Are dead communities the sign of a dying industry?

With each new hype, new projects form often without appropriate staffing and resources, only to die down or off a short time later. Today, for instance, the Web is littered with corporate community projects that have little or no traffic or interest. Concern mounts that this dead community litter is the sign of something scary for the health of the social engagement space.

I’m not worried.

As with any hype cycle, there are two parallel paths taking place:

  • The Hype Path: Combining the “It’s new, therefore it’s amazing!” news cycle with a very vocal and enabled celebrity crowd creates a standard bell curve of hype.
  • The Implementation Reality: On a more random, yet mostly trending upward curve, people are learning growing, doing, and gaining. More people try, some fail, but the trend overall is more not less social stuff.

Think about how many social networking sites have come and gone, yet Facebook is still a massive audience. And this isn’t a new trend: I remember dead BBS, dead Geocities pages, and dead email lists. But online discussion, personal Web pages, and email all carry on more robust than ever. Perhaps robust because of these early experiments that failed.

While many are talking about the hype of the shiny new thing, there’s a group of people working largely behind the scenes to create, learn, improve and create again. In the corporate environment, dead communities come in no small part from the lack of investment in anything past the launch. We’ve seen examples of simple, ugly sites generating large audiences and revenue (hello, Craigslist!) while impressive tech fails to bring in much attention at all (new Friendster, I’m looking at you!).

If community is about building relationships, we can learn a lot about community building by considering how we find, build, and support our personal relationships.

  • We date many more people than we marry. (i.e. There’s bound to be plenty of failures in our quest to create something grand)
  • If we blow a month’s salary on the first date, there’s not chance we’ll be able to afford the second date (i.e. If you’re budget, time, and energy are solely focused on the launch, what happens after you launch when the real work begins?)
  • The backbone of a quality relationship is intimacy, and intimacy takes time and is difficult to get right (i.e. Expecting overwhelming success withing days or weeks or even years after launch is ridiculous)
  • Outsourcing intimacy is call prostitution. (i.e. Saying to your agency “we give you a check, you give us an effective community is an unhealthy approach)

Honestly, I’m not really worried about the stage of the game we’re at right now. We’ve gotten through the “so that’s what the kids are doing” reaction, and now we’re onto the “how can we use this in our business” reaction. Dead communities are a sign of experimentation and experimentation leads to learning. Sure, some execs might be turned off by social projects that don’t work and pull the budgets for future development. But we’ve also passed the tipping point where that type of reaction means much for the long term. Businesses are all having to deal with customer expectations built daily based on what other businesses, inside and outside our own industries are doing. When my cable company is responding to my rants on Twitter, I start asking why my favorite shoe company (Nike) isn’t doing the same.

We’re in a fantastic place and we’re moving into a fantastic path towards the future. Failure is all part of the process as long as we’re learning from our mistakes and paying attention to the context those mistakes are taking place in.

UPDATE: Sam weighs in on this topic!


For information about my Community Consulting, Training and Speaker services, or to find out more about Dinner5, my unique community for community builders, contact me today.

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