There's Promise and Peril in Ubiquitous Community

Steve Rubel on Digital Communications

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Over the last five years I have been asked countless times: "Steve, what's the next hot online community?" It seems as though everybody is on the lookout for the successor to MySpace, Twitter or Facebook. Nobody, even in a difficult economic climate, wants to be viewed as a latecomer.

Perhaps as a defense mechanism to avoid being wrong myself, I now give a boilerplate answer that I believe can last. In short, the next big community is not a single destination; rather, it is going to be everywhere. To paraphrase Forrester analyst Charlene Li, social networking is becoming "like air." She writes on her blog:

"I thought about my grade-school kids, who in 10 years will be in the midst of social-network engagement. I believe they (and we) will look back to 2008 and think it archaic and quaint that we had to go to a destination like Facebook or LinkedIn to 'be social.'

Steve Rubel
Photo: JC Bourcart
Steve Rubel is a marketing strategist and blogger. He is senior VP in Edelman's Me2Revolution practice.
"Instead, I believe that in the future, social networks will be like air. They will be anywhere and everywhere we need and want them to be."

This represents a significant shift. For the past 15 years, online communities have primarily existed as stand-alone destinations rather than the web's equivalent of running water or electricity.

The problem, however, is that this model can't scale. Tastes change, and people are always migrating to trendier sites -- especially as their friends do. As a result, the internet amber is littered with fossilized communities that once dominated. Those former stalwarts include AOL, Angelfire,, GeoCities and Tripod.

Community today is a different animal. People expect it to be part of virtually every online experience. Most media companies allow users to leave comments or even create profiles. Hundreds of thousands of brands, non-governmental organizations and individuals have set up their own social networks on The entire web is going social.

Now, however, connective tissue is emerging to bring these individual points of light together as virtual constellations. Google and Facebook have each launched systems that enable sites to plug into the Google and Facebook architecture to make them more social. With these tools, site owners allow their visitors to tap their existing networks and connections in a way that adds value to the total experience. Imagine a Facebook user who can easily see on which stories his or her Facebook friends voted up. Or non-technical site developers who, with a few small lines of code, can add utilities such as reviews, members' galleries and message boards to their sites or applications.

As exciting as this is, the transition of community from a handful of big-reach sites to an ubiquitous platform is incredibly disruptive for marketers. It essentially makes social network advertising, which according to anecdotal evidence is already a mixed bag, even more difficult.

The result is that marketers will need to shift the way they approach communities. Static advertising is no longer viable. The solution is collaboration. Marketers will need to tap these emerging social operating systems to build meaningful connections through their sites and others before competitors do.

Participation is no longer optional, and the first movers who dedicate resources will win.
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