May 05, 2007

Make your own world

Make your own world

“Why does the internet increasingly seem to revolve around communities?” the brief said, adding, “How do communities come about? How should they be nurtured?” and concluded cheerily, “That's all.”
That’s all?! Jeeze, laddie, people write whole books about this kind of stuff.
“Oh well. Just write about 300 words on communities by midnight.”
Ah.
Well, here it is in a nutshell. “No man is an island.” Or, if you prefer, “Man is a social animal.”
Replace the sexist M word with a non-gender-specific term of your choice, and you have it all. We’re hard-wired to seek company. Preferably people who share our interests, but if location gets in the way, whatever we can get. Example: people with slightly out-of-the-way interests who feel stifled in small towns, but who bloom when they move to bigger cities, where sheer numbers make it a tad easier to find kindred spirits.
Throw the Net into the equation; geography becomes irrelevant. Your potential universe expands to include anyone online. Add this: the explosion of the participatory web, Web 2.0, where it’s no longer Big Media dictating all content. You, me the chap who commissioned this article; it’s child’s play for us to join in, participate, create, find people who share our kinks. No matter how niche your passions are, you’ll find an online community to match. Giving up booze? Check. Like to distill your own? Check. Two-foot moustaches? Check. Go on. Try it, hit a search engine with your subject plus “community” or “forum.” (And here’s a tip: if you don’t find a community you like, start one. They’ll come.)
Here’s the good bit. We’re all multi-dimensional. It’s unlikely you’ll find any folks who share all your interests. But online, you can divide your time between all your interests without putting up with the other obsessions of you new buddies, unlike in the real world, where you have to trade off. You know: okay, I’ll come to the museum with you if you come to the strip show with me. In the virtual world, when you’ve indulged your, say, recipe-sharing side, you can then go log in elsewhere and pander to your—random example—inner Bollyfan, where fellow members may, for all you know, be unable to boil water without help.
Nurture? It’s even simpler.
Don’t try to be all things to all people. Find a real niche; for instance, avoid the temptation to start up an “desi version of XYX.” That’s really not a product differentiator, unless, of course, your goal is jingoistic. Stay focussed. Set clear and visible guidelines, and enforce them. Be gentle, but be firm. Be tough with trolls. Be polite with the freedom of speech wallas who demand the right to discuss their toenail clippings in a forum that’s focussed on ringtone appreciation. And most important, have fun. It defeats the purpose if you don’t.

Peter Griffin is a writer, columnist and web consultant. He conceptualises, creates and leads online communities, some for fun and some for profit. He blogs at http://zigzackly.blogspot.com.

Published in Tehelka, May 2007.

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