4 min read

Communities build themselves

In the past few weeks I've spent a lot of time.... a lot of time ....in the virtual world known as Second Life. It is strange, lovely and addictive. And I'll have to make an effort not to get consumed by the place.
I heard about this online world months ago, but it didn't catch my interest then. I knew it was some sort of online gaming environment where people created "avatars" that "lived" in the virtual world. And it just seemed silly to me.
Then I read about Anshe Chung, a woman who was amassing real-world riches for her work in the virtual world (a second article that mentions her can be found here.) I'm an entrepreneur, and I'm always looking for opportunities. And I found myself wondering if there was a business opportunity for me in the virtual world. I wanted to know if a newspaper or magazine existed in Second Life, or if I should launch one.
So I logged on for a free trial.
As it turns out, there is a newspaper in Second Life. And it's a pretty good paper -- full of actual news, albeit about a fictional world.
But far more interesting to me was that the world itself -- this pretend community where people can fly, this imaginary place where people talk through written messages -- was so much fun. And after a half-dozen visits, I felt somehow that I belonged in this community of possibility and conversation.

I've been thinking a lot about community of late...and how B2B media companies can foster it. Community is, in a very real sense, the goal of publishing. Or at least it should be. We create content, share it with others, and together we consider that content's meaning. To an old-media guy, community is the trade show that his B2B magazine sponsors. To a new-media guy, it's the feedback function on his blog. But put those differences aside and note the similarity -- both of those guys are in the business of fostering connections.
And that's a tough business to be in.

On a fairly regular basis, B2B media executives ask me how they can build community.
What I tell them is that doing so is nearly impossible. What I tell them is that communities build themselves.
And I tell them to read Giant Robot.
Giant Robot is the most interesting -- and most unusual -- magazine in my mailbox every month. It's a consumer magazine about "Asian Pop Culture and Beyond." But it doesn't look, feel or read like any other magazine I know.
The young guys who started GR sensed there was a group of people that needed a place to be. In other words, they believed a community would exist as soon as it had a "place" to gather.
And the founders of the magazine were right. There was a community of young, hip people, most of them Asian and Asian American, who related to the wider culture in a way specific to them. It wasn't that this group of people had shared interests. That's commonplace. Lots of people share interests with lots of other people. What was important was that this particular group had a shared sensibility. People don't join a community in order to belong. They join because they belong.

When communities have blossomed in the B2B world, they have followed a similar pattern. The community exists -- united by emotions more than by interests --but has no central location at which to interact. Then a B2B publication creates a "space" in which conversation can occur. Web sites seem to work best for this. Trade shows are still good at this too. Print magazines seem to be very poor choices (one of the many miracles of GR is that a community made up almost entirely of kids from the Internet generation formed around a print magazine. The key to that success seems to be that the community is also linked through GR's retail outlets and the products of the magazine's advertisers. When I walk around in lower Manhattan, I can spot a Giant Robot reader. They wear their sensibility -- a hip, anime-flavored, pan-Asian and all-American, anti-Orientalism sensibility -- on their shirt sleeves. )

I've come to believe that community is most likely to occur in B2B media that serve industries where strongly held emotions are the norm. People who work in such industries do more than share interests, they share a belief system. And when people work at something that is more than a job, then they tend to think of the B2B publication they read as something more than a magazine.
Thus it's not in the least bit surprising that a vibrant online community has grown around Cygnus' Firehouse.com.
Community also seems more likely to form among people trying to enter an industry than among those already working in it. Job seekers are united by a single common sensibility -- the belief that they are in the wrong place in life.
Thus I'm not surprised that MediaBistro attracts dozens of people nearly every weeknight to its classes, seminars and social gatherings. Whereas I can't imagine that Folio or Editor and Publisher would have similar luck attracting working journalists.

So is there anything a B2B journalist can do to help foster community?
The great lesson of the blogging phenomenon is that there is someone who feels passionately about any subject you can think of. And if that person starts a blog, there are always a few people who feel strongly enough to post comments.
Any B2B journalist can tap into that power. You don't need to start a blog, but you do need to become more bloglike. If you allow readers to speak to you and each other, then you have created a place where community might arise. If you let people speak, you may find that they will listen. And together you may find the sense of emotional connection that is the basis of community.
And let me be clear, I'm not suggesting that anyone start another talk-among-yourselves service on their Web site. I don't think a discussion group, live chat or online forum is the best way to connect your readers.
Rather, what I am urging is that you allow your readers to talk to you and each other in public about your work. I'm talking about feedback functions. I'm suggesting that allowing comments on your stories will do more to foster community than any other thing you can do.
Feedback functions are the single best way to find out if there are any readers who share your sensibility -- the strongly held emotional belief that your product is important.

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