Deep Thoughts, Second Life

Learning from Clever People: Lessons for Online Communities

So, the way this works is we’re all part of the new social media landscape. I friend you, like you, topsy-turvy you, and your social graph increases, your ‘influence’ grows, and before you know it you’re a guru because you’re rewteeted more often than the guy next to you, who might have a better idea but who hasn’t figured out how to get himself on the social graph.

I’ve been pegged as an evangelist not because of what I say particularly, but because for whatever reason people paid attention and the social graph said that they had done so (at least according to the theory of the social media experts in the crowd).

I wasn’t always an “evangelist” (and don’t think of myself as one), I was just someone who like to write about what he thought of virtual worlds and Second Life.

But the social graph had its way, and even though I don’t have that much useful to say, I’ll be labeled and tagged and, heaven forbid, always be the guy into the metaverse, my interest in cooking or esoteric Latin American literature notwithstanding.

The reality is that outside of the social graph, I’ll talk about a lot of things, I like to solve really weird problems and bring a grab bag of tools to their solution, but within the social graph I’m pegged in a certain way, and that’s fine, it’s intriguing in a way how that happens.

But over the course of several years blogging, there was something I discovered, and puzzled over, and wondered about:

We are told certain things about technology and how it works and what it means, but are these truisms? And did those truisms need to be that way?

You hear the phrase: “All digital content is copyable.” And this phrase has a whole bunch of other conclusions attached to it – like, since all content is copyable, the idea of IP when it comes to content is dead, and therefore business models need to arise which acknowledge the “copy reality” of our lives online.

But are these truly, well, truisms? People argue over whether Android or Apple will WIN – with one camp saying that Android will because only open systems ever win in the end, while another camp might say that Apple demonstrates that the truism about copying, the truism about open systems are merely hypothetical, there are more designs than there are meta-concepts, the rest is just punditry.

So if these truisms are a little more fluid than we think, is the idea of the social graph as cut-and-dried as people make it out to be?

Your World, Your Online Shopping and Socializing Experience

I was struck by a post at BBH Labs. They conclude that the above model of participant media suggests that companies ignore “clever people” at their peril.

And this struck me in particular because I believe, and have written about, the fact that Linden Lab has abandoned its “clever people”.

The Lab turned its back on “Your World, Your Imagination”, as Philip clearly did (and told me so, when I interviewed him at SLCC) and as others at the Lab continue to do.

In the discussions about mesh import, for example, Jack Linden made the point that “there are very few creators” in response to my question about the cultural implications of mesh. This implies that the number is significant, and equates a one-to-one relationship between how many people there are and the influence they have on the culture of an online community.

Jack (and others) would say that mesh changes very little, it doesn’t shift the emphasis out of the in-world experience, because the number of creators is very small.

Now….before I get pegged as being anti-mesh, I’ll state (again) for the record that I’ve been advocating for mesh for almost 3 years now.

But the larger significance is that the Lab’s principle concern is with a volume of people – that it’s the larger “casual users” who matter, the users who haven’t even arrived yet. Philip said to me: “And most of them will never rez a prim, so it’s not really ‘Your World, Your Imagination’ because for them, they’re just shopping and hanging out.”

Which may be true (although I’d argue that you enter a world of your own imagination no matter WHO you are, when you arrive in Second Life and many other online platforms) but places a certain literal faith in the power of numbers alone.

Overlooking Clever People
BBH concluded the following from the social/participatory graph (emphasis added):

It makes us stop and think about how unbelievably valuable the “catalytic creative contributor” is to any community. A digital community designer should want nothing more than to please this particularly small set of people. Even if most brands primarily monetize the “ninety percent”, there would be nothing for this group to engage without the catalytic creative contributor. They are the heart and soul of any community.

A quick glance through digital communities revealed that the highly successful ones clearly cater to this elite base. As we examined what these digital communities did for these special users, we noticed parallels to one of our favorite pieces of business literature ever written: “Leading Clever People” published a few years back in the Harvard Business Review (Goffee & Jones, March 2007) about how to lead those whose skills or knowledge in your organization make them disproportionately valuable. If you haven’t read it and manage people, may we politely suggest you leave our blog and Google it immediately.

This group may be an exceptionally small percentage of the internet, but it wouldn’t surprise us to see an increasing amount of digital experience design just for them. Gamification is a popular trend, but those subtly swimming against the current are seeing success. In fact, the best way to win the game with the masses may actually be by catering to the clever few.

And it made me wonder: does Linden Lab support the ‘catalytic creative contributor’ or has it outsourced that task to the code?

Do they think that by releasing new content creation tools that they’ve effectively managed this group? Or have they abandoned it altogether while they chase after the mass audience?

I mean, replace “SL” with “Digg” in the following from the BBH post and see if it fits:

Having a core base of hardcore creators is likely necessary for any digital experience. However, it’s easy to lose sight of the other value those content creators bring: a passionate base of advocates and recruiters. It’s similar to the idea of Propagation Planning (“planning not only for the people you reach, but the people they reach”) and poses an interesting challenge to user experience designers. Digg and other supposedly “democratic” news systems know this well.

A review of the Top 100 Digg users shows what few people likely realize. A miniscule group actually controls what makes it onto the homepage. That sounds like the opposite of Digg’s offering, but in fact, those users are sought out by the audience because of their influence and reputation. Regular contributors (“editors” in 1:9:90 framework) go out of their way to Digg and link to what these people post. Digg gets traffic and self-propagates. They give these users preferential treatment (the front page favors their submissions), and as a result have a high quality product and a built-in extended audience.

But Is the Social Graph Everything?
Now, here’s the thing. I mean, it might be nice to get all kinds of tools and hand-holding and whatever if you’re a ‘catalytic creative’ but maybe these are truisms that either aren’t true, or aren’t the only truths out there.

Because we’ve been led to believe that the ‘social Web’ works a certain way, that it’s all about evangelists and referrals and influence and social graphs.

But like someone said in, um, Twitter – “Forget the social graph. Just stop making sucky products.”

And maybe there’s a deeper truth to that. Maybe right now it’s simply about making a product less, well, less sucky. One step at a time, plodding along, trying not to be so crappy.

And if that’s true, I’m not worried about social graphs, I’m happy not to worry too much about creative catalysts or whatever, if the end game is a better experience, a better product and better service.

Problem is, that once you DO have a product that works, you might end up needing to tackle that social graph anyways, and you’d better hope there’s a few catalysts left to tell the rest of the world that you’re not so sucky anymore.

Because whether digital or not, having someone tell their friend about how awesome you are is still the best referral of all.


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