Relationships are important. In socio-economic terms, they build social capital, which, generally speaking, builds great positive social change and fosters economic stability and growth. In an online community, relationships are critical to the evolution and success of the community. They are the key ingredient to collaboration and innovation. These things evolve from a group of people interacting in “flow“, a mental state of intense, creative, and purposeful focus. [The term “flow” was coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 60’s and has grown into a full-fledged Positive Psychology movement. Read Csikszentmihalyi’s paper on flow here.]
In an online community, where interactions are virtual, and everyone is geographically displaced or isolated, how does that sense of trust and loyalty develop?
In our digital age, the definition of relationship is in flux. Social media is re-shaping our perceptions of what constitutes a relationship. In this loosely threaded, shifting technological atmosphere, social media analysts may feel compelled to deem an interaction a “relationship” when a couple people chatter in 140 character messages over a hashtag on something as fleeting as “#tCON2011”. The benefit of these interactions tend to be more informational than relational. These people are perhaps sharing ideas, but to see these interactions as developing a relationship would be an overstatement.
Rather than building relationships, these exchanges, one after another, begin to form an informational fabric of interweaving facts and ideas on a topic. That information then travels in concentric circles, like ripples in a pond, throughout an individual’s social network. But do those ripples constitute or even build the things that relationships are made of? In a professional setting, good relationships are imbued with things like loyalty, trust, decorum. And they are built slowly, over time, so as to be sustainable and prosperous for the long term.
It is possible for relationships to stem from these informational exchanges, but in order for those relationships to be optimal, there has to be more.
Currently, many social media practitioners have bent the notion of relationships. They see a maelstrom of tweets on a topic and connect the dots between those individuals sharing them, and voila: relationships…connections…social networks…audience…market. There can certainly be a causal relationship between those tweets and their sales goals. But let’s not call them what they are not. These are brand-building excercises; strategies to create more mind-share in order to sell more widgets. They are not relationships.
For focused online communities, where collaboration and innovation are paramount, relationships must be real. What I mean by this is that the relationship has to be built up on a strong foundation of shared values, shared vision, and there must be an incredibly deep sense of trust and loyalty. In order to build that foundation, I think it’s critical to consider the importance of real-world connection.
The strongest online communities are comprised of people with real-world ties. The nuance of true interpersonal interaction, the stuff that builds deep trust and loyalty, can only be had face-to-face.
These critical real world interactions can happen before an online community is established or after. For example, a company may see the value in having an online community comprised of innovators and entrepreneurs to solve some of the world’s greatest social injustices. For the group to really dig in and solve these complex problems, they are going to likely need an annual symposium, and maybe some local chapter meet-ups once a quarter. Or maybe a real-world working group already exists, and the creation of an online community springs from their need to have online collaboration tools. In either case, the trust and loyalty each group has is exponentially increased by their offline, real-world interactions. This then makes it possible for that group to swing into flow.
By the way, if you want to know more about flow and other things that motivate us humans, read Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.
And check out this handy diagram for Flow: