Facebook and the Enterprise: Part 7: Communities

It’s rare for me to buy more than three copies of a book, and Amy Jo Kim’s seminal Community Building On The Web is one such book. It’s so good that, over the last seven years or so, I have repeatedly bought it and given it away. Which was fine when the book was actually in print, but started getting a tad expensive when I had to go into the secondary market for it.

While the book continues to be “out of print” in a traditional sense, I’m glad to see that Peachpit now make a PDF download available, albeit at a price.

If you haven’t done so already, read the book. It’s an absolute must. Don’t listen to me. Listen to people who have a real story to tell about online communities…..

Howard “Smart Mobs” Rheingold: If you’re thinking of building an online community, read this book

Kevin “Wired” Kelly: This is the book I hand out to anyone serious about building online communities

Jon “Slashdot” Katz: In addition to being useful, this book is a mirror into the culture and future — even the anthropology — of online communities

What does all this have to do with Facebook? Well, I wanted to get you hooked into the way I was thinking when I first came across Facebook. I didn’t think of it as a “social networking” site. I saw it as an online community, one that had been built by people who understood the precepts and guidelines of people like Amy Jo Kim. [I had the chance to meet Amy Jo at Supernova a few years ago, and it was a real delight. She really knows her stuff. I believe she’s gone “mobile” now, so I expect to hear great things about what she has to share about mobile communities next.]

The book itself consists of an introduction and 9 sections:

  • Introduction: Calling All Community Builders
  • Purpose: The Heart of Your Community
  • Places: Bringing People Together
  • Profiles: Getting to Know Your Members
  • Roles: From Newcomer to Oldtimer
  • Leadership: The Buck Stops Here
  • Etiquette: Rules to Live By
  • Events: Meetings, Performances and Competitions
  • Rituals: Handshakes, Holidays and Rites of Passage
  • Subgroups: Committees, Clubs and Clans

Now you can see how I felt when I first came across Facebook. In fact, if you look at what Jon Katz said all those years ago, it is eerily prescient: …. a mirror into the culture and future — even the anthropology —  of online communities

Enough preamble. Facebook is not a “social networking” site. It is a community of communities. Now this is potentially of immense value in an enterprise, if we use it sensibly. Let me outline a few potential uses:

Collaborative filtering to allow the sharing of patterns: people who read A  also read B; people who met A also met B; even people whose career moves were A also had B. As partially discussed earlier, we can gain a lot from the collaborative filtering process and its pattern outputs. They can be used for staff induction and role-based training. For succession planning. For career development. For informing and briefing deputies and interim backfills; for dealing with unplanned absences. A whole plethora of instances where learning is made possible, learning about context and domain and objective and modus operandi.

Rating processes that actually mean something: rating the usefulness of an e-mail reply; of advice given; of a person’s skillset or competence; of suitability for membership of a specific professional community; of the fit-for-purpose-ness of a particular product or service. Rating processes that are continuous rather than discrete and irregular snapshots; rating processes that are open and transparent rather than cloak-and-dagger stab-in-the-back; rating processes that are across the enterprise and beyond it, to include partners and customers. True 360 degrees.

Recommendation processes that are both push as well as pull. Unsolicited advice. A response to a query. The creation of active and kept-up-to-date and valuable FAQ sites. [It has always been my belief that an FAQ site is only as good as its update frequency and usage population].

From tacit knowledge to tacit problem-solving:  If I take the recommendation process one step further, I can visualise an environment where Person A responds to a question by Person B, where that advice (and its context) is flashed across my News Feed, where I read it. And in the process of reading it, I solve a problem I didn’t even know I had.

Wisdom-of-crowds and Prediction Markets: Checking the health of strategic enterprise programmes, projects, even transformation initiatives. Being able to get short-sharp votes on key subjects, just to take the pulse of the institution. Testing morale. Validating quality of communications and their usefulness. Even assessing the likelihood of project success or failure, whether measured in time, cost or quality.

Hiring: The availability of decent profile information, active references, and modus operandi means that we can bring community processes to bear even on candidate selection and hiring.

I’ll leave it there for now, and hope that I’ve done enough to elicit constructive comments.

18 thoughts on “Facebook and the Enterprise: Part 7: Communities”

  1. All of this is true with Usenet too.
    But FB is sugar coated blackhole trap.

    I’m waiting for a free as in freedom version of FB post-FB success. Meanwhile let us fast forward the success by singing in chorus FB’s anthem.

    PS: I’m using Facebook and it works for me fine. FB helped me recruit a British Citizen in Chennai this Independence day!

  2. JP,

    Reading your post this morning connected some dots for me that I described here: (http://thedabbler.wordpress.com/2007/08/24/social-networks-and-the-monkeysphere/)

    Do you find social networking tools like FB are increasing the number of rich, meaningful connections you can maintain, or just helping you track casual connections you might develop later? How do you filter out the noise of the casual connections from the signal of the ones that really “matter”?

  3. Bill, I did consider this issue of noise initially, there was some flaming going on about how someone like a Scoble could dominate a News feed.

    On reflection, I came up with two comments. One, Facebook is like Bloomberg, and the news feed is similar to price changes coming through on a ticker. In that context Scoble is a volatile stock with many price changes. Two, you can choose to tune out the noise if you want to. I can choose to get more or less of an individual’s news items, managed to quite a decent level of granularity.

    Also at the back of my mind is this principle I have of filtering on the way out rather than the way in. After 23 years in Calcutta I am used to noise…..

  4. Balaji Sowmyanarayanan has tapped into that old saw about those who ignore history (my favorite version being Marx’). Usenet has much to teach us about the “community of communities” phenomenon; and, as old-fashioned as I am, I felt that, at least in its earlier days, the content was richer for being limited to text. However, I think there are more lessons to be learned than Balaji chose to invoke.

    Most important is that Usenet was not about community BUILDING. It was about creating forums for discussion of topics of shared interest. This is neither a necessary nor a sufficient attribute of a community. Communities certainly EMERGED within many of the discussion groups, and that emergence could lead to the formation of new discussion groups. However, the very concept of community building seems to be invoked the most by those who have never seriously studied the social theory of communities and, as a result, quickly cotton on to all the surface features while in blissful ignorance of the “deep structure.” (I took my flame-thrower down this road back in the days of the communities-of-practice fad.)

    So Usenet was primarily about enabling conversations (one of your pillars, JP); but it was also about providing the option to MODERATE those conversations (which is why I continue to argue for the need for quality editing). A Usenet moderator was, first and foremost, a filter. However, other forms of moderation surfaced, with responsibilities often shared by members of the group. An important one was keeping the discussion “on topic.” Another, which I would often do voluntarily, was to “review the bidding:” When a discussion got hot and heavy, going down many different paths at once, it was useful to synopsize the key points and contributors and identify the outstanding issues and questions that still needed to be resolved.

    Finally, while Usenet preceded the Internet with its use of gateway management technology, its population was extremely limited compared to today’s Internet demographics. The opening of the Internet killed many (most?) of the discussion groups, for the simple reason that people flooded in for no other reason than to babble. Content quickly sank to the lowest common denominator (if not lower); and many of the original participants who had engaged Usenet as a resource began to see it as a waste of time.

    Marx’ remark about repeating history, as many know, was that what is tragedy the first time comes around as farce the second time. The deterioration of the quality of discussion on Usenet may have been the first great tragedy of the Internet. Perhaps what Balaji called a “sugar coated blackhole trap” is just the farce of the second appearance.

    Meanwhile, I hope that those who are seriously interested in community-like behavior in either the virtual or the physical world will spend less time with books by technology evangelists and more time with the more serious (but just as exciting) social theory literature!

  5. Stephen, I appreciate your having your point of view, but surely there was no need to dismiss Amy Jo Kim the way you did. Howard Rheingold and Kevin Kelly et al are also not to be dismissed lightly, they know quite a bit about building community.

    I make no objection to your dominating the comments here, but surely you don’t have to dismiss people you appear to have neither met nor studied.

  6. I have read both Rheingold and Kelly at some length. I have also heard Rheingold speak, and I respect the fact that he has a formidable repertoire of anecdotes. My point, however, is that the very concept of “building” a community misconstrues the concept of community; and, back in the communities-0f-practice days, a lot of businesses who bought into that misconstrual got seriously bitten on their rear ends! The case histories where things go hopelessly wrong are usually the ones that yield the best lessons-learned, yet the writers you tend to cite do not seem to have much time for those stories. Lest you do not believe my claim that there are more serious writers out there who can be just as exciting, feed Marietta Baba’s name to your Google search window!

  7. I think we have a more challenging difference of opinion, I get the sense you do not believe in online communities period.

    And yes, sure I will look up marietta baba and read her books.

  8. @Stephen
    Thanks Stephen for insights on Usenet. Your anatomy of Usenet demise cleared up some of my FB angst.

    Much of my FB angst stems from the fear of living with the social/community tool/platform *forever*. The death of the Usenet, however tragic, reminds the interdependence and independence of (community enabling) platform lifecycle and (platform enabling) community lifecycle.

    Just like History, Fashion repeats.

    Now I see that social net/community platform thingy is more like Fashion. Living with the quirks of FB is like celebrating BellBottoms for a while. I’ll do that now, and be a nice guest in the FB IPO pre-launch party. (Hope)We will laugh our heads off soon enough.

    -Balaji S.
    Chennai, India.

  9. JP, actually the only thing I REALLY object to is using words so casually as to evade even an INTUITIVE grasp of what they mean (let alone anything objective enough to support necessary and sufficient conditions). I’ve been doing some research into the word “community;” and I have discovered that most of my heroes in the scholarly literature (both present and past) do a pretty good job of steering clear of it. The SHORTER OED definition, “A body of individuals,” is to general to provide a benchmark for whether or not “online community” is a viable concept in either theory or practice. However, if we turn to the first man to write a substantive treatise about community, Ferdinand Tönnies (certainly the most venerable of the sources cited in the Wikipedia entry for “community,” even if I do not think the author of that entry read him very well), we find that he invokes the term to signify that “body of individuals” structured along organic lines, as distinguished from a “society,” which Tönnies sees as an “imaginary and mechanical structure.”

    I have not read enough of the Tönnies treatise to have a clear sense of where he takes this distinction; but, in the absence of any good alternative characterizations, let’s use it as a point of departure. Since software itself is mechanical and since software-based virtuality is imaginary, it sounds to me like the coin is coming down on the side of Tönnies’ use of the term “society.” Individuals who engage with each other through such software are NOT mechanical; and, whether or not they engage through a designed avatar, by virtue of having an IDENTITY (one of your favorite concepts, as I recall), they are not imaginary. Neither, however, is a community, which, since it is organic, rather than artifactual, cannot be BUILT. (I may not reject a book by its cover, but the wording of its title has a lot to do with whether or not I look beyond the cover!)

    So, to return to your proposition, I believe that communities can emerge, grow, and decay by virtue of personal engagements that are mediated by software; but the software will never be anything more that SECONDARY to those processes of emergence, growth, and decay. Kim’s chapter headings are a clever attempt to invoke the vocabulary of engagement, but they cannot be more than linguistic frills that (to invoke Balaji’s metaphor) define the current fashion. Thus we come to my more significant belief, which is my conviction that software should FACILITATE without being a DISTRACTION.

    Back in June you actually planted the seeds for a methodology under which Facebook could be used as a tool for a better understanding of the nature of engagement:


    At that time I seem to recall writing a comment of enthusiastic support for such a methodology. I hope you do not neglect further attention to such concerns!

  10. Just come across this blog, JP and find it interesting …and relevant….
    But to what …….?
    Well I’m Director of a relatively new best-practice Institute focused on public and stakeholder consultations. I won’t bore on this other than to say that its a fascinating area consuming hundreds of millions of pounds of public money – much of it wasted on very poor or insincere listening exercises.
    To come to the point, we are currently preparing the agenda for an event in November under the title “Technologies for Participation” and this will be about all the many ways that new technology is supporting public consultations – e-surveys, voting systems, forums etc etc.
    Now here comes the interesting part. I don’t use Facebook (though I am on LinkedIn) – but my son, who does, keeps trying to convince me that the future of structured conversations (eg public consultations) may well be based on facebook-type applications. Indeed, many of the tools that appear to be brought together in Facebook appear just to be evolutions of what were called enterprise collaboration tools solutions, and several specialised systems of this kind (eg iNovem) are already successfully used in consultation environments in the UK.
    Next is your debate about communities, for the essence of many consultations is to engage with either geographic or interest-based groups, and I wonder whether Facebook (through “cause supporter”?) style applications will have a role in empowering people to express themselves in ways that are easier than what’s been available in the past.
    I’ll be glad of any response to these musings – otherwise I may have to go outside and enjoy the sun!!!!

  11. Speaking of Usenet, characteristically Usenet used to be described through ‘What it is NOT’ first and then its myriads of ‘What it is’ details.

    Complex multi-sided platforms are easier described by ‘What they are Not” to start with.

    Your FaceBook (eulogy? :) ) series will also benefit from a ‘What FaceBook is Not post’. As you mentioned earlier, FB indeed is an Avatar of multi-sided platform/market. Not the most frictionless one, yet, multi-sided platform nevertheless.

    -Balaji S.

  12. Rhion, welcome to the conversation. Happy to help in any way I can. You’re welcome to email me via [email protected], or to connect to me via Facebook, if you think I can be of any help.

    Balaji, thanks for the comments. I’m very tempted to say “I know precisely what Facebook is NOT. It is not Usenet. In fact it is explicitly characterised by a membership largely made up of people who do not know what Usenet was or is, and actually don’t care about it either.”

    Nevertheless, I take your point, and will do my best to respond in one of my closing posts on the subject of Facebook and the Enterprise.

    BTW you seem to be labouring undering the misapprehension that I have some undeclared vested interest in Facebook. Not so. If anything, I want to prevent a wonderful opportunity from being wasted, an opportunity for many of us to learn about how virtual and real communities can coexist.

  13. JP, I hope you appreciate the need to resist that temptation “to say ‘I know precisely what Facebook is NOT. It is not Usenet. In fact it is explicitly characterised by a membership largely made up of people who do not know what Usenet was or is, and actually don’t care about it either!'” If those who develop and manage Facebook neither know nor care about Usenet, then they will be the chief FARCEURS among those who ignore history! Those who only use Facebook are less susceptible to committing such farce, but I still believe that a clear understanding of the past contributes significantly to informing expectations of the future. On the other hand Henry Ford believed that history was bunk and still sired at least a few generations of prosperous descendants, whatever the state of the Ford Motor Company may be today; so what do I know?

    Rhion, if you have been following the other comment chains, you may have seen my efforts to promote Goffman’s work on interaction rituals. If you are seriously interested in participation, then I recommend this work to you. I promised JP that I would provide some expository material on my own blog, and I have now done so.


  14. JP – good to see you’ve fleshed out the business side of things. Some of us have been thinking about this for a while (ahem).

    My take is that FB is a *metaphor* for what could happen in business but we don’t necessary think it will be FB because we don’t see any sign that they’re looking beyond the consumer play.

    Personally, I think that’s crazy but I can understand how the identity issues inherent within FB create all sorts of knotty problems. (OpenID anyone?)

    The trick FB has pulled is to allow devs to get access to selected data and yes, it can be pulled to enterprise systems like talent management and recruitment. I’ve had some promising discussions around that.

    The black hole argument doesn’t apply to enterprise because as you know, it is possible to gatekeep however works best. I hear lot of AOL Mk 2 talk but I don’t hear anyone making a coherent case for change (as it would be understood by business) other than ‘it isn’t open.’

    One thing I am hearing a LOT – the API is grubby.

    @Rhion: I disagree. Past attempts at collaboration have been characterised by command and control systems that limit conversation and interaction. They’re not far off ECM. The thing to really understand here is transparency. That does NOT sit will with the organisations you work alongside. However, I did notice that politicans on both sides of the Atlantic are realising the agenda is slipping away from them. It’s only a short step from there to understanding that participation yields much richer results. FYI, I’m working on a 100K person project designed to do exactly that.

    FB is fluid. There is one thing that’s definitely missing and that’s a profile based discovery mechanism. You could thrash about a lot in FB and not find what’s useful. FB could do that as they’re talking contextual ads based on profiles. That’s a tricky area but from an enterprise perspective, a no brainer because that’s exactly what you want to do. That could eg feed multi-disciplinary ad hoc project management systems. Or it could become the system.

    Important to realise we’re early in this game and there are plenty of mistakes to be made. Fortunately, they can be made at very low cost and in such a way where there is little waste or damage. I’m not sure the same can be said of the way institutions usually contract.

  15. Coming late to the party, I’ll stay quiet.

    I’ll only add another book to read (which is sitting next to my copy of “Community Building”): “Online Communities: Designing Usability, Supporting Sociability”, by Jenny Preece. Preece’s book complements the Kim book by looking at working health support communities, and exploring various theorectical reasons how/why supprt can be given electronically.

Let me know what you think

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