Obsessing about "what's next" in online services and technology saps too much valuable attention away from what's really important: connecting with people. We need to stop obsessing on what comes after Twitter and focus instead on how best to connect to, communicate with and relate to our clients, colleagues and consumers.
Here's why: The internet, with all of those fun time-sync tools, is supposed to make connecting with people more efficient. Social networks, blogs, microblogs and forums destroy the previously prohibitive barriers to efficient communications: moving people physically around the planet and making sure they're in the same place at the same time. But the downside of all of this efficiency is that too many of us lose track of the forest for the trees.
Imagine obsessing the way we do about cool tools in the ballroom at the local Marriott, where many a meeting is held. The physically convenient, affordable hotel with rooms for visitors and plenty of elbow room and resources is not the focus, but encouraging connection, communication, brainstorming, relationship-making and business is.
Hotels, conference centers, message boards, instant messengers, social networks and blogs are just communication aids -- the journey, not the destination. Even Second Life, World of Warcraft, Xbox Live, MMOGs and MMORPGs are more about real people spending their real lives with each other than about wanton sex or video games.
So, why has asynchronous global communications reduced living, breathing people into user IDs and handles? At Blog Potomac, folks like Shel Holtz, Liz Strauss and Scott Monty all mentioned how persistently important to their practices the humble, hundred-year-old telephone is when it comes to connecting, especially during a crisis. I moved back from Berlin primarily because folks wanted to get me into the room, take a look into my eyes and see how firmly I shake hands -- all things I believed didn't matter as long as I did the work. Not true!
I had started thinking about these sort of things at the Social Media Camp NY in 2008 when I heard a talk by Howard Greenstein and Dean Landsman on "What Old Media can teach New Media: Media Convergence & Integration, Social Media, and Professionalism." Long story short, Greenstein and Landsman posit there is a direct evolutionary link between the Lascaux cave drawings and the blogger. I agree with them.
The conclusion is that what makes digital PR and social media marketing challenging and new is not the technology or the tools, it is the unique culture of online conversation. If you focus too much on the tools, you might forget that virtual communities are not virtual. If you don't learn to love, respect and appreciate virtual online communities as real homes to real people, as real as the village square, the parish hall, the Paris Tabac or the alumni group, then you're underestimating the passion, loyalty and deep personal relationship found there.
This lack of understanding and appreciation will almost always result in a tragic faux pas, the likes of which may result in brand suicide. You can easily avoid this if you understand the operative word in the phrase Virtual Online Community is "community."
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Chris Abraham, president of the digital-PR firm Abraham Harrison, is a blogger who specializes in social-media marketing with a focus on blogger outreach, blogger engagement and search-reputation management. Chris lives in Berlin and Washington.