Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Online Community Vs. Local Community

There's something peculiar about online communities: they often have nothing to do with offline communities. There is frequently no effort on the part of online community builders to give their members the means of connecting offline. This is both odd and expected. It's odd because basically everyone is online these days, so why wouldn't you bring existing friendships with you when you join an online community? And it's expected because of the history of online community: back in the MUD days, they were (more or less) explicitly conceived as a refuge from the "real world": they were designed to be communities that would treat their members better than the rude, superficial, and cruel world that they inhabited during their offline hours.

It may be understandable why developers set out to build communities that are self-contained destinations, but increasingly this is an unsustainable position. TechCrunch weighs in on the latest example of this: Facebook and MySpace creating iPhone versions of their software that do not include location awareness:

Facebook, MySpace Ignore Location On iPhone At Their Peril
This article hit especially close to home for me. As it happens, I've been working on a project where we hoped to connect an online community to the offline world by building an event planner into the site. And I'm sure MySpace and Facebook developers had similar ideas of their own. The problem is that you soon run into the lawyers: if your community website facilitates an event that takes place offline where a sexual predator manages to connect with an underage member of your community, your company might end up in court. Now, of course the odds are excellent that you will win that case, because legislation grants safe harbor for internet providers from the actions of their users. But most companies -- and in particular most company lawyers -- would much rather avoid that situation in the first place, and they'll happily put obstacles in the path of community members who want to meet their online friends offline.

The fact that this behavior is understandable does not make it a good business decision. When I was just out of college, it was OK to think of online and offline as two distinct worlds. I did meet up with online friends in real life, but that tended not to go so well and I didn't do it often. That attitude is increasingly meaningless today, especially among teenagers and young adults. They don't go online just to meet new people, they go online to meet with the same people they already hang out with offline, and your community is just one more communications mechanism for them. If you only allow them to communicate along certain approved lines, they will find somewhere else to hang out. And, judging by the frenzy that has accompanied the release of location-aware iPhone applications, one thing that people today definitely want to do is use the internet to connect in real life with their friends.

In short, online community needs to foster offline community, and vice versa. That capability needs to be in there, even if a few lawyers lose sleep over it. No doubt you will not be able to ignore their concerns entirely, though, so prepare for that battle. Put in safeguards that warn your members about the risks of releasing personal information. Include an informational page advising them how to stay safe online (you can't make them read it, but having it there is a show of good faith). Don't try to block your members from disclosing personal information via your site, but make very sure that you don't disclose that information yourself. And, just to be safe, get someone high in your company to buy into your community plan before you run it past the lawyers. If (when) they object, you'll need friends in high places.

If you can get the plan off the ground, the idea is a very powerful one. Online friendships should absolutely foster and enhance offline friendships; that's what a strong, vibrant community should do. A company that's afraid of the community that it builds should not be in the web community business.