Exiting the Social Boom and the Entering the Era of Transformational Communities

I feel very fortunate to have established a career developing communities (both on and offline) over the last 20+ years. During this time, I’ve seen a steady series of boom and bust cycles for “community” – large waves of investment and development followed by retreat and divestment. During the transition times between the cycles, one of my favorite questions to ask friends and colleagues in the space is: “Where are we on the map?”

We Need a New Map

We are in another period of community investment and growth, fueled in part by COVID-driven restrictions that prevent us from connecting in-person. There is also reason to believe that this wave will actually break the invest/retreat cycle we’ve seen since the late 90’s, and put community (as a concept, practice and industry) on a path towards sustainable growth and development. As such, we are largely entering new territory, and there aren’t maps for where we need to go.

Over the past 2 years, through a combination of primary research and a hosted Mastermind community (the Cohere project) I’ve been thinking about this new territory and how to begin our journey through it. In the post below I attempt to summarize my thinking by giving an overview of:

1. Three focal areas community leaders need to pay attention to;

2. The exiting of the long “Social Boom” and a notional look at what the next epoch of community might look like;

3. How community strategy is evolving

3 Focal Areas

There are many things that shape the opportunity and need for community development. Some are technical, some are societal, others relate to individual human behavior. The list below intends to highlight what I consider the three most important and consequential areas.

  1. Global Internet access – in the next 10 years, the majority of the rest of the world will come online, bringing all the opportunities and issues we’ve witnessed in the developed world, along with a whole host of new ones. We (collectively) are wholly unprepared for this change in almost every way, with issues ranging from policy, to security, access rights and more.

2. “Humanity’s Graph”- Mark Zuckerberg’s stroke of genius was realizing that not only was an individual’s digital data incredibly valuable, but their network of relationships (both actual and possible) was as well. In the coming years, the pressure of competition, policy, technology and individual behavior will crack open these currently frozen and proprietary social graphs to create a global mesh that will essentially be “Humanity’s Graph.”

3. The impact of exponential technologies – Exponential technologies are defined as technologies that double in power and/or speed, or the cost drops by at least half annually. An example is the combinatorial effect of AI, machine learning and automation that not only shapes your experience on a social network like Facebook, but can also participate in that experience as a non-human actor.

Any one of these focal areas alone is powerful. We are literally struggling to imagine the combinatorial effect of all three.

The End of the Social Boom

Web-based online communities have been around since… well, the inception of the web. News to you? OMG read a book. Starting in the late-2000s, the grass roots dynamics of the early web (which felt very much like a giant community) shifted to increasingly centralized social media and social network sites and apps, with Facebook drawing the lion’s share of global attention and engagement.

For community leaders working within large brands, this myopic focus on social media has wreaked havoc on community programs – from creating dissonance around the concept of community, a misguided predisposition to invest in social media presences and the unfortunate tendency to relegate (and isolate) community programs to functional areas within the business, usually support. This is an especially vicious cycle, as “enterprise class” platform investments can be well over 7 figures annually, essentially creating community programs with multi-million dollar investments in people and tech that, at best, are just breaking even with their resulting cost savings. This practice stifles more strategic conversations about community strategy and the possible value of community.

Fortunately, we are seeing green shoots popping up everywhere that signal a community spring of sorts. From innovative (and lower cost) platforms, to community organizations being integrated into the fabric of the business. More nuanced conversations about the value of communities, and an equitable distribution of that value between host and member are being had.

As we exit the Social Boom, what’s next for communities? An era I’m optimistically dubbing “Transformational Communities” – one that centers on the power of communities to transform individuals, groups and organizations for the better.

The Evolution of Community Strategy

To begin to explore, and eventually inhabit, this new territory, we need we need new ways of thinking, new methods of practice and new tools.

In particular, we have to break out of the pattern of relying on technology to dictate strategy. Legacy community platforms are hyper-optimized for support interactions and social media platforms are optimize user attention – laggards are stuck struggling with native functionality. We need to understand where community can add value to individual customer experiences and shift our thinking to the possibilities of creating value throughout the entire lifecycle of a customer relationship – Leading programs are investing here.

Future growth opportunities will be unlocked through a more sophisticated approach to community development, where every stakeholder has the opportunity to participate, and the “network of relationships” is seen as both a valuable asset and a catalyst for transformation.

Exploring the Territory

If you are interested in learning more, there are several opportunities:

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