Some thoughts on community, from the morning of Swarm Conference.
Maria Ogneva (@themaria) is a key community manager for Yammer, a technology for community managers to use. Her use of community is largely synonymous with the customers whom a company seeks to profit from through sales of goods and services. For example, she speaks of the failure that Netflix had when it did something which its ‘community’ did not like. She is also focused (because of Yammer’s specific characteristics) on the production of community within a business organisation.
@themaria reflects on the failure of organisations to realise that setting up a technology of community does not, of itself, make community and emphasises that community managers are needed for such technological innovations to work. Clearly, at one level, she is absolutely correct. The shaping of technology needs direction; the management of new kinds of technology is essential to bridge the changes in work flow, organisation and so on which new community technology brings. But does this need for ‘management’ mean that the organisation is not a community (therefore unable to use community technologies because they do not create community from nothing)? Or does it mean that an organisation is a community but does not see how the technologies provide new or better ways of experiencing itself as such?
The necessity of managing community, aside from practicality, can be read in two ways – either as better facilitating some pre-existing state of affairs, improved through online techologies or even brought from potential to actual effect through them; or,community management is another form of management to increase productivity, discipline and compliance with organisational norms. What we might think of community management might depend on the emphasis placed on one or other term. It is quite likely that employees within organisations already are a community – but that their energies and interests are not being devoted in quite the way ‘management’ would like.
It can also be argued that customers are already a ‘community’, but one that is uncontrolled or unfocused: community management of customers might be to increase the time and attention of those customers on the specific brand which the business wants to promote. When a business instantiates itself as a community it can “iterate, collaborate and become adaptive”; when it engages with its customers through community, it gains intelligence about the conduct of its business immediately and constructively further enabling rapid adaption.
If we return to a more fundamental understanding of community, that it emerges from the social ties which people maintain with each other, then the commercial use of ‘community’ is designed to create new social ties, not previously had between individuals within the business and also beyond it. But who profits from these ties? Are these the ties that bind and, if so, who is doing the tying?
Ultimately, I think that the use of ‘community’ to describe new forms of sociality within a business has two particular aspects.
First ‘community’ (through technology) is about changes in the patterns of information flow in the organisation, making everyone’s views more visible to one other. This might challenge hierarchies of authority, and it certainly implies a technocratic rationality of argument over position, but more realistically I think it makes the ‘thought labour’ of workers (as expressed through community interaction) available to the corporation for it extra profit; it makes the informational control stratgies of management (internal public relations) more effective.
Second, and with less reference to technology, community as a new form of internal business sociality recognises the large amount of time which people spend at work and on work, with others and for others: the social ties at work are as strong as any that people can have and without formal recognition as ‘community’ (aligned with business needs) might give rise to social action at odds with those needs. In other words, community is already there, as an effect of social ties at work, but it is controlled by those who make it from within, not those who manage it from above.
Another view of community comes from Justin Isaf @justinisaf, Director of Cmmunity for the Huffington Post, discussing the automated moderation of comments – necessary because of the 9 million+ / month comments..
Community management here is (amongst other things) understood as creating a safe place for discussion, through this moderation process to remove comments that are abusive or aggressive. This form of community management is not dissimilar: the community interaction produced through management (heavily technologised through algorithms, but also with human intervention) is designed to serve the interests of HuffPo in positioning itself as a particular kind of co-created public media / news channel. It imposes a particular form of community, with particular values.Community management conjures specific kinds of community into being, turned towards the ends of organisations who thereby seek to exploit and own the interactions of community.
Yet, this is no different to most other forms of contemporary social life. We should not idealise community, by any means, for the fact it is so often ‘managed’ tells us of the power relations and the differential extraction of capital (social or financial) that it enables. But we should not simply dismiss it because, on that basis, we would need to distact pretty much everything which capitalist economies produce and the systems by which they do it. But we do need to inquire into the management practices so as to tease out the very specific forms of ‘belonging’ which each community might demand.