Why Macro Networks Aren’t Great At Community (Yet)

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and as someone who has been a member, moderator and creator of web communities both independent and within macro social networks (i.e. Facebook, LinkedIn)  for more than 10 years I’ve come to a simple conclusion.

That, in essence, macro networks just aren’t great at community. They’re not as good at it (yet) as independent sites dedicated to that topic and specifically designed for a set of users. They might never be due to the inherent nature of such a network.

Let me explain. It’s not that these large networks don’t have communities. That’s not the case at all. But what is true is the communities within larger networks aren’t as close, connected or activated as independent communities like forums, blogs and even some of the larger social news sites like Reddit which have the design to support a truly flourishing web community.

Here’s why:

All things to all people = pretty boring to those with a real interest

The perfect analogy for Facebook is a shopping mall. A…huge…freakishly large shopping mall. It has everything. All your friends, (professional, personal, random) family, (distant and close) co-workers, (past and present) and everything in between. Apps to do pretty much everything from play games to help causes and pages for every notable company on the planet. They have boiled the social ocean.

There are some people to which Facebook will be the extent of their social participation. And there is nothing wrong with that. But at the end of the day, if you are interested, I mean really interested in a subject (not just flirting with the surface) you want a place tailored for you.Facebook, the shopping mall of the internet, is safe, consistent and where the non-adventurous types go because they’re the middle of the market. Unique is not for Facebook, and that’s how they like it.

Let’s be perfectly if not bluntly honest, unique was one of MySpace’s downfalls. They let their users run amok with design (using the word design here is being generous) which was one aspect that ruined the site. Facebook is smart to limit what’s possible here. They know what they’re doing.

But by being all things to all people and offering everything, they become not-so-appealing for those with a deep interest in a subject. AKA, the people at the top of the participation inequality pyramid (who, in every industry contribute the lions share and highest quality conversations, contributions and content).

All communities should not have the same experience

Communities within macro networks like Facebook are naturally confined. Even little things like design affect how users interact and engage with each other and content. Any community you don’t control the vertical and horizontal is unfortunately (and frustratingly) limited to how personal and creative you can be within it.

If you look at some of the most thriving online communities, you’ll note the experience within them is vastly unique in each one. They have different aesthetics, quirks, rules and memes. They are also not so “you” centric as the Facebook experience, but rather are community and content centric. I don’t think the “you” centric experience users cobble together from sites like Twitter and Facebook is a bad thing. But it is a different kind of experience than the kind of web communities that are interest or content-driven provide.

Anonymity and pseudonyms are good things for community

I mentioned Reddit as being a network that has managed to maintain a true sense of web community. Yet make no mistake they are a macro network, covering all subjects. It’s not just subreddits and the customization many of the mods have made to them that make it have a true feeling of community. The anonymity and pseudonyms allow for a level of participation people just aren’t comfortable with on sites where they reveal their true identify.

And this feeling of freedom allows for a level of raw expression that is unmatched on other networks. Even Twitter allows this – which if you’ll notice some of the anonymous accounts are actually the most popular. That’s because they’re unfiltered. And that’s one of the elements that classically made up great web communities. Maybe your mileage varies and you don’t value anonymity. But personally, I always thought networks were more fun (and valuable, useful, interesting, honest) when anonymity was allowed.

Surrender to Facebook? You’d have to be crazy

Mark Schaefer who keeps the fantastic Business Grow blog recently posed the question if you should surrender to Facebook (and by giving up your own website  that would mean giving up your self-hosted online community/blog to them with it too). Again, Facebook cannot replace a self-hosted community. You give up design aesthetic and throw away up high conversion, tweak-able pages. Search engine traffic? Have fun without that. Meaningful analytics / advanced segmentation of data? Gone. Facebook analytics leave a lot to be desired.

You also risk alienating your community members who don’t use Facebook. What about users who prefer not to be social with content and have no interest in liking a page (but might be perfectly fine with subscribing by email or RSS?). Users prefer to opt-in via a variety of methods, and a integrated approach to web makes the most sense. There is no silver bullet for content distribution, everyone uses the web differently. Create source content as web pages and offer distribution via email, RSS, Twitter and Facebook. Make a quick and dirty mobile version at the very least. Why not make it easy for everyone? It’s not that difficult and doesn’t have to be a big operation.

As an aside, I actually don’t think Twitter and Facebook want companies to yield their presence to the stream. I think these are ideas perpetuated by media / bloggers to get attention or create controversy. Sometimes fun to debate, but when it comes to your digital marketing strategy you need to view the web holistically.

Even if you have a flourishing, independent community you do need to be here

Yet… you should be in Facebook or any macro network to some extent even if it’s just protecting your brand. At the very least own your page and syndicate from your network’s feeds, it takes just a few minutes to set this up. Set expectation there it’s just a feed and people will be fine with that (I’ve tested it multiple times successfully without issue). This creates another social outpost that can feed your hub. Siphon visitors away from the ever-increasing noise their friends and businesses are creating to a place where you or your community protects the signal to noise ratio.

But should you also nurture your community in Facebook? It all depends. It depends on resource allocation. It depends how quickly (and to what extent) you are able to move those from Facebook to your unique place on the web. Ideally, even if you devote community management to Facebook, it is done in such a way users view your independent presence as the definitive source of content and connections in a category, not a macro network.

If have limited resources there is likely more value in focusing opt in at the source, especially if you’re interested in things like conversions, you want to scale traffic, or you’re serious about starting a dialog with those really committed to your category.

But at the end of the day, I still don’t think communities within macro networks like Facebook touch the experience of those sites dedicated to their community and subject matter. Maybe one day they’ll solve some of the current constraints, but the experience is not there yet.

image credit: Shutterstock