Context more than content is why networks matter

A core anomaly of online engagement is that discussions that drive the most interesting conversations are invariably a collective answer to a common question.

Yet Q & A as a model works very poorly, if at all.

The idea that we gather around specific topics is actually less true than that we group ourselves first around people we know or want to know, communities that breed trust and the networks we inhabit. What we discuss is important, but less so than the people we discuss it with.

It’s a powerful distinction that engagement, at its core, is less topical than it is contextual.

Andrew Kennedy, CEO of Vintage141, linked me this piece from the New York Times comparing Jelly, the Biz Stone Q & A app, with Need, an under-the-radar competitor.

A perfect case-in-point of how context and content interplay.

I put the apps through their paces with four questions: need a contractor, help with a tech question, best mobile app for wine buying, and searching for a specific niche expert.

A simple test drive.

A few responses popped up, though nothing new and interesting. The respondents were mostly people I knew, and had answered similar questions when I posted on the open web.

I’m not denigrating the apps (although both are seriously impossible to find in the app store). They are inspired and very brand new with uncertain UXs. And besides their differences, neither has figured out what engagement means. Jelly is lighter, more ambitious, image focused, driving short gestures more often. Need felt more conversant, leaner, less arbitrary, with community managers weighing in to juice the search.

The gist of this though is less about the apps and which will win (if either does)–and more about the interplay of context and content.

These Q & A apps are, by design, parasitic to our personal networks.

They don’t build communities, they simply aggregate ours around their single function ask and receive. Their premise is that asking simple questions is a singular behavior and a driver cross new groups.

I’m not a believer.

If I loaded all of my networks with all of my good will and connections, and so did 100,000 others, these apps would certainly have some depth.

People would then friend me within the app, and the molecular magic of extended connections would become viral. This is the end game by design for these apps.

But why would I want to do this?

Does an encapsulated question add anything at all to simply tweeting or posting a need?

I don’t think so.

Life is all about questions and answers, sharing and bantering. The question may be the handshake, but the networks are the participants and the connections, by default, the gestures of approval. It’s not a separate need.

The experiment was interesting though.

We all live intra network and cross community. Across the big ones like Facebook and Twitter, Instagram and our blog communities. Niche groupings. Offline clubs. Work and play.

Groups and flash communities are always forming and reforming, brought together by occasion or need. They are time–not location– based, topical in intent, and contextual as they cut across our networks and recombine in all new groupings.

These apps are premised on the question being the nexus of connection.

I think the key piece that creates structural gravity is never the question or the content, it is each of us as the center of our own gaggle of networks. In this case, it’s the singer more than the song that sets the rhythm.

When we need something, or simply want to share online, it bounces around our interconnected world, down handshakes of connections and into other ecosystems and other’s networks.

A few years ago, this post would have ended with a statement that there was a growing trend to create more niche communities of interest and an organic interconnection of communities connected by something like Disqus.

This feels less right now.

Especially as our attentions gets focused smaller on our mobile screens and more individualistic on what we, as individuals, need at the moment to make our offline lives better.

We all know that the more individual freedom there is within a community, the stronger it becomes as a whole.

My sense is that the more there are tools that let me exercise the same freedom and control, cross network and cross community, in an instant, the broader those connections themselves will become and the more empowered each of us will be as the center of them.



Collective memory and the social web

The singular dna of the web is connections.

Call it community if you wish. Consider it a flash occurrence or an ongoing event. Define it as a gesture or a comment, a wall utterance or a full-blown blog community.

The one thing that the web does so powerfully is to engage others while we experience life ourselves. And to create a dynamic collective memory of a shared experience.

As powerful as this is, it is also quite new.

The comment string of my post on 9/11 was full of outbursts of ‘where I was’ and ‘do you remember’. It was clear that as recently as a decade ago, before the social web existed, we experienced this attack without broad community support, and it left many of us isolated in our thoughts and memories.

If this happened in the last five years, our memories would have been shared, our feelings commemorated in countless posts and photos. The sense of understanding greater, more widespread because of the community around it with the web as our platform.

Every day now, with Facebook, Twitter and blog communities, experience around most every public event, from the horrors of mass shootings to the media shares around Breaking Bad have their platform and a shared memorial to the event.

This is the status quo for all of us today.  We live in the dailies of our own life movies. This is nothing but positive, nothing if not a giant evolutionary step forward.

I’ve always believed the web’s greatest value was in the connections that it enables and the new memories it creates. I first started thinking about this around my mom’s birthday a few years ago. I wrote a post back then about how her generation had missed the great upside of connecting and making new friendships as age, mobility and ennui closed the door on the future for them

Memory is the encapsulation of conjoined events in time.

Individually they affirm our past actions to ourselves but they also isolate and freeze time rather than making it a step to something more.

Collectively, memories meld people together, build a base of shared reality to create ties for the future.

Community is, in many ways, that entity that keeps layering on intersections of instances in time, engendering trust and understanding and building steam for future connections as the group broadens and deepens.

I believe this will be a large part of the web’s legacy.

Collective memory as an idea is also a powerful filter for those of us building products or communications platforms, communities or networks.

What we realize about the social web especially, is that once we stop flagellating around like adolescents and start thinking about shared events or ideas as connectors, questions like why our customers or friends should care or share come into focus. We stop counting KPIs and start thinking about the why of connecting with people.

Once we internalize that community happens on the street witnessing an event, online around a discussion, or in a connection around a homeless pet for adoption, we are understanding that inclusiveness, even around the most divisive topics builds bonds, community and social memory.

We talk community. We lionize context as the pinnacle of design. We equate platforms to places and the ease of creating friendship to the new norm that the web somehow makes possible.

All are true.

Facebook works because it gives collective voice to being part of an event or an emotion, a decision or a memory. If it is about anything, it is about collective affirmation.

When I look at closed groups on the web, they are striving towards the same, dragging connections and re-forming them to collectively discuss or commemorate.

In many ways, network effects is just that, at an atomic level. Connecting, experiencing and memorializing. Repeat infinitely and you have not only a key cultural and behavioral truth behind network effect but of virality itself.

Tech pundits say that Twitter, Facebook and Linked In have sucked the social oxygen for innovation out of the web.  I’m thinking just the opposite. These platforms are the railroads before the roads, the express trains before there was a need for the local stop.

Our social memory on the web is just hardly a generation old. The things that billions of people do daily barely had names five years ago. We are at the most nascent stage of social evolution.

Today, for the most part, local and neighborhood are web empty. Extended intersecting communities that leapfrog off the big nets are just being defined. And marketplaces building on the transactionless nature of the big social nets are just starting to pop up everywhere.

Technology has been the core driver of change and innovation for the last two decades. No longer.

My sense is that evolving behaviors, shifting cultures, new ways of consuming, decentralized communities and flash events are the catalyst and the direction for what’s coming next.

Flash community as the new normal

For a long time, community online was really an aspiration for a communal place to hang out.  Virtual worlds were just that. You went there, avatar firmly on your head, milled around and bumped into others.

Social nets like Facebook were built on that premise as well.

You go there and run into friends. You get call backs to engage through email and text. You are encouraged to post then nudged to reengage when Liked or commented on. Facebook is all about its place as the center of the web, even the world.

This idea of a centralized online world, url-specific, will end up in a museum alongside dioramas of Pleistocene era cave dwellers and the Dodo bird. Evolutionary end points are happening right in front of us.

The change may take some time, but it will happen.

The premise that place online matters at all is just not grounded in reality. Offline, no question, but the metaphor of the online world mirroring offline is a legacy myth that is fraying at the edges.

The social web is not about platforms, not about places you go, not even at a core level about groups. It’s about you and me experiencing it in real time.

Community happens on the web because each of us is given the biggest chair in the room, the microphone for the planet to listen to our views. Because of the predominance of each of us as individuals.

Social animals that we are, we have the natural drive to couple into groups, but it all starts with each of us singularly first. We as individuals, not the group, are the atomic element of community.

I’ve been mulling about this for a while and I keep coming back t0 two core premises:

-That community lives exactly wherever we are at the moment, cross platform and network.

-That time not place is the matrix for connection. That all communities are in a way, flash occurrences in time.

Community exists because each of us is a superset of all of our connections across all of our networks. We rise to the top of them as they self organize themselves under us.

Attempts to aggregate them will simply not work. (See You can’t airlift community). Attempts to force people to join a common intergroup to participate fall flat. (My blog discussion around 9/11 was happening at the same time on four different networks with me as the only point of common reference.)

The social nets don’t provide any real context. We populate them with friends and colleagues, different mixes in different places. Some are heavier in tech, some in wine, some in something else. But any of them could be the best source of information for just about any topic. Serendipity happens regardless of how well we choose our connections, not because of it.

The belief that the antidote to the signal/noise conundrum on the web is curation is temporary at best. The true answer to found value and the most natural direction for discovery is community. Flash community that is formed cross network, around each of us, at any time wherever we are.

I’ve been kicking around the idea of Flash Communities for a long time.  Three years ago I wrote a post about the idea of communities cropping up around media driven events. Events today are simply wherever we are, with our interactions an event in its own right, pulling our networks along with us.

Today, when I put out a post that catches the market’s attention, it surfaces on Twitter, crosses to Facebook, back to my blog, populates my inbox with messages. I’ll be asked at my next in person meeting perhaps. The pundits will call this successful content marketing. They are wrong.

This is community, pure and simple, grounded in an event, based in time.

Why does Kickstarter work when there is no community? It works because a project touches someone who shares it, creating flash communities and connections from one side of the web to another, to your dinner table and to discussions with friends at the wine bar.

Why does the web, for all its oceanic storms of movement and over abundance of content, feel calm and easy to navigate today?  The dynamics we’ve created on various networks have created a social gravity of sorts, around each of us that cuts through proprietary protocols, cuts through all of these groups, and coalesces in instances around needs and ideas.

How does this relate to how we build products and companies? How we act on the web?

Not so simple.

We will continue to create apps and websites for specific associations or context-rich connections around common bounds. That is how people think and how human magnetism drives groupings and attractions, conscious or not.

But the connecting loops need to be cross platform, cross the web, cross our online and offline lives. With community in mind as the purest filter for context and each person as the moving center of their own self sorting world of interconnections.

It’s not all that clear how to do this.

For myself, I start with a focus on inclusion as the organic dna of communities. I avoid exclusion as a poise, as closed structures invariably fall flat and inevitably stifle growth. The web seems to embrace openness and rankles at discriminating behaviors in both action and design.

I focus on how ideas interlock with value and drive their own communities of interest based on singular events. I don’t think  about places but about time and attention as currency, and the dynamic that drives connections. And how connections bring others, to one topic, at one time, in a communal exchange.

This is community food for thought.

I admit, its easy to see that change is happening. It is way harder and more interesting figuring out where this plays out for how we use, build and capitalize on this changing community nature of the web. This is my first shot at it.

Contextualizing intent…

This is what marketers do.

Context is that dynamic space couched between what we sell as companies and what our customers believe they buy. It’s the common ground of brand and community.

At its aspirational best, it’s the intersection of company intent and customer need, both market filter and customer aggregator.

Think of it this way.

Companies sell value, beliefs and a future you as a package, not a product in a catalog. They sell a shared tomorrow of satisfaction and empowerment. This is true for sports clubs, Audi dealerships and dating sites. True for empowering tech, consumer gadgets and social nets. True for Armani and cruise lines alike.

It’s the tangible environment for creating shared value that shows up in customer loyalty and price premiums. And it is true for most everything we buy except pure commodities.

Products have never been simply the digits or atoms from which they are made. We buy in order to do certain things (think tech or sports gear), but objectivity fades on first use. Or even before if the sale was a referral. The brilliance of early Amazon customer reviews captured this perfectly and embedded personal customer selling into objective catalogue shopping.

The rub is that products are invariably an approximation of the promise behind them. This is probably more true today than ever before, as we can build and market earlier and more easily in a global web market.

Those of us in the business of making products know the drill well. The slide from big idea to customer experience is a long road of approximation; a honing that is often reduced to throwing out what doesn’t work in the hopes of discovering what truly does. That’s just reality, exacerbated 1000x when the gestalt of the product in any way depends on the network of users who adopt it.

This changes the marketing game completely, making the best solution to wire intent and customer context into the bits of the product itself.

This is why I’m so stuck that Value needs to be sold. Why a sales and creative marketing mentality connecting early product intent with customer want is just common sense. The best companies, even at an embryonic state, practice the craft of giving the customer something they didn’t really know they wanted until they made it their own. They do this with the rawest of materials and the most simplistic products, but with the most passionate and articulate intent.

This is intent contextualized in the nucleus of a product, the dynamics of selling and shared ownership with your customers.

The crystallization of intent, of course, is nothing unless bought into by the market. The chasm between intent as the honed idea of what you are about, and how to connect with those who just might care, is always the acid test for company survival.

Context, not the science of marketing, is the bridge here.

Most companies know who they are and what value they bring. They may not have articulation down to a phrase, but passion personified not perfection captured is the key to company positioning.

But most sputter and stall at the contextualization of it. This is hard, self-conscious work, deeply informed by experience and prey to luck and market realities.

Companies, for the most part, just don’t get this. They just throw stuff against the market wall. Passive aw-shucks marketing at its very worst. It just doesn’t work.

If you don’t take a stand for what you are about from first market contact, expecting the market to discover that for you is shortsighted foolishness. Build it and they will come is a cute phrase, but devoid of reality and sense as either tactic or strategy.

Connecting with a market, finding the contextual reality that enables you to get found by the right people in an environment where you can engage and sell  your value is what this is about.

If you buy into this (and I do!), it stylizes how you build your company, your product and your marketing outreach.

It’s also empowering and enforces the reality that we do indeed make our own luck by working smarter and harder, and with more focused intent than everyone else. Most importantly, it pushes us to dig deep into our own beliefs of why we can matter to our customers, and focus on getting a bit of the market’s attention rather than chasing trends or competition.

Contextualizing intent is my way to thinking about how to create markets and communities that are willing to be sold to. How to make decisions on what and how to build campaigns, brands and even the products themselves.

Winning companies do this. They may not use these terms but their intent is invariably the same. Great marketers are their guides in making this happen.


Trading places….

I’m web inspired. A junkie almost.

Since the moment I first connected, I’ve been driven to build stuff that is fueled by the web as a runway for human potential. Been enraptured with its community possibilities. Firmly on the speeding train of a changed, always connected, and better world.

The idea of a globally local community has transformed my life in tangible ways.

Something has changed though.

The dramatic potential of the web as a platform for connecting and seamlessly transacting pales in comparison to the immense possibility of what it can do for us at the street level. And how little it actually does today.

When people talk about mobile, I think about a connected human touch. When people talk about apps, I pine for something that connects, not just informs. Something that is actionable beyond a transaction or a reservation.

I think there is an evolutionary turn at play here.

Think about it.

We’ve pushed everything transactionable online. From cars to artisanal honey, from telephone services to dating. Databases are the sinews of the web with transactional hooks that level the tangle of real world obfuscation around access to and delivery of most every hard good for sale.

We’ve built a definitive science around parsing traffic data, and codified the behavioral assumptions about the when, why and value of every click to a shopping cart.

And in the current social renaissance of behavioral awareness, we’ve put a human face behind every action online. Today even the techiest realize that the web is all about the people, not the platform. Even the biggest brains in the data crunching world realize that understanding extended human behavior and applying it through marketing is key to building markets.

Data is just the wave, the rider is the consumer.

I’m still enthralled and work with the humanization of connections and commerce online every day. I’m unabashed about my childish enthusiasm for each new marketplace that surfaces in yet another niche of needs. I’m excited that the stranglehold of transactional charges online that make the most innovative ideas still slave to the core financial institutions is being circumvented.

But… I’m really most inspired by the unchartered wild west of possibilities that is happening right in front of me on the street. Where the meshing of a digital web and a very-much-so analog life is starting to be played out at a raw, very early stage.

There have been a new wave of posts lately about Internet fatigue and how it makes us pine for more human contact. There’s a new surge of interest, especially in the video chat world, in making the connections online more real, more visceral and less virtual.

I think the real key is not pushing data to the web to let us play in that humanized cyber sandbox. It’s pushing the data and connections from the web down, so it informs us with the power of information, but in a more real context. Not in web terms but in human terms.

A truly interesting phenomenon has taken place.

We’ve built a digital mirror of select pieces of the real world. We’ve done amazing things with conversations and communities to come ever closer to real human connections online.

But walking down the street, focused on the intimate and contextually defined space of my phone, tech is action and apps are tools and community happens…well, much as it used to.

The future is less about making it more visceral and real online, and more about making it more informed and natural on our digital devices right here on the street as I jump out of the subway.

Somewhere in this changing current is why I rarely feel the need to disconnect. My dream vacation is not one without a phone. My ideal world is where connections inform the real and conform to the context of my life seamlessly, not move me away from the experience at the moment.

I’m responding emotionally to an intellectual curiosity of how to switch the mirror, how to trade places and refocus our attention to make tech more the servant and us less the metaphor.

What’s missing is not technology hooks but possibly a new language as a connector.

I’m interested in companies that are trying to crack the natural language code of a mobile reality . Not voice recognition but a language that lets me communicate what I’m thinking on a mobile device, as I think it. Without the mental truncations needed for Twitter or the iconization of everything as an image of Instagram or Facebook.

Sometimes both the truncated phrase and the capture image work and amaze, usually they are noise badly in need of a filter.

This is a really hard want.

Creating context on a device too small for our input is a paradox. Creating community amongst users while still needing to establish instant context in a personal space the size of a phone is daunting at best.

And the hardest: taking the geographically flat landscape of the the web and using it as a tool to connect people geo adjacent to each other. And the Philosopher’s Stone for every terrestrial business, connecting the customers both geo adjacent and behaviorally inclined with merchants just around the corner.

As hard as this is, the upside is a change as great as the web has changed our life to date.

And as hard as it is, it is less unimaginable honestly than the world as it is today looked just a half a generation ago.