Building Community: The Game Changed

My first online community effort happened in 1994. I didn’t have a vision or understand what I was doing. It was low tech and attracted a small population, but it filled a need so it sustained for several years. Back then, building an online community was actually rather easy.

In 2007, I was hired by a big name health and fitness company to develop an online community. The effort began well, but was quickly derailed by many of the most common mistakes that big companies seem to make. I departed the venture in 2008 and moved on to social media centric projects. I went back to check on their progress and found that the entire community, one that used to be hundreds of thousands of users strong, was wiped from the face of the Internet entirely.

I started sifting through my mental database of experience. I also had a couple of high level conversations about community building. Some of my contacts from the 2007 project have moved on to viable community and social media projects elsewhere. While thinking about the viability of these projects, I was suddenly struck with just how much the atmosphere has changed in the 15+ years since I first fell into the game.

One of my contacts, in particular, hit the nail on the head pretty hard when he mentioned sites like Facebook. Community development changed social networking came onto the scene in force. Now, successful community development plans need to include social media and networking giants. Furthermore, a highly successful community development project can exist entirely on top of the technology platforms provided by these giants.

The entire game is different now. It’s as if the open spaces of the Internet have all been industrialized. Now, instead of building in an open field, you have to find space in a high rise complex. Technology paths are seemingly locked down and users are settled into routines and assumptions that will be extremely difficult to crack. The major game players have establisehd themselves. Some are more stable than others, but the top dogs aren’t going away any time soon.

Is the world a better place now? No. We’ve shaken the world of copyrights and intellectual property. We’ve create new ways to create and share information and media. We’ve empowered people with new technologies. We’ve done a lot of good things. However, if you look at the big picture, the revolution of the Internet has had precious little impact. Propaganda and misinformation are still rampant. Our online experience is still heavily controlled by large corporations. Our connectivity is grossly overpriced. The entire system is laden heavily with scammers, liars, cheaters, and manipulators.

Not only are citizens around the world being heavily fined for violating the intellectual property rights of major corpporations, but major corporations are making profits by respinning the intellectual property the masses are freely creating for them. We don’t own our data, sites like Facebook and Youtube own our data. It is nice that more and more people are beginning to question how and why the system is what it is. Still, there’s precious little momentum for change and what momentum that exists is on the decline.

We’re still mostly a world of consumers. One has but to compare the number of people passionate about the Free Culture movement to the number of people passioante about the iPad to clearly see just how far we are from evolving. We humans spread out from Africa. We constantly discovered new wonderful places to explore and develop. We took rich natural wonders and turned them into poluted cities full of crime and noise. We slashed, burned, dug, and paved our way into our modern metropolis while precious few wrote utopian stories of how things could be. When we finally got the the digital open spaces of the Internet, we treated it the same way.

I figure… if we haven’t figured this out before we leave this planet, we’re going to do the same thing to the Moon, to Mars, and where whatever else we manage to touch.

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