The New Community

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This one’s for us. All of us. We’re talking about the building of networks and communities on the Web, not least because we want to keep ours alive and growing. We want to do it a lot better than we have to this point.

Our guest in the studio, Larry Weber, is the town crier of the Internet transformation in the world of commerce. I call him the World Wide Weber. He was in on the “marketing” of Tim Berners-Lee’s big idea when it first took root at MIT in 1989. And he’s stayed on the frontier with companies like Lotus Development, RedHat and Hewlett Packard, among many others.

Larry Weber’s new book, Marketing to the Social Web, fortifies his authority on the moving edge of the frontier, and it recounts in a lot of great stories how companies like GlaxoSmithKline have formed expressive affinity groups around dieting pills; how Stonyfield Yogurt has cultivated environmentalists on its site and added a page called “Ask Our Nutritionist”; how Jones Soda in Seattle has built a community conversation that’s much more valuable than any use of mass media.

But Larry’s interest is marketing stuff. Ours is non-commercial conversation.

Maybe my main question for him and others is: how’s to translate the brilliant success of eBay, say, in reconfiguring the process of buying and selling (authenticating the parties in a transaction) into the realm of political and cultural gab?

We’ve known for years now that “mass media” is over in the Internet age. Newspapers keep shrinking and TV network audiences keep dwindling. Yet Larry Weber reminds me that advertisers still spend nearly $100-billion a year on TV ads — no matter that a third of those commercials are Tivo’d into oblivion, a complete waste of promotional budgets.

So when does the “tipping point” reach the public forum — the change that announces some sort of cultural and institutional conversion to a new regime for voters, listeners, readers, citizens, the rest of us.

We’re taking this personally.

Larry Weber

Chairman of W2Group,

author, Marketing to the Social Web

Ethan Zuckerman

Founder, “Global Voices Online,”

fellow, Berkman Center for Internet and Society,

blogger, “My Heart’s in Accra

Daphne Kwon

CEO, Expo TV

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  • VeritasRox

    Oh, Larry’s last name is “Weber.” I thought at first you were making a comment about the social theorist…

    Along those lines, I’d love to have a marketer discuss the basic structure of the internet from a financial transactin point of view. Especially in America (and especially for young people who access the web through school or their parents’ bundled ‘net service) there is a sense that cyberspace is just a big public good. Yeah, you can buy things on certain sites, but subscription services seem pretty un-hip, and big icons of the internet age (Google especially) seem to want you to get things for free. Even the idea of an internet “browser” seems to suggest perusal rather than actually buying or transacting. But as ROS departs and more parts of the NYTimes website become restricted to subscribers, it’s clear that finance is a big part of the web as well. From the financial structure of commercial advertising to the costs of cutting edge web design to the mysterious need to expand something I don’t really understand called bandwidth, there is still a place for capital in this commons. And as I sit here contemplating a career in arts and educational media, I wish I understood better how it worked, particularly from the bottom up.

  • Sutter

    VR: In real life, I’m a telecom policy wonk/communications lawyer. I can’t do it now, but I will try to write up something on how it works in the coming days. My expertise is more on the network side than on the application side, but I’ll see what I can do to explain both.

  • Is it just that the advertisers are slow to figure how to harness the advertising value of the internet? Because it seems to me there is a pretty solid mass of consumers actively participating.

    I’d be interested in hearing what kinds of communities are thriving online and what it means to thrive.

    I host an online forum, but it is an extension of an IRL community. I haven’t yet been seduced by the lure of advertising income on the site, however. It’s a little daunting thinking about how to employ that in a way that is not intrusive and doesn’t invite ads from competitors or companies that we would not choose to support. As a very small business, I simply haven’t prioritized the research.

    This is where the advertiser’s dilemma happens – how to micro-target? Is this the same dilemma for gabbers? Or is the key strength for gabbers?

    I also wonder if there is still a generation gap? Are internet communities mostly the realm of the young? Or is the demographic break-down more along lines of education? Affluence?

    And then there is this question of ‘authentication”. People are very concerned about this when it comes to monetary transactions, but don’t seem to be concerned for social interactions. Does it matter? In my experience, conversations are more respectful and thoughtful when participants have to identify themselves and be accountable for their comments. Even then, you have to remind people that the venue is public, not private, and to take care that what they post is what they would be willing to say to someone’s face at a party. Is my experience common? Or is there a growing civility in internet communities regardless of personal accountability?

    One more note: civil/political dialogue may be non-commercial conversations, but the conversation and, sometimes, the lead conversationalist, is still a product. Marketing still comes into play. Unless the hosts are volunteering and donating the needed resources to nurture the conversations and community, you have to be able to show funders that you are attracting enough people to make it a meaningful expenditure of their funds. Even not-for-profit’s have to think like a business. So, to generate a meaningful gab online, it may entail the same work as the targeted marketing of advertising.

  • Unity 08 is trying to bridge that gap between eBay and the wider political/cultural world. Their plan is to have a political party for one campaign that is controlled by thousands of e-delegates who will support one centrist candidate after the two major parties anoint their candidates next year.

    Of course, there are problems with Unity08 that go beyond their model.

    But, my problem with them is that they’re going against the grain of what a real e-political machine would start as. I’m convinced it would be local first. Something that can be more uniting than a MoveOn.org type organization, which is an internet version of the Sierra Club postcard-to-member-with-donation-back model.

    To actually bring people in and engage them over the long term politically, you would need to be strong in a relevant and local sort of way first.

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  • livender

    I am neither surprised nor sorry that this radio talk show entered its last days.

    After listening to the program about Camus’ wonderful novel La Peste in which Chris turned his whole discussion to the war in Iraq which had nothing to do with the novel I realized that there is nothing this modern day totalitarian wouldn’t do to spread his own special political gospel. I won’t even comment on his bringing in the anti-Semitic Mearsheimer to support his tendentious thesis.

    This about a book which if one wants to read metaphorically is more about the plague of antisemitism than about anything else.

    The hatred Chris has shown towards honest debate is mind-boggling and his insistence that he is offering a forum for open discussion is laughable.

  • rahbuhbuh

    advertisers will have to learn that they will not be able to measure metrics so easily online. click throughs do not work. that doesn’t mean people do not see the message, it’s just that their direct recognition (i see product, i’m curious, i click on product ad) isn’t there. people do not call a retailer and say “i saw your ad on during my favorite show at 8:39PM.” Advertisers will have to play the traditional market guessing game and purchase ad space based on traffic and demographics, not easily tracked direct results. sites with the best traffic will ask for ever more money for adspace, even if those ads change based on individual user history or content. primetime costs more.

    a shift: networks of sites currate ads from trusted companies rather than allowing any vague keyword to let commerce breach their site. there are fewer ads, which means the companies have to make the best product or be ethical by the host site’s standards. these chosen ads are smaller and less imposing, but because they are deemed worthy, the message is more potent. what if NBC actually said “we allow Pepsi to advertise because our crews request it over Coke” or “we actually drive a Dodge, so that’s why that ad is there.” Not “Doge paid more”

    http://www.coudal.com/deck/

    it’s more disturbing when products begin blogging and join social networking sites. fictional characters promoting themselves. it’s like buzz marketing: does my friend actually like that new Pepsi flavor? or is he getting paid to tell me? too much distrust, or intrusion.

  • rahbuhbuh: “it’s more disturbing when products begin blogging and join social networking sites.”

    This is why I think authenticity is vital. Busy, well-paid fingers can skew the stream of opinion. But other than requesting that people identify themselves to the host, how can you guarantee that the person is who they claim to be? Will we end up with some kind of official electronic passport?

    Ultimately, I think it is the work of the bog/forum host that determines the quality of dialog and the screening of trolls. I’ve managed pretty well so far, but my community is small and mostly local. This may be key, also. Just as with the suggestion that political organizing might be most effective when local, authentication may only be possible in a local setting. So, will communities with a broader geographical base turn to locals as sub-hosts?

  • Bobby

    Wow, livender! I can only assume Chris somehow conjures up memories of your abusive father. I think you need a hug…or maybe an enema. Either way, I’m going to have reread La Peste and then listen to the show.

  • Sutter

    Oh, look — jdyer’s back, with a new name and everything.

  • mynocturama

    Sutter – exactly. The strident, fixated tone is all too obvious and familiar.

  • Bobby

    If you’re referring to me, Sutter…well, I apologize. That wasn’t a nice thing for me to say 🙁 Nevertheless, I’m hoping you’re able to put together a response for VeritasRox. I, too, would be interested in what you have to say. (Not to mention it will put my offhanded remark further in the past 🙂

  • Sutter

    No, Bobby — I was referring to livender. The same persecution complex, direct attacks on Chris’s alleged antisemitism, etc.

  • Bobby

    OH! Okay then 🙂 YOU HEAR THAT, LIVENDER!!! IT’S CALLED THERAPY!!! (sigh) As for you, Private Sutter! GET BACK TO RESPONDING TO VERITASROX! 🙂

  • livender

    Looks like all the same old inmates in Chris’ insane asylum.

  • mulp

    Building distributed communities using the “internet” is something that is decades old. I’m not sure when it started at U of Illinios, or whether it was unique to that place, but there as a “Notes” facility which allowed computer users to discuss topics of their choice. That was replicated in DEC aka Digital too many years ago in a DECnotes facility that spanned the DEC network which spanned the world. At one time, I believe there were about ten thousand notes forums, with a thousand public forums. This is for a company with over a 100,000 employees. The forums covered every possible topic imaginable.

    After DEC was absorbed in Compaq, this community was lost because this software (now able to operate over the Internet) was not acceptable to Compaq because all software was, in the view of Compaq, developed by Microsoft.

    The UofI notes was also the basis for Lotus Notes.

    These earlier notes efforts are the basis for the PBS forum software: “This software (in its unmodified form) is produced, released and is copyrighted phpBB Group. It is made available under the GNU General Public License and may be freely distributed”. This is where I “live” on the net in a community, which often seems disfunctional, but it is the closest I have been to the world wide communities that I lived with for about two decades while working at DEC.

    One of the important features of all these forum systems is the ability of members to create new topics of discussion, and then to have dialogs on the topic that are fairly logically organized in a way that reflects the conversation that took place.

    Within DEC, the forums were justified as having a business value because they were a way to imagine, debate, discuss new products and changes to existing products. The forums on classic cars, making telescopes, Star Trek trivia, Born again Christianity, etc., were justified as testing the software we developed, as well as providing that coffee station and TGIF conversation that introduces you to people in other parts of the company.

    On reason I think that Compaq didn’t buy into the DECnotes facility is that it allowed everyone to participate in conversations without regard to status, rank, or title. And in my experience, experts, and I mean real experts, were found in the most unlikely people.

    Bringing this into this topic, the amazing thing about Amazon was the degree that it allowed its customers, and even people who weren’t its customers and never would be, to freely, (to a point) comment on the products offered at its site. Many commented at the time that Amazon was cutting its throat by not controlling the message and allowing users who were unknown to anyone to comment on the books offered.

    As I write this, I hear the comment about usenet; the differenc between usenet and the notes forum software is the persistence. Real conversations take place with contexts that go back days, week, months, and year. Notes allows you to walk into a conversation and pick up the thread, while usenet provided no context beyond a few days or weeks.

  • Bobby

    Wednesday nights are the best! For dessert we each get our very own Pop Tart (I like mine with ketchup! Yummmy!!!) And afterward, if Nurse Ratched is in a good mood, she let’s us play “who has the nicest tattoo”

  • mulp, it sounds like Notes/phpBB/forum software is really more social than blog software. This is why I chose a forum for my community’s online communication technology. I agree that the ability to create threads and pick up old threads at any time is critical.

    I do think there are improvements that can be made. Jon Garfunkel’s “ViewPoints” is of great interest to me. see here: http://civilities.net/ViewPoints (He also has a very constructive idea about comment management. He’s a tech head who has given serious thought to the underlying systems of human communication and he comes up with valuable insights about how to approach social software.)

  • Bobby, my favorite is craft night. I love gluing noodles to boxes…..

  • Bobby

    LOL!!! Hi, Allison! I love craft night too, cuz you get to eat Paste! BTW! Congratulations on being a small business owner. I’ve visited your store’s website in the past. I should tell my aunt about it! She’s an attorney Mon – Fri, but on Sat works at a yarn store…keeps her from going off the deep end!

  • Bobby

    I heard Thomas Friedman interview Dov Seidman about his book How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything…in Business (and in Life). I think it’s relevant to this show (I’ll find out in about 3.5 hrs when it’s broadcast here in Seattle)

    Anyway, you can listen to the interview here:

    http://wordforword.publicradio.org/

  • Yes, that was exactly where I was heading: eating paste, sniffing the glue, spray painting the noodles gold… Ah, the life….

  • allison, don’t forget the glitter.

  • Yes, yes, glitter!!!!!

  • Just got to listen to the show. I think Larry, Ethan and Daphne just laid out the future of ROS. It’s seen as pioneering and it needs to go further into the west…..

  • livender

    Poor pathetic stutter, all dressed up no where to go.

    She will be on the street next with signs front and back screaming at passer byes.

  • The comments section here displays both sides of what the program discussed: people going somewhere to talk on a specific subject, yet at the same time engaging in discussions with those they already know. At least from elsewhere on the site, and from previous disagreements.

    That said, the one thing I would have loved to hear was that Content is King. The corporations that are using marketing in the fashion that Larry discusses can’t do it if their product is crap. If it is, not only will no-one buy it, they’ll blog about not buying and share the links. So much of internet traffic is link-sharing these days, and having people coming to your site requires something that provokes them enough to get them there. (I.e. A Blog With A Radio Show!) And then having unique content in the same vein as whatever brought them in the first place.

    The straight-to-the-buyer facet of the net may eventually wean people from buying something because the commercial implied you would get babes (or dudes) if you bought it… (Or it might convince you all the more, letting you chat with pre-purchased sexy people who likewise suggest the purchase.)