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.

Free Netnography Book Links Here: Finally!!!

Netnography by KozinetsIt’s been a long time since I wrote this blog. Been a long time, been a long time, been a long….lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time. Actually, not all that lonely, but unbelievably busy, with teaching starting up, teaching social media finishing (finishing well, too), articles to review, articles written and submitted, book chapters done, serving on the JCR Policy Board, travel, and so on and so forth.

But once you get Led Zeppelin into your mindstream, it’s like a chronic thing. You can ask my Wyoming colleague Kent Drummond or the brilliant writer Erik Davis all about it. Erik’s book about Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin’s Led Zeppelin IV (33 1/3), is one of the most inspired and inspiring pieces of music scholarship I’ve ever read.

Okay. Last post, written almost a century ago by Internet standards, promised you free online access to my new Netnography: Doing Ethnographic Research Online
book.

As those of your outside of Europe may have noticed, that didn’t happen. Surprisingly—and somewhat disappointingly, I might add—there was no angry revolt on this blog. No pushback at all. You were all very well behaved, like polite Canadians who will stand in the cold for 3 hours, in the middle of a blinding blizzard, just so they can pay their ridiculously high parking tickets on time. I was hoping more for angry, ravenous, outraged complaints.

“Kozinets, you promised me a damn book. Google books doesn’t even offer me a limited preview. Just a stinking cover and table of contents. Now you deliver that book unto me immed-ee-ate-ly or I swear, I am gonna…”

Okay. I’m starting to scare myself. You get the picture.

But despite your lack of expressed outrage, I was more than a little annoyed. My esteemed academic publisher, Sage, had promised Google Books access for January. Indeed, when I checked with them, they thought it was being delivered—because it was in Europe (as some of you already know).

But not in many other parts of the world, like the USA and Canada. This was a problem, apparently, widespread, with Google Books. Google Books has a checkered history of showing a lot of books that the authors didn’t want seen. Oops. Now, its gone the other way around. It won’t show the books that the authors do want people to see. Go figure.

Harriet Baulcombe at Sage, on of their finest marketing managers, has actually been scrambling for me to find a solution, and at last, we have it.

The book is available free online now as an ebook for you to read and review in its entirety. You can just click here.

If you want it all spelled out the link is at http://dc.eb20.com?v=A7Y1YlJaCVIQhKLFZCIP1wFxjb487z8M.

You do need to register, but you then can access the ebook for up to 30 days, but the link only works for the month of February.

If you are the type of person who likes to invest in the future beyond February, or who enjoys the feel of a dead tree-based book in their hands (and who doesn’t), then you have options.

The book is also for sale as an ebook via ebooks.com at http://www.ebooks.com/ebooks/book_display.asp?IID=480095 or simply click here. But, apparently, not yet for the Kindle (or iSanitaryPad, I presume).

Or you can invest your money in a bright and shiny netnographic future by buying it from Amazon here: Netnography: Doing Ethnographic Research Online. Maybe you can ask your library to buy it, then you can keep renewing it and borrowing it and reading it for free forever. Wow: think about that.

Sage has also been working with Google HQ to try to find solutions, so they may also have it up at some point on Google Books, too.

Either way, I am happy now because I have been able to keep my promise to you, oh faithful, undemanding, and perhaps-a-bit-too-well-mannered-and-complacent Gentle blog readers.

So if you are interested in how to do netnography (online ethnography), and what netnographers have found, and what some of the latest and most exciting and inspiring theories about online communities and social media area, and where that field is going, go get the book for free right now, read the book, and let me and the world know what you think. Your life will then be complete and perfect in every way. I can most sincerely promise you that (my fingers are crossed behind my back, though, but don’t worry about that).

That’s all I’d really like is for you to read it and review it and thus be completely and utterly perfect and complete. Lots of you. Lots of comments. PLEASE review it on Amazon, or on the ebooks site (preferably Amazon…), write about it here, in your own blogs, post it on Facebook, on Twitter, on your social media sites. Tell us all (especially me) what you think. Don’t be so shy.

Be complacent and book-free, no longer, for the book is free and the time for complacency is nigh, oh ye of little MySpace.

Read the book. Spread the words. Review for the world. Read and Spread, oh ye who gather in the netnoverse of bloggy pals, Read and Spread.