Yes, look all around you and you see individuals, competing ideas and small groups of people working independently and creating rather than conforming. You see a marketplace of ideas that create and sustain vibrant social systems.
The reason I raise this question is presently people working in the area of social media believe that the community, or what is sometimes called a collective is the object of the technology. They propose that without the community the social technology is a failure.
It is easy to connect community with social technologies, perhaps too easy. Looking out on social media sites or reading stories about groups of people on multi-player games and you want to see the group. Look closer and you see individuals making their own choices, sure most informed but not determined by the community. Those people are the hidden opportunity for enterprises to take advantage of social media.
Tying social media’s success to building a vibrant community holds success hostage to not only attracting people but also maintaining their interest and support. People running sites in order to aggregate people face the same challenges as the late Roman Emperors – how do I keep the mob entertained with bread and circuses.
This is fine for social, entertainment and other sites, but it is dreadfully difficult to transform an entertained mob into an active group. Sure I can stir up a group for short period of time, so long as the actions line up with community interests. You saw that with the 2008 Presidential Campaigns. Those election-based communities have not achieved their goals of converting the community interested in the election into the same force in governing.
A community view of social media limits your view on what communities can do, how they sustain themselves and what is required to keep them going. Our society and our social systems are a blend of individual and collective responsibility and limiting social media to collective action is incomplete.
A mob is a powerful force and rather blunt instrument. Expanding a view on social media to incorporate the individual recognizes that social media can be used to do the hard work required to address tough issues. You need a view that takes into account the individual or small group as they do the things that make other things work. They form that atoms and molecules that make social chemistry effective.
Social media gives motivated individuals new tools to connect, collaboration and communicate with others and yes the broader community. Social media provides an opportunity for individuals to organize, but in the act of organizing they retain their individuality and their choice as to where and how they participate.
I believe that forgetting the individual is one of the reasons the estimated failure rate for communities lasting more than a year is around 80 – 90%. Social communities form rapidly and then dissipate either because they no longer capture people’s interest (the bread is stale and the circus old), or people simply do not see themselves in the community, or that the community is so generalizes that it has lost its meaning.
Executives should pay attention to this phenomenon and think before blindly looking to build communities. Individuals do the work of business, they buy the product, serve the customer, make the decisions, etc. If you adhere to the belief that social media requires a community, then those actions are turned over to the mob that needs to be entertained as much as it needs to be engaged and active.
If you see social media as a platform for the individuals then you may be able to see a path for engaging your workforce, customers and suppliers in new ways without losing sight of them as people.
Can you have a social system without a community? Yes recognizing so expands the opportunities to innovate using social media technologies.