Building online communities, 2: Tools of social presence

Ah, summer.  My writing ambitions got squashed under a pile of family holidays and back-to-school frenzy, but here we are again. 

In my previous post, I discussed the need to establish social presence online: in other words, to communicate a sense of personality and individuality within the online medium. This is true for both the community creator/sponsor and the individual community user. 

What do we have to work with and how can we move from bare-bones to an active, connected group? I think we have three basic things: language, images and functions; and two general communication goals, to allow people to personalise the space, and to aim for authenticity.

Language can obviously communicate social presence all by itself.  There are pared-down bulletin boards which look ugly but are highly rated by their users.   This is usually because the site is providing something – a resource, a conversation – that its users really want; and the site is set up in such a way that people find it easy to join in.

What are the cues to social presence in language?  I think it’s the nature and quality  of the content, and in particular, the kinds of conversations that new users discover.  The best online conversations are direct and friendly and are peer-to-peer. The power relationships within a corporate-to-consumer website, a research forum, or an internal corporate site, are a bit different.  There is usually some inequality, at the very least because the sponsor controls the agenda.   Corporate approaches can fall very flat indeed, either because managers are asking the wrong questions in the wrong way, or because the customer wants to say something quite different. 

Bespoke communities cannot always rely on users to dive in and start contributing: in many cases, the site creators will have to get things started and facilitate the conversation.  Good questions, which allow open answers, begin to establish the conditions for dialogue.

Visual elements and tools/widgets also provide props for social presence.   These can be quite literal, Bulletin boards use avatars; lots of social networking sites use mug shots.   On Facebook, for example, it’s possible to use lots of little games and schemes to talk to those old classmates that you friended on a whim late one night…  On other blogs, the colour scheme, the photos and linked videos all help to establish an atmosphere.   

Personalisation is not an essential part of social presence, but it helps.  By personalisation, I mean personalising the options that blogs and other software provide.  Many social networks request answers to questions, or give the opportunity of adding a profile that explains you, the user: why you are here, what you are looking for and (incidentally) what your values are.  

Bulletin boards often offer lots of personalisation such as signatures, avatars, and points systems for number of posts: this communicates values and indeed seniority or prestige in a medium where at first site it would seem to be lacking. (On the other hand, they can encourage unhelpful hierarchies to emerge).

Negotiating site personalisation provides both an initiation into the site and some safe practice with software.  You fill in the questions, go back, edit, and hone your online self-presentation.   At the same time, all this stuff, the tedious questions to be answered, the debates about whether to put your age or admit you’re looking for a date, are socialising you into that site. 

Authenticity.  The hardest element to communicate (but probably the single most effective thing to do) is a genuine interest in what other people might be saying, based on a realistic understanding of their lives.  Think about bad market research questionnaires.  You fill them in, anxious to share your opinions of Product X , but, as you work your way through the questions, you realise that actually, you cannot give your opinion because either the questions or the system did not anticipate that you might feel this way.   Bad online social spaces are the same.  Good spaces talk to you as an equal, and they allow you to feel as happy or sad as you feel.

Personally, I think this is the hardest skill to crack, for those creating communities or seeking to engage with customers online.  You have to be prepared for an open, no-holds -barred conversation.  Not everyone is prepared for that.  Translating the managerialist language of marketing objectives into an actual conversation with a customer requires a fair degree of skill and confidence.

Part 3 will look at online dialogue and engagement.

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