A quick look at the importance of the offline world in making members of online communities more numerate, productive and intimate.
Helping companies use social media effectively is challenging for lots of obvious reasons, not least of all because a lot of the people using social media don’t want to hear from them. But it’s hard enough building communities around completely non-commercial themes. The internet is littered with well-meant forum threads and blog posts that will forever stay unanswered and unread. It’s obvious that traffic and engagement can be boosted by real world activity. But the exploding list of (lists of lists of lists of) successful social media marketing case studies rarely gets to the heart of how face-to-face interaction supports the online communities.
This issue is particularly close to my heart because it’s fundamental to how I became so enamoured with working online in the first place. I tell this story to clients all the time. It’s simplistic but gets the message across.
In 2004 I was invited by an old friend to meet a bunch of his “internet friends” in the pub. I went primarily our of a voyeuristic – not to mention, in retrospect, snobbish – curiosity. I wanted to see what the hardcore center of computer geekery looked, sounded, smelled like. What I encountered was an eclectic collection of surprisingly ordinary people, who were all far cooler and more interesting than me. It wasn’t a humbling experience, it was an enlightening one. It was a key moment in what I see as my digital epiphany. After that, things changed.
It’s not just that, after six years embedded industrially and socially in the online world, having “come out” as a geek, I now sympathise with people building social lives through the internet. The impact of Facebook and its kin has persuaded most luddites to accept that which used to be a hyper-niche hobby. No, it’s not about acceptance, it’s that my life really changed – substantially, permanently, positively. Suddenly I was communicating with people who had some shared interests (otherwise they wouldn’t have been friends with my friend) so new friendships grew much more quickly than they would have from a more random clustering of near-strangers, such as university freshers or pub locals.
Offline, for the most part we went to parties and bars, talked rubbish and consumed booze. Online, for the most part we sat in our homes, talked rubbish and consumed media. But sometimes we made things together, real things, good things. We solved each other’s problems. We nurtured each other’s ideas. We still do. Directly and indirectly, for the modest immersion I’ve had in digital communities, I’ve loads to be thankful, not least my wife.
It’s not just about the media mix – remembering to connect the dots between on- and offline actions, or between social media and social gatherings. That stuff is important for marketing managers, but there’s this subtler, less tangible aspect of the real world cross-over. It’s about allowing members to speak their minds and for the community to evolve autonomously. It’s about making all that time for all that banality surrounding the potent bits. It’s about drinking and sleeping with each other. It is, in short, not about the kind of things that most companies have much time or love for. There’s something comforting about that.