Some Processes Shouldn't Be Automated

I realized we had hit bottom on social media as a force for community when I read this on the web site of a startup:

Tribber believes that smaller bloggers have something that superstars can never match. Smaller bloggers give personal attention to their community. In turn, the community gives trust to the blogger.

Tribber believes that by combining many small bloggers who maintain deep bonds with their community, bloggers can extend their reach across each other’s communities, share each other’s audience and give their community more great content.

Tribberr automates this process.

The words in bold represent, for me, an oxymoron: why automate the very conditions that create the trust – the personal relationship between the small blogger and his community?

We’ve gone too far in developing tools that pretend we are carrying on a relationship when actually we are not, developing a community when actually we are not, and then insisting we be known as relationship marketers.

All of this has reached the point of diminishing returns. For openers, there are too many social media tools, none of which provides a complete solution to any community problem. Not to mention the fact that some of these tools, funded by angels anxious to get into the startup scene, will disappear when their inventors, unable to get that second round, have to close the company, leaving its members high and dry. Remember Delicious, anyone? Seesmic? Digg?

I saw similar industry consolidation at the end of the last internet bubble, but here’s the difference: the last bubble did not involve forming relationships with a community. Some community members who signed on to these startups are going to get burned, and it will not be pretty. They will lose their communities and feel truly betrayed.

Even the communities that will remain are sometimes built around ephemeral goals. When I was in New York last, I had dinner with a good friend of mine who told me she had “fired” Foursquare last December when, standing in the middle of a department store juggling coat, scarf and shopping bags, she dropped them all to check in. “I felt like a trained chimp” she said, “and I asked myself, why am I doing this?” She doesn’t, anymore.

We, the practitioners and custodians of social media, have to make sure we don’t make our community members feel like that. We also have to make sure the tools we are using don’t make ourselves feel like that. 

The “gamification” movement has been a big contributor. From Empire Avenue to Klout to Foursquare, we are all acting like kids in an arcade trying to win ephemeral prizes. If we keep structuring everything like this our communities – sane people with better things to do – will abandon us, and the wonderful promised connections and relationships of social media will vanish.

True community is created by a combination of online and offline experiences. Apple has a passionate community and doesn’t even participate in social media. Instead, it allows its customers to build community through forums, blogs, and even overnight vigils at the retail stores before product launches. Or rather, it just sits back and watches its community as the community builds itself. Nothing of the community is controlled by the company.

Actually, Starbucks is like that as well. Although Starbucks has an active social media presence, the real community is offline in the stores.

Think of every brand that has a loyal community, and it probably started offline, or went offline to develop another channel: WordCamps and WordPress User Groups, Porsche clubs, photo walks.

My conclusion: we are developing too many tools to automate the community, and not enough tools to intensify it.