas, or to flame other people. They play fluidly with identities as part of the communal interaction. But I wonder what happens to this balance when it is shifted into the constructed community model.
3. Contributions. Organic community members want to contribute. Sponsored community members are compelled and directed to contribute in certain ways–and perhaps want to contribute in those ways. As Julie’s comments make clear, it is the needs of the company which are paramount in Communispace, not the needs of the community. In sponsored communities, as Julie’s comments indicate, this leads to a more productive and efficient atmosphere. But communities are not necessarily about productivity and efficiency–those are economic goals. Sponsored communities do have wider contributions, less hierarchy, and probably more discussion around interests of focal concern to companies. But what is different, or what is lost?
4. Commercial orientation. Online communities come in many sizes, shapes, and forms. Many lifestyle communities provide very interesting, contextually-embedded informaton on brand uses, choices, and relationships. By “managing” the format, and directing it into an online brand community, the sponsored community model constructs a particular kind of interaction and commuity experience. That is useful, but again, it may not be what we’d see emerging in a natural online discourse. I suggest that we are less likely to see resistant discourse and anti-corporate or anti-brand pushback. We may be less likely to see wider contexts, or to be able to discern how incidental, noncentral, or unimportant our products and brands may be to people. I also think that these elements might be valuable to know. Julie’s comments suggest that perhaps these elements can be managed and play a part in the Communispace experience.
5. Community Restrictions. Do people in sponsored communities form strong alliances? Do they take them offline? Do they move them to SNS as well? Are they free to email each other? Can they make their own rules, control their own community experience as much as they would like? Can they discuss the topics that concern them (for instance, politics, religion), or only what concerns the brand and brand managers? Are people being put into an artifical “brand community” box for the convenience of market research data gathering? How open is that box, if it is pen? What are the effects of that closedness or openness?