What the Fax Machine Can Teach Us About Community
This piece was originally posted on SpinSucks
According to materials created and distributed by Princeton University, Metcalfe’s law states the value of a network is equal to the square of the number of connected users of the network.
When this law was first proposed, they were talking about this awesome new communication device called the fax machine.
One fax machine on its own is useless — it has no other machines to communicate with.
Bring together 100 and we’re zipping files from Florida to Maine.
The same goes for communities of people: One person alone communicates with no one.
Bring together 100 people and now we’re sharing experiences and ideas, and creating new ones.
Putting the mathematical formulas and facsimile comparisons aside, let’s break down the two core components of the law: In any network or community, there’s a direct relationship between the amount of value created and the connections they can build.
Building a community is equal parts science and social.
But what’s in a community?
It seems to me these days the word is thrown out quite liberally and its definition varies depending on who you ask.
A recent post by Christopher Pedregal made me think a lot more about what we call a community (and community manager). His post talks about community-peripheral and community-centric companies.
As he describes it: In community-peripheral companies, community is used to describe supportive and operational roles, often in marketing or customer service, while in community-centric companies, community is about strategy, as well as operations.
There seems to be a game of tug-of-war happening between these two sides.
Most PR professionals, advertisers, and marketers working in social media today would love to be true “community managers” in theory, but in the end they’re relegated to content creation and “push messaging” with little to no influence on executive level strategy.
A lot of executives forget community management is far more than creating content or even moderating and responding to fans.
Moderation is not community management. Moderation is simply the avoidance of excess — or extremes — by conversations or members, resulting in the declining value of your community.
Your moderation can be automated, your community building can not.
Having worked first in community-peripheral and now community-centric companies, I can attest the difference between these two positions of community is like night and day.
In community-centric companies, companies depend on their relationships with the people using their products, spreading their message, and growing their business from the bottom up.
If the network does not offer value, it will not last.
While many of us in North America no longer understand the value of the fax machine, it actually won’t die.
Nearly 100 percent of all Japanese companies and 60 percent of private homes have fax machines, according to an article from the Washington Post.
And despite you and I understanding that there are far more efficient ways to send and receive messages, the fax continues to be valued because the users in the network see that value.
Will people still want to be a part of your community in 60 years? Most groups have trouble maintaining a community for six months.
You are a part of the community Gini Dietrich and her team work tirelessly to maintain.
You probably have participated or interacted with writers and readers in the comments section or on Twitter.
These Q&As have lasted nearly two years now, creating a regular space where people want to congregate and share information with each other.
The value and relationships created in that space carries into their daily community behavior.
No matter if you’re Lyft selling rides (and careers), Nike selling running sneakers, or No Kid Hungry trying to bring quality breakfast to the nation’s children, you have the power as a company to enable like-minded people to find each other, and find the information they want.
You don’t talk to your community. You talk with them.