I gave a talk this week to a great company here in Toronto that does very interesting work in the communications industry. We got into a lot of very interesting discussions afterwards about online communities and the topics revolved, interestingly enough, about creating and controlling online communities. That seems to be an ongoing topic of conversation and concern wherever I speak these days. This tension between “real” emergent tribes (as I say in my talks, the e in etribes is for emergent) and the desire to “manage” online communities, their outputs, their experiences, to have some control over this phenomenon. To influence it, or even sort of own it.
One of the conversations I’m thinking went something like this. A person from the company came up to me after my talk.
Company Person: I was wondering if we should create our own community from scratch, or try to convert people who are already in a community.
Me: Well, that depends on what you want to achieve. What are you trying to do?
Company Person: We’re trying to build loyalty.
Me: Do you think you can implant loyalty with a created community? Or seed it? Or intensify it?
Company Person: Maybe start it by convincing the people in the online community, then it would spread to other people and communities online.
Me (being a little provocative): Like fooling some of the people some of the time? Then it become contagious in some way?
Company Person: Hmmm.
Me: The problem with a lot of seeded online communities is that they’re not the same as the kind of communities that emerge on their own. That can be a good thing or a bad thing. It depends on what you’re trying to achieve. The issue with emergent communities is that they tend to be brutally honest. They tell each other things that are totally out of your control. Are you willing to let them do that? If so, then I think that maybe you can create a space where people act like this is a real, emergent community that they can call their own.
Company Person: What do you mean are we willing to do that?
Me: Well, there’s a little story I like to tell my students about the Godzilla web-site. Here, let me tell you about it…(cue sentimental, ‘way back when,’ HuckFinnMarkTwainy music…)’
Way back in the early days of the Web, in May of 1998 t’be exact, a big-budget, shrouded-in-secrecy remake movie of the famous Godzilla series came out. You might remember its memorable penile tag-line “Size Matters.” Ah yes, those were the days. At that time the film’s producer and co-write, Dean Devlin, and its director, Roland Emmerich, has started a production company called Centropolis Entertainment, which helped to market the film and produced an official “Godzilla ” website to build hype and promote the film. The website was a decent one, and the film’s producers knew that there was a lot of word-of-mouth flowing among Godzilla’s active fan community about the film. So, of course, they provided an open forum for those fans to discuss the film amongst themselves.
As a complete sidebar here, weren’t bulletin boards and newsgroups always Web 2.0? I know Web 2.0 is supposed to be corporate in orientation. Big business using communal creativity and openness to make good. But can somebody who advocates the smooth evolutionary transition from Web 1.0 in the dark early years of the eighties and nineties to the brilliant stellar Web 2.0 phase of the early 2000s please fill me in on that one? And what about Compuserve and Prodigy and Usenet and all the zillions of b-boards that were out there in the eighties? Weren’t they almost Classically Web 2.0? They sure felt that way to me. Was AOL a Web 2.0 company?
Where was I? Oh yes, Godzilla, or Gojira as my Japanese friends and I like to call him. The long-time fans were the first ones in line and the first ones past the red velvet ropes to see the movie. And they hated the movie. Hated it bigtime. So when they had a chance to post their comments and contribute to their community–which was, after all, not a new invention of Misters Devlin and Emmerich, but a long-standing community with lots of existing fans, practices, and networks–guess what they did? Of course. They criticized. They moaned about what a butchering, unfaithful, horrid hatchetjob had been done to their iconic film and its proto-iconic icon. And they warned other fans and interested people to stay away. It was not only a bad Godzilla movie, they told everyone on the forum, it was just a bad, stinky, terrible movie in general. Blech, blech, pooey pooey.
Now, that’s a real test of commitment to community, isn’t it? As managers, Misters Devlin and Emmerich had some decisions to make. In particular, how should they handle this? Abort, retry, engage, fight back, ignore?
They didn’t have the benefit that we do of having some wise advice in this area widely available from luminaries like Alex Wipperfurth and Grant McCracken and Andy Sernovitz and Henry Jenkins and Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba and Don Tapscott. However, the Cluetrain Manifesto was already circulating in its early forms. Remember the Cluetrain Manifesto (available in much longer format in print as The Cluetrain Manifesto)? What an important document that was and still is! It talks about the need for companies to engage in open, honest conversations with the organizing networks of people who are their markets. In fact, it defines a company’s markets as a set of conversations. To his credit, Mr. Devlin did decide to engage these fans in conversation.
According to a Wall Street Journal article on the event (`Godzilla’ Web Visitors Terrorize A Touchy Hollywood Producer,” by Bruce Orwall, Jun 8, 1998. p. B.1), here’s what happened:
To one especially tough-minded fan he [producer and co-writer Dean Devlin] wrote: “Our movie did what it was supposed to do. We’re all happy about it. If you don’t like that, to hell with you.” To another who called the movie a flop: “Please tell me how you figure that a movie that will make the studio over a hundred million dollars in profit is a flop? Where’d you learn your math?” To the editor of a science-fiction magazine who had chided him, Mr. Devlin wrote: “And as for my ‘royalty’ check you refer to, since it’s larger than all of my other royalty checks on all my other films combined, I’m more than happy with it, thank you.” The cyber-howlings of a well-paid Hollywood producer didn’t find a sympathetic audience. “My God! It sickens me to hear a man go on like that!” one fan wrote. “You’ve got to get over the fact that a lot of people, for whatever reason, just don’t like the film.”
After a bit of back and forth jousting, taking heavy hits, enraging the online community, and setting a pretty stark quintessentially us versus them, me-big-capitalist Hollywood Producer you puny little consumer fanboy invidious hierarchized boundary dichotomy (that seems pretty heavily socially-classed, my sociologist friends) Centropolis made its decision.
Shut down the dissent. Shut the fans up. Shut the site down.
The “Acid Tests” were early psychedelic drug parties, quasi-religious San Fran celebrations that were in themselves celebrated and immortalized in Tom Wolfe”s “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” novel about the Merry Pranksters. You had to drink the LSD-laced Kool-Aid and pass the “Acid Test” before you were “one of us.” Once you did, there were even “diplomas” that were bestowed upon you.
So here’s my “Electric Community Acid Test.” What would you, as a good brand or company manager do, if some of the members of your nice members of your nice created online community started telling other community members how terrible your product was, or insulting managers personally and by name, or exposing moral flaws in your production or marketing process, or listing solid reasons and then strongly advocating that people to buy from your competitors instead of you? What if you responded politely to them, and then they shot back at you with full force? Maybe you’d respond politely again, and then even more customers jumped on the bandwagon to attack you. They piled on. (Oh, I’ve got lots of examples in mind.) Maybe then you’d try to moderate the group, perhaps arguing that these are competitor “plants” and “moles” (and, heck, they certainly could be).
Would you shut it down? Or would you be able to go the distance? To let the bells of free speech ring, even in their loud and disharmonious tones?
I think the topic of “how do we create a community” or “how do we control our community” completely misses some essential points about communities. Some of the most exciting aspects of communities come from their grassroots nature and the fact that communities will tell you the truth. When people gather collectively into communities that care about products, lifestyles or consumption acts, they are empowered to act as truth-tellers.
But a lot of the time managers business-people just don’t want to hear the truth. “You can’t handle the truth!” Jack Nicholson screamed in A Few Good Men. I actually think companies can definitely, certainly handle the truth. But it’s messy. It creates new work. Work we’re not currently set up to handle. It’s difficult. It’s personal and human and unpredictable. And it’s not always that “validating” of the status quo and the way we usually do things around here.
Here’s a somewhat risky thought.
Why don’t we think about online communities as “electric communities” who are, in a different sort of way, experimental “parties” experimenting with their own newfound “electric” powers. What about the “Acid Test” they are forcing upon companies and their managers? Will it open up the Corporate Doors of Perception? What happens then? What is Corporate Enlightenment in the Age of Electric Community? How does this test reveal, just like LSD ASCs and access to higher realms of consciousness did for the neophyte Merry Pranksters and Pranksterettes, what you’re truly made of?
How does it reveal who drank the corporate Kool-Aid? And what that Kool Aid’s laced with after all?