A community and an audience are very different things. Too often, we confuse the two.
The power and potential of the web lies in the ability to be introduced to new people across great distances and form a community around shared values, causes, or interests. This happens in a myriad of ways and at every level of scale. For me, it’s why the web matters. If you ask someone about their favorite experience on the web, it almost always involves a community they are a part of and helped shape, despite the fact that it can be difficult and often, temporary.
Companies long ago decided that using the words “community” and “join the conversation” throughout their sites and products was a simpler way to accomplish something similar without the messy complications. No matter how hard they try, though, it’s obvious that what they want is an audience, not a community. They want your clicks, page views, money, and content, but not your input or leadership. When they ask for help in building something, they are referring not to a shared, independent, malleable creation, but to the company itself. We are a means to an end.
We’ve grown to expect this behavior from larger companies and celebrities with massive followings; we’re not surprised that their marketing terms have no meaning. We know that their greatest wish is a large, passive audience.
Unfortunately, small companies, startups, and even web personalities are increasingly offering the same thing. Rather than pursue the revolutionary, often breathtaking, power of online community, they chase an audience that will impress the press and anyone else persuaded by large numbers without context. “Community” and “conversation” matter only if they drive adoption and perform well in A/B tests.
We’re followers now.
The tools and technologies that make it easier than ever to form communities online, also make it simple to build, broadcast to, and sell to an audience. For obvious reasons, most choose to chase an audience, while pretending that it’s something that it’s not.
They want a conversation about them, not with them. Community is nothing more than a new word for fans and followers.
That’s no longer enough for me.
I still believe there is a place for genuine community on the web; messy, welcoming, difficult, and beautiful. A community of peers defined by the people who show up and contribute. If you feel the same, let’s talk. I’d love to hear about your best experiences on the web and what you think it’s missing. Say hello (I’m @bb on Twitter) or drop me a note.
Update: I wrote about an idea for a messy, beautiful, new community on the web: A Community of Possibilities.