Have we got our head in the clouds about the value of online community?

Cool Geeks and Social Media Coaches?I had a very interesting conversation with a Facebook application developer today. He’s a very smart guy and we agreed and disagreed on quite a lot of things. Here’s the crux of the discussion from my point of view. If it’s not yours, or if it is, please–for the love of community–pitch in and SAY something!

We were talking about how to build community on a Facebook page and whether or not that’s really even possible. Look at any big brand Facebook page. Do you see really engaged conversations or simply reactions to a post from the brand or other members? Are people really discussing anything on Facebook?

Now, I’m one of those old school community people. I really do think this is important stuff, and that’s probably what Guy Kawasaki means when he calls people Twitter Nazis, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Community requires involvement and a certain amount of passion or the discussions are pretty shallow. There are no breakthroughs or epiphanies.

BUT, that’s just my opinion, and it’s only one kind of community. There’s also the kind where people come to hang out and have fun. That’s pretty much how I see Facebook. People go there to relax, swap stories, play games and see pictures of their cousin’s kids. Sure the big brands are using Facebook pages more than ever, but are they doing it for community or marketing? Of course they’re doing it for marketing. They’re businesses.

So here’s a thumbnail of just 4 “social networks” and how community applies to them (in my opinion). This is very general, so don’t get your panties in a bunch if I say your favorite network is not what you think it is. Maybe it is for you and it just doesn’t work that way for me. That’s why there are so many forms of community right?

Twitter
Twitter is like having a conversation while running a marathon. You talk to people in passing and when you catch up with them again. Then again in the break area and you’re off again. That’s generally the depth of the conversation. What’s it good for?

Research. You want an answer, to know what your competitor is doing or how their customers feel about their product? Look to Twitter. Wanna know the most recent news, trends or information rich blog posts? Look to Twitter.

SEO. If you want to drive a lot of traffic to a particular web site or raise your brand visibility you can do it with Twitter. Link sharing is easy here and it often gets carried over into other networks like Facebook.

Brand building. Especially a personal brand. Curate enough interesting material around a topic and you’re an authority. Even if you don’t know what any of it really means. (not judging, just sayin’)

Facebook
Facebook is where people hang out. Sure, there is a bit more long form discussion than on Twitter, especially in the new groups, but really? People are sharing pics and chatting among themselves. They’re sharing links they found on Twitter and then discussing them and re-sharing them on Facebook. Brands build pages with huge numbers of fans who take little or no action. Over 65 million people “like” something daily? Cool. But does that mean they really like it or are just marking it for later? Just logging it doesn’t mean we care about it, much less discuss it.

Facebook is more intimate. People are more likely to post their kid’s pictures and personal stuff there than on sites like Twitter. They’re more likely to spend hours wandering the fan pages looking for something fun to do like games, quizzes, sharing video links and finding out about their friend’s appendectomy.

Blogs
People share passion on blogs. You see it in the comments and on some of the best blogs the comments from the regular readers are as valuable or better than the actual post itself. They’re also great sources for information you can share and discuss more in-depth on other networks. Blogs have subscribers but not members, so do they even qualify as community? At least they’re also great for SEO. Google loves WordPress, no question, and every comment adds value for the commenter and the poster.

Forums
Users who like forums like to have long threaded discussions. They’re there for a fairly focused reason, they’re often quite passionate about it. Maybe they’re talking about cars or code, but you can search the forum for answers to your questions or post them and see results fairly quickly. Forums are one of the darlings of us old-school community types and they take us back to the days of passionate arguments on bulletin boards with people who became life-long friends.

Maybe it’s a bit naive or nostalgic to think business must develop true community to succeed with social media as a marketing tool. Who are we to define what is truly community? Are ideas like that holding back the evolution of social media?

(cartoon courtesy CoolGeeks.com)