The Dirty Secret of Online Communities

I can’t disclose the time, place, or people involved, and I’ve changed around the numbers, but I was recently at gathering where the social talk turned to business and the business was social media. The conversation went something like this:

“Joe”: Rob, my company is investing in social media like crazy now.

Me: Sounds good. What are you doing?

“Joe”: Well, aside from the Facebook fan-page and the PR firm we’ve hired to Tweet for us, we’re investing big in building online communities and forums from our web-sites. We’re building technical forums so people can help each other solve technical problems. It turns out that a call to our help lines costs us about ten dollars. When they solve it online themselves, that saves us the cost of a call. We’ve calculated our breakeven at saving a thousand calls a month.

“Anthony”: Do they really do that? Do they really just help each other out?

Me and Joe: You bet.

“Anthony”: Who are these people? Some technie geek guys who tinker around with stuff and still live in their mother’s basements [laughs]?

Joe [laughing]: Yeah, isn’t that amazing?

At that point, I get all reflective and brooding. I have heard variants of this particular conversation before. Many times, in fact.

What was that old definition of Web 2.0? “You do all the work, we keep all them money.” This is not the way social media was supposed to work.

Yes, we have known for a long time that people give freely and help each other in online and other types of communities. My research on on “virtual communities of consumption” may have been the first to note that online consumption communities function as a type of gift economy.

But it should be a far stretch from noticing that these networks offer assistance and help, to banking on that fact. Doing so is, in effect, using up or free-riding on a free resource and, even moreso, attempting to undermine the social logics of online communities by turning them into an economic resource. Yes, it’s very capitalist. But, like clear-cutting a thriving forest, it isn’t smart long-term management.

These notions, popular among consultants and business people alike, are going to come back and bite them.

Here is one way it will play out. There will be certain kinds of people, and certain kinds of advice, that may seep into those online communities. People will complain. Some of them will do the math. Some of these will get it right. The chatter will at some points be less about giving and more about taking.

Eventually, if the marketing or PR management-consumer relations are acrimonious enough and the offenses grevious and plentiful enough in scope, I believe, there will be organizing, activism, and perhaps regulation among community members. Consumers will request and perhaps be legally required to be paid for their labor, just like everyone else. The party will be over. It will have been crashed, corporate style. (Look familiar anyone?)

Or else they will just collectively agree to call your help lines. Get their friends and families to call. And call them a lot.

The other thing that sticks in my craw–and it is not unrelated to the first point- is the way these consumer community members are referred to in casual conversation by managers, consultants, and marketers. Online community members and technical contributors are referred to as lonely geeks who have nothing better to do with their time.

This phrasing reminds me so much of the way fans are regarded and refered to by many managers and marketers. The same alarming disrespect. The same infantilization. The same insulting, dismissive tone. The same sense that these people are okay to use and exploit because they are lower that us, not as good or as smart as us.

In my experience, those consumer often know the manager’s business better than the managers do. In fact, that’s why they make such excellent members of technical communities.

Those are the two dirty little secrets of online community. First, that it is being justified as a straight ROI play based on cheap labor power, where the company gets consumers to do something in the community for it for free or on the cheap. It can be tech support or other customer support. It could be innovation and coming up with or rating new ideas. It could be offering marketing or other feedback. The second secret is that some managers often refer to these consumers as socially backwards suckers, dupes, clever peons, and rubes.

A little later in our conversation, “Joe” said he was a bit surprised that very few consumers were joining up on his brand’s Facebook fan page, that almost none of the company’s many customers wanted to be known as fans of his company.

Well, go figure.


  1. Sloth February 9, 2010
  2. ronmeiners February 9, 2010
  3. debora vaisman May 7, 2010

Add Comment