Lately, I've been working on behalf of some Forrester clients to answer the question, "How do we build a community?" Frequently, the answer is, "You don't build a community. You expand it." Few communities appear ex nihilo at the behest of a technology vendor. More commonly, successful community sites identify an existing collection of like-minded people, then entice them to your site with something of value to them.
Developer communities are a good example. Megavendors like Microsoft, Oracle, and IBM have an easy time creating a community site, since there are already a lot of developers connected to these companies, and to each other. If SAP never created its own community site, somewhere in Social Media Land there would be a collection of technical professionals talking to each other about customizing and implementing SAP applications.
Smaller vendors, of course, don't have nearly as easy a time. If you're a sales force automation (SFA) vendor, for example, there are plenty of people out there interested in sales force effectiveness, but far fewer interested in your tool. Since developers have no direct stake in managing a sales force, you can't count on them to be interested in you in the same way that a sales VP might be. Therefore, it's hard to see why developers would participate in a SFA vendor's forums, except when they have an immediate question that needs answering. (Usually in the form of, "Why doesn't this work?")
These questions are nothing new. In fact, they long antedate social media technology, or even the computer industry. Way back in the early days of the social sciences, people were asking fundamental questions like Why do societies have boundaries? and How do groups hold together? The initial answers to these questions may help us understand what it takes to create a successful community site.
(Brace yourself for some academic language. I'm going to use a few fancy-sounding German terms because, quite honestly, they capture something that plain English can't. So, forgiveness please for this momentary lapse into Professor-Speak.)
One of these early social scientists, Ferdinand Tönnies, said that there were two forms of social organization. The earliest, Gemeinschaft, is based on ties that have little to do with reason, and everything to do with identity. Think of clan-based societies like the Apaches or the Vikings, and you have a rough picture of what Gemeinschaft is all about. The connections between people are based on shared experiences, common symbols, distinctive languages or dialects, and other things that have no practical purpose other than to delineate us from everyone else. Families are, in a microcosm, the closest thing to Gemeinschaft that we experience on a daily basis.
The more modern form of social organization, Gesellschaft, is based on those practical details missing in Gemeinschaft. Connections in the Gesellschaft world are social contracts, existing solely to accomplish a specific purpose. Contracts, bureaucratic structures, political parties — these are the familiar faces of Gesellschaft.
The ties of Gemeinschaft are lasting, often unbreakable. (The phrase "cultural Catholic" captures one such enduring connection.) The connections of Gesellschaft frequently change and disappear. Gemeinschaft appeals more to the heart, Gesellschaft more to the head. Both, confusingly, might be translated to mean community, even though they couldn't be more different from one another.
So what does this have to do with a vendor's developer community site? Quite a lot, actually.
Usually, the vendors behind a community site are making an appeal to Gesellschaft-like thinking. Come to our site, they say, because you have some connection to us. Unfortunately, these connections are extremely weak, and by no means defining. If I work in a company that has implemented RightNow, I have an occasional incentive to visit the RightNow site. I won't hang out there, however, for either practical or emotional reasons. I'm in, I'm out, and any effort to make the site "sticky" just gets in my way.
Meanwhile, Web sites that don't help me with my daily work often get more of my attention. Whatever my interests — thrash metal, the TV series Glee, fishing, Episcopalianism — the community sites where people talk about these matters, sharing experiences and tips, stating opinions about the things they care about, often attract more of my time than, say, the Oracle Technology Network.
There are exceptions to this rule. Open source sites, for example, seem to attract some very high levels of participation. While the commercial rewards for participating in open source may be low, the sense of collective purpose (and, by extension, collective identity) can be quite high. Therefore, open source sites emerge because of a pre-existing community of people who, for reasons rooted in both Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, need a forum in which to talk to each other. After participating in open source projects, developers often feel as though they're members of a general open source community, a connection that time spend on the Microsoft Developer Network or the Netweaver forums doesn't generate.
Therefore, it's important for vendors in building a "community site" to understand the community that may already exist, and therefore might see a vendor's forum as an extension of that community. The forces that hold the community together (say, Gemeinschaft-like identity, Gesellschaft-like practicality, or some combination of both) might connect its members to your site, if you're clever in providing the right incentives. And, if we had a chance to revise the language of social media, we might use the C-word a lot more sparingly, since real community is something you don't just create out of whole cloth.