Lately, I've been musing about the key trends in Net social dynamics circa 2004. These are my initial rambling thoughts, I welcome your comments and stories.
First, some background: in the mid-to-late 1990s, I ran a successful design studio specializing in innovative online communities. I was fascinated by the potential of the Net to amplify social interactions, so I actively sought out a wide variety of clients and helped them design, build and grow their communities. I learned a lot from these projects, and felt driven to summarize and share hard-earned lessons about the dynamics of growing online social environments.
So I synthesized these lessons into nine basic design principles, and gave a few talks. People loved the material -- I was mobbed afterwards by designers who found the ideas incredibly useful, and asked for more.
So I wrote a book which was a minor hit in the United States - and most exciting for me, was translated into in 7 languages. As a result, I've had the deep pleasure of meeting people from England, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, China, and Korea who read my book, and found it useful in their work.
From Place-centric to People-centric
The deep principles of community-building are timeless - but the details of how successful networked services are deployed has changed dramatically in the last few years. Being online is a mainstream experience now; the demographics of who's online reflect the population at large. And mobile devices are dramatically transforming the landscape of networked services. Cellphones are the fastest-growing segment of Net-connected devices [NEED REF TO STATS]. Because of economic and infrastructure issues, cellphones are far more pervasive than computers in the developing world [NEED REF TO STATS].
Online communities are old-skool. The heat these days is around social networks, buddy lists & blogs -- all bottom-up social tools that place the individual at the center, and grow outward from there. This is a very different design model than message boards, chat rooms and virtual worlds, which are virtual places where where like-minded people congregate.
This people-centric design model intersects with the social patterns of cellphone users. Cellphones are intimate, personal communications devices -- which also happen to be increasingly powerful computers. Young people use cellphones to stay connected to their buddies, get info from the Net, and to meet new people via flirting or gaming. Net-connected cellphones are dramatically increasing people's ability to form lightweight, transient social groups. This works great for people that are young, single and socially mobile -- yet not so useful if you're family-oriented, and interested in maintaining relationships with stable, long-term groups.
What I see all around me now are networked social tools that have 'emergent purpose.' This is an old theme in new clothing -- the 'build it and they will come' belief that connecting people is STEP 1, and the purpose and business model for a cool online social tool will emerge over time. I saw a lot of companies fail as they followed this ethic - particularly those that created and marketed FREE tools & services built around chat, message boards and virtual worlds. The companies who made real money connecting people online -- Amazon, eBay, SOE (makers of Everquest) -- built their community infrastructure around a shared, meaningful activity other than pure socializing.
So what is a Net community circa 2004? A set of overlapping links in a social network? A group of cross-linked blog owners and readers? People who participated in the Dean campaign? Kids who meetup in a club using their cellphones to coordinate? Lightweight content-building tools like blogs and social networks are enabling social groupings that are fluid and dynamic, and Net-connected cellphones enable 'just-in-time' socializing.
I find all this fascinating - and it makes me wonder when and where we'll see small, focused, semi-structured groups (e.g. teams, bands, guilds) emerge in networked services -- 'cause that's a cross-cultural social structure that gets stuff done.
More later -- and if you know of networked services that include team structures, let me know - I'd love to check 'em out.