Casual community building is something that I've encountered a lot over the years. Often people come to me wanting help in starting something online where a particular group of people can exchange views and share resources. Now this is a core activity of social media and one that can work well in a work related special interest group. However, mostly they end up being empty spaces of little or no activity, sometimes after great expense and frustration.
I've been reflecting on the issues behind this after reading Don't blame the technology on the excellent Learning Journey blog. The following extract rings true with me:
Sometimes I hear people saying: “I created a blog, but no one joined in”. Or “ I have just set up this network site…seemed to go well at first as some people joined, but now no one is doing anything in there”.
My first reaction is to ask, why did you set it up in the first place? What was the purpose? The answer usually is: for people to come together… to create the community! That’s fantastic…but then as we analyse the situation a bit further I am usually tempted to ask if they intend ‘to join the communal activity’ too or if their role was just to offer the space?!!! It always puzzles me!
What I still see most often is individuals creating a space in the hope it will just take off by itself – as if people would adhere to their brilliant ideas for no reason. The fact is that there isn’t lack of brilliant ideas in this world… we all think we have them! Creating spaces for people to congregate is definitely one of them…(we are always complaining about the lack of opportunity to network and share stuff, or that we don’t know what other people are doing and how much we would benefit from it… so it must be a terrific idea…!) but what makes brilliant ideas materialize in something really meaningful is the effort we ourselves put into it for it to develop and grow coherently.
The most important point here is the issue of devoting time yourself to the endeavour. It's something that nearly always isn't thought through or put into action and is the biggest single factor affecting community participation. Without a driving force, no social network or online community will take off. It doesn't matter how appropriate the space is to the needs of the group - it won't run by itself.
Unfortunately, I can predict all too easily whether such an online space will work or not and it's sad when people have spent time, effort and sometimes money setting something up only for it to fail. Even with this time and effort, there is no guarantee that a particular group of people will engage with it as there are a miraid of other factors to take into consideration. But it's safe to say without it there is no chance.