A: They are all looking for universalities of human behaviour. If you can pinpoint what people really like to do – in fact, what they are predisposed to do – then you have a better chance of creating compelling content, a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, or software that promotes engagement and possibly “community”.
The point is that, despite a lot of what we hear about new technology, how people behave and what motivates them are not new debates. The Social Sciences long pre-date the Social Media.
Here are some of the insights I’ve found particularly useful over the years working with online community:
If you love something, set it free
Philosophers of the Enlightenment such as Hume and Locke understood that individuals are governed by desire, and will act selfishly. Any functioning society must strike a careful balance between individual freedoms and the needs of the society as a whole. The ability of individuals and groups to freely form is imperative to a functioning democracy, as was evident in Eastern Europe under Communism, where a healthy Civil Society flourished despite the state’s restrictions.
Allowing individuals to start their own topics or even groups is integral to supporting long term, organic growth. In an increasingly apathetic world, an online forum also offers a place where everyone can play a role, enfranchising individuals through more than a simple vote.
Another related learning is the importance of place. From the Roman agora to Tahrir Square, architects have long known the interplay between environment and the type of interaction. Online communities, like their physical counterparts, will prosper if they have both large open spaces and intimate cafes.
Let people be themselves
There has always been an inherent idealistic streak in technology circles (what Morozov is calling cyberutopia), as was evidenced in early online communities such as the WELL and ECHO where online forums, and their ability to remove race, ethnicity or sex, were seen as great levelers. But if you follow the progression of online community software over the past 20 years, you see the growth of rating and ranking mechanisms (Lithium has dozens of built in levels; Gawker recently required that only people with rank could post).
To me, this is the great failing of Marx. His notion of a classless society ignored humanity’s inherent competitive nature; the need to know where you are in the pecking order, to find out what makes you different from someone else.
Enlightenment philosophers – and their successors, Founding Fathers – tackled this problem by devising a system to carefully balance individual rights (“all men are created equal” with “inalienable rights”) against the needs of society (“deriving their powers from the consent of the governed”).
So, while it’s important to treat your community members equally, you must also give them the ability for them to be themselves (photos, avatars, custom wallpaper), interact they way they choose (forums, newsgroups, email, Twitter) and proudly display their place in society IF they so choose (status points, “kudos” etc).
Treat people how you would like to be treated
A personal favourite, Immanual Kant extended the importance of freedom to ideas, noting that individuals needed to be free of the dictates of external authority. Of course, to free the individual from authority, his moral philosophy (the “categorical imperative”) espoused a code of conduct whereby an individual must “act as if your maxims should serve at the same time as the universal law (of all rational beings)”: or what we commonly call The Golden Rule.
As Isadore Sharp (Four Seasons Hotels) put it: “treat people how you would like to be treated and they will show respect”.
This notion has been slowly seeping into the marketing world since before the Cluetrain Manifesto. The move from the mass and into the trenches of 1:1 has forced marketers away from spin doctoring and into a personal relationship with the end consumer. In fact, I think that decency is the natural offshoot of technology enabling more connections between people. As more relationships prosper, actors realize that “to make friends and influence people”, they must act ethically towards one another.
To put it another way, when acting as a group, people do not act as Kant had hoped. This is true with corporations, whose shareholders act in self-interest for a better bottom line. And it is especially true with nation-states. The furthest you get from the individual, the less likely people are to act civilly.
I’m no cyberutopian. I don’t think technology is a panacea that will put the civil back in Civil Society. But if it creates more connection points, more opportunities for people to meet 1:1, there could be an inherent civilizing effect. The answer may lie in the hands of the growing cadre of community managers, whose day-to-day job is handling super users and flame wars, while striking a balance between the needs of the individual and the needs of the community as a whole.
At Sequentia we have been practicing a methodology where we directly engage a representative group of the target market, to solicit their ideas and participation in the end community. It has been immensely successful, and I have a hunch that we may be looking at a new model for political engagement; one that harnesses the universal human need to be listened to, and included in the process.