Technology is transforming the way we many of us communicate. From those queuing up to join the “privacy aware” social network Diaspora and the half a billion Facebook users to Africans bartering call-time on mobile phones through cellular banking and the countless Brazilian users of Google Orkut. We are all becoming connected.
The Internet began as an infocentric medium and has evolved into what is colloquially known as version 2.0 where user action, networking and creativity are critical. As the technology advances we can anticipate the emergence of a semantic web, a system where the machines begin to understand what we are saying and searching stretching way beyond the almost trivial announcements of Google Instant Search.
Increasingly, communication is about coordination and collective intelligence, crowd sourcing and the like, citizen science, guerrilla journalism, and microblogging.
“In this era of shared information, digital networks have emerged to support online communities of like-minded people who use this space for a variety of objectives and outcomes from the purely altruistic to purely commercial,” explains Tanuja Singh of St. Mary’s University, in San Antonio, Texas.” They have transformed how we communicate and relate to others, how we create, propagate and strengthen alliances, and how these alliances are used to support causes, ideas and interests.”
Crucially, the strong and growing communities are restricted not by geographic or political constraints but only by the imaginations of their members, and as we have seen time and again, human imagination seems to be unbounded.
Singh and colleague Joe Cullinane of Cullinane Media in Palo Alto, California, assert how the US presidential election of 2008 was one of several firsts. The first African-American to win the election, the first female candidate, and the first time online was as important as offline on the campaign trail. This, once again, emphasises how digital communities are changing human behaviour in significant ways.
“Social networks have emerged not merely as communication tools for a generation of technology savvy users but also as organising, planning, fundraising, job-seeking and niche marketing devices by average citizens as well as large and small corporations and not-for-profits,” the pair adds. Writing in the International Journal of Electronic Marketing and Retailing, they explain the fundamentals of social networks and point out how despite the rapid assimilation of these various tools and systems into our lives over the last few years, they remain in their infancy and there are teething problems to be dealt with, spilled milk to be mopped up, and growing pains to be coped with.
The focus of Singh and Cullinane’s paper is the business of social networks and they offer several rules for companies hoping to benefit from these networks. However, the same rules could be applied equally to a not-for-profit organisation, a learned society, a niche network hoping to recruit new members and expand, and even individual creative types hoping to achieve fame and fortune:
- Understand your audience
- Assess your goals for the community
- Investigate how weak and strong ties operate in the network
- Give members a reason to participate in a community
- Foster levels of interactions among members
- Give up control of your content
- Make sure there are benefits to being in the network
Tanuja Singh, & Joe Cullinane (2010). Social networks and marketing: potential and pitfalls Int. J. Electronic Marketing and Retailing, 3 (3), 202-220