The year is almost half over and I haven't had the time to make a blog entry yet. Sorry for the long absence. I've been insanely busy this year and still am, but I attended Online Community Camp 2006 a "mash up conference" a week ago that I felt I should write a little about since I had a rare opportunity to compare notes with a large number of people in the online community world.
The format of this one day conference used audience participation to define the day's agenda. The topics that would be discussed in nine sessions (split into three times of three concurrent sessions). The day started with introductions and then everyone had a chance to propose topics for the group to vote on. I was surprised when online/offline integration of online community spaces was a key area of interest.
This marks a sea change in general perception of online communities for me. There seems to be more and more people who are asking the question of how do we break from the mantra of using the Internet as a space for ideas to a space for real life where geography is as real a factor as gravity in the limits of possibility.
I attended the session for online/offline integration and left it a little disappointed, but I have to admit that I was probably expecting too much. It seemed very clear to me from the hesitant nature of the discussion that while there's more and more interest in information services that are hybrid integrations of online and offline services, there are few real success stories to learn from aside from online dating.
Aside from online dating, most of the suggestions for successful models of online/offline services were events & activity promotion type of services, but the group didn't think that an online service whose primary goal was to help people find out what they could be doing in person as a genuine model of a hybrid online/offline service.
For more than two years, I've been running and promoting Social Wave, a project that I engineered from the ground up to be a hybrid online/offline service. I should have had a lot to say and a lot of insight to share, but I came up mostly empty when someone asked if anyone could cite a true online/offline online community business model that wasn't an online dating site. Of course, such a question would seem almost staged as a way for me to introduce my project, but I held back because during the session, I came to realize the online/offline model of Social Wave had some short circuits that are tempering the successes we've had with it.
Some of these short circuits are well within our control and many of them will get addressed in the next release due out soon. The rest may be in the hands of fate. These negative factors don't just affect Social Wave, but any service aiming to be a true online/offline model of service. I've identified three key factors. The first is technological and the other two are social.
- Insufficient Wi-Fi Access: Anyone who owns a cell phone will probably complain about spotty coverage and they're complaining about a technology that has already "arrived." Needless to say, the availability of public access Wi-Fi is nowhere near that of cell phone coverage. By definition, a hybrid online/offline service would be meant to be used as a part of daily life and your ideal online/offline user is not likely to be someone who spends daily life online all the time.
- Online/Offline Hybrid Communities Are Different: The things that has amazed me the most with my adventures with Social Wave is how much harder it has been for me to get activity going on it. I've been in online communities since 1986 and I'm no stranger to the techniques for stimulating participation in an online forum, but everything that I've worked to success before in the past has failed to perform as expected.
- A Different Digital Divide: Arguably, the culture of self-promotion is an integral part of social technologies as they exist today. There are a lot of people who are fluent with using computers who don't have the kind of digital attitude of marketing yourself and your ideas. It may be because they simply don't get it or it might simply be because they don't have time or see the value in putting in the effort to create the kind of online profile that will get them, their organizations, or their work noticed. I notice this the most when I work with small businesses, almost all of which are deficient in marketing attitude.
The technological issue will probably take care of itself with due time, but it's going to be anyone's guess how we address the two social problems. The answers to them, I don't expect to see anytime soon, but I'm glad to see that people are starting to focus attention on bringing some of the virtual world back into the physical world.