Thursday 29 October 2015

Is technology killing communities? #kmers #socialmedia

Last month I attended a meeting entitled "What are we talking about when we talk about community?" We started the conversation by sharing our ideas and views about a wide variety of congregation of people - which for ease of reference we called communities. These ranged from tribes to cooperatives to kibbutz.

We then shared our perception and understanding of different types of communities, such as, community of practice, community of interest, stakeholder community and social community and talked about the importance of nurturing strong and weak ties.

As we engaged in the conversation, it dawned on me that communities have the power of uniting and dividing....

They unite, when people who share a common interest or value come together to learn, share and innovate. They may divide when people who share different interests and values end up going head-to-head. At the same time, while fostering discipline, they are a great conduit for innovation and collaboration.

As we delved in and starting unpacking the subject matter, I thought to myself when was the last time I was part of a community together with a competitor. For example, as a Ferrari fan,  would I be considered a traitor if I joined the McLaren or Red Bull community?

This made me realize that for communities to stay at the cutting edge, they MUST have a disruptive element. I realized that perhaps the dividing factor is as good, if not better than the unity factor. This is because having competing interests will help us come out of our comfort zone, challenge the status quo and as a result transform, create something new.... in short innovate.

If you've had the privilege of being part of a community, you may have joined it because you shared a common interest or passion. You may have joined a community to survive or you may have joined a community because you were in search of diversity or wanted to get close to your traditions and roots.

What ever may have been your drive to join a community - once you embraced YOUR community and no matter whether you ended up being a fervent contributor or a lurker - you probably benefitted from a sense of belonging and established some sort of an emotional bond.

The concept of communities is nothing new. They have existed since the beginning of time when groups of people sharing something in common came together to pursue a common goal and/or passion.

The new element today is technology. Some argue that technology - could be a double-edged sword - as it is contributing to loosing sight of the PEOPLE component of community.

As Henry Mintzberg eloquently outlines, in his article We need both networks and communities,before the advent of technology, the city center, the village square was the heart of the community. Today, the village center has an on-line rival.....

In the past, communities were made up of people who knew each other, met each other at the market, talked with each other, came to each other's help in moments of need. The advent of technology has changed the way community members interact with each other.

Mintzberg argues that since members of virtual communities may not necessarily know each other in person and may never get an opportunity to talk with each other face-to-face, these are more of networks than communities. Others argue that networks are better at communication than collaboration.

Where does this leave us?  I think we all agree that nothing can and will ever replace the nuances that a face-to-face interaction offers. At the same time, I believe that the affordances of technology  have helped to bridge the time and space barrier. For example, we now can have face-to-face interactions and collaborate with each other virtually. But we cannot break bread virtually, we cannot enjoy a cup of coffee or a glass of wine virtually ..... We cannot do the social stuff, the very things that bring people together, help create a bond, thus foster collaboration.

So, are virtual and face-to-face interactions mutually exclusive? I am afraid there is not a black and white answer to this question. It goes without saying that when you know members of your virtual community in person and have opportunities of interacting with them face-to-face, this definitely has an impact on the quality of the conversations and undoubtedly facilitates the virtual interaction.

This does not mean that you are at a disadvantage with it comes to engaging with members who you do not know in person. I am firm believer that you can establish collaborative relationships with people who you have not met in person. At the same time, I also know that when you have had the luxury of meeting them in person and have an opportunity to "socialize" with them, this will end up having a night and day impact on the quality of the relationship.

While I cannot agree more with Mitzberg statement that we need both networks and communities, as a technological determinist I am not sure how to internalize his conclusion "The new digital technologies, wonderful as they are in enhancing communication, can have a negative effect on collaboration unless they are carefully managed. An electronic device puts us in touch with a keyboard, that's all" as I believe that technology is nothing but a tool. It is up to the user - that is US - to make the best use of it.

I am putting the question and perhaps my personal dilemma to my KM and social media communities and I look forward to hearing your your view and ideas. I am sure your informed views will help take this conversation forward. Let me thank you in advance for your contributions.


Bonnie Koenig said...

Great post and topic.

Communities as we all know come together for different purposes and the formats/tools they use to forward their purpose can and will be different. So some communities can probably be very effective just operating virtually (as was previously noted many of 'us' who have responded thus far only 'know' each other virtually :). But in other cases in-person interactions are not only 'nice' but can be necessary. So in the example you gave of introducing 'disruption' I have found that (as we are humans and often respond with very human emotions) it is much easier to manage disruption (where emotions can often be intense) while maintaining the unity of the community in-person than online.

Just some initial thoughts. It is a topic that is very nuanced and a bit hard to tackle in 140 characters or even in the short give & take of a blog post and comments, so I hope 'your community' can keep exploring this together in one way or another!

Joitske said...

Hi Roxanna, I also read Mintzberg's blogpost and I disagreed. "An electronic device puts us in touch with a keyboard, that's all" is not true anymore. Even the opposite is true. Most people are now in continuous touch with their friends (sometimes co-workers) and that changes the experience of nearness. Hence with online technologies we have the tools to create for more closely knit communities. Some years ago I read about the term 'distant closeness' but now I don't see this term anymore. It describes living at distance but feeling a close intimacy through technology.

Maybe Mintzberg has never experiences this?

Luis Suarez said...

Hello Roxanna, thanks a lot for the ping (on Twitter) and for the heads up on this terrific blog post! Wonderfully crafted reflections on the power of communities and the role technology plays to ENABLE them to achieve a certain purpose. Each of the paragraphs you put together triggered a number of thoughts and ideas in my head, so will try to add some of them over here to keep the conversation going:

1. Technology will NEVER be able to kill a community, I am afraid. It's what most folks seem to keep ignoring time and time again. Communities ARE people, not tools. Regardless of the technology, the community will always be there. In fact, they have always been there without technology and thriving pretty much. A community can never be killed. It can go dormant, but it can't be killed, unless the core component, ALL community members, decide to move on and do something else.

2. The example you mentioned about how communities can join and divide is a clear instance of the work ahead we need to go to move from Cooperation / Collaboration into Coopetition, where we collaborate to compete with our competitors in an open, collaborative and social environment, where technology is the enabler of such interactions. This is where most communities are stuck at the moment as they don't feel comfortable inviting the enemy to sleep with them, when that enemy is the main option available out there to help them grow, not necessarily just out of their comfort zone, but just that, grow, as individuals and as members of a community.

3. What's starting to become rather troubling is how everyone keeps (ab)using the term 'community' to refer to plenty of groupings that are everything, BUT communities. I think we need to do a bit more of a conscious exercise as to what *is* really a community and what it is not. And, to me, the key aspect to differentiate them from everything else has always been the VOLUNTARY nature of members to gather together, connect, share, learn on a particular topic for a specific purpose. No voluntarism in there, no community. That simple.

4. I'm really sorry for what I'm about to say (got a blog post coming on the topic myself as well...), but, like mentioned in the comments above, I'm going to disagree 100% with Mintzberg's blog post, because he 'totally' misses the point on the blend of physical AND virtual communities. If things were like he mentions, I would have been unemployed for the last 18 years of my professional career, where 99% of all of my knowledge work has been produced, shared, connected, learned through BOTH physical & virtual communities. I had numerous times the situation where I was part of communities and networks where I was the only person in Europe. Everyone else from elsewhere. Did that stop us to connect, learn and work together in a social, collaborative manner? No, not at all. Quite the opposite. Working in virtual, remote networks and communities helped us work harder to amplify our physical interactions whenever we would find a chance to meet up.

I suspect Mintzberg's article is a reflection of the world he comes from, Academia. Today's business world, more hyperconnected, integrated, networked than ever ignoring technology, AS AN ENABLER, is a completely different story. And a case in point in here, Roxanna. You shared this article out there to the #KMers community where a bunch of us have already met in real life, and plenty of others haven't. Like you and me, yet, here we are, connecting, collaborating, sharing on a topic we are both truly passionate about, and we have never met. The moment we do is going to feel like we know each other from back in the day, coming close to 10 years, if I recall correctly, when we first bumped into each other through our KM blogs. Yes, case in point.

Luis Suarez said...

(Continues from previous comment …)

Like I said, technology is not going to kill communities. People are communities. And it's our ability to use social / digital tools for a specific purpose (connect, share, learn, collaborate, cooperate, coopete, etc) that will dictate the health of a community, but judging from where we are, I think we are all alive and kicking and doing very well, both in real life and through our virtual interactions. And when we meet up F2F ... Oh my !!! So wonderful! I just can't wait for it to happen! It will be like having a wonderful coffee & cake where we can catch up from what we talked about yesterday, as if it were from like forever! :-D

Dan Newman said...

How deeply unsatisfying an on-line community is compared to the village square. Yet when it's all we've got, we're very grateful for it.

Unknown said...

A couple of cents :-)

Binary - community dead Y/N - question and a vast array of dimensions / viewpoints / thoughts / observations / beliefs and angles; also in the comments and re-tweets.

My thoughts go to Heidegger ( and specific; technology demands a modernity, a worldview where people are things, potentials, objects, numbers.

Technology is persuasive; on hand-helds people call, look TV, tweet, gamble, consume digits in public and private and in meetings.... Northern 'development orgs' are in techno-limbo and lost in producing digital flagships an Yammer disasters. People are obsessed with being connected or show withdrawal when not!

Privacy is a dirty word. A tweet a day will keep the donor away :-) Funny is that the Geo-positioning data - your position in the real! - is most valuable for virtual busyness (development?) with IT; look at Uber, SMS alert etc. But also dangerous; having the geo-pos data of your spouses lover are needed for a crime-passionelle by drone :-)

Technology is NOT free; one has to be connected, use energy and time.

There is a serious tech-war going on on the Internet; Internet itself is a commons under thread; also Wikipedia struggles ....; fraud, theft and SPAM are serious problems. Regimes use technology to oppress people / communities.

The link between a stock market and the forest fires in Asia is technology and habitats for communities is threatened......

And technology brings so much good too.

Block-chain technology has the potential of fee free financial (finance = information) transactions kicking banks (Libor manipulations, bankrupt Greece) out of the equation.

Technology brought my dads hearing aid, my phone with emergency button, Tetris, my glasses, low cost intercontinental phone / video calls, etc etc etc etc. Given my turns around the Sun, I probably would be dead by now without technology!

And the most fun is to manipulate information with technology because we can simulate situations (serious gaming), emulate behavior (agent based modelling) and most amazing suggest a virtual presence. Read Cesar Hildago's book 'Why information grows' where he explains development in terms of matter, energy and information. Any URL can become a community!

Back to the question.

There is no way back; the opening scene of the Movie Space Odyssey 2001 (look at 1:25 - 1:40 in shows a monkey using bones of a carcass as tool, technology, and throw it up in the air to change into a spaceship.

Development and with it communities and networks are heavily dependent on technology. In the end technology is behind climate change.

Yes, technology (or disruption through technology) does kill communities. Look around in the USA and everywhere you can see deserted areas because of new technology (cars instead of horse travel, home shopping, video on demand, Tinder instead of church evenings etc etc; communities split up. Dams and new cities made communities to be uprooted. Walls and surveillance keep communities separated and / or oppressed

Perhaps 'digital communities' are best nurtured by technology :-) In that case we are only talking about pumping around information. Lets just agree that technology is of specific but limited value for full blossoming of communities.

Anonymous said...

Coming late to this thread and so many great contributions already. Recently I've been very taken with the analysis of Kentaro Toyama who states that technology is an amplifier of human intent (not a creator of it).

For communities this means that technology can enhane them e.g. bringing people together in a community who might not ordinarily be able to find each other, or making that experience richer with different forms of communication, and helping them work together in new ways, helping use new tools to better surface content and expertise BUT this will only work of the human dimensions of successful communities are present and are nurtured e.g. passion, commitment, expertise and trust. The challenge is often that people think a better technology will replace these and focus on the technology to the detriment of developing the human ecosystem needed forit to function effectively. Unfortuntaly there are no technological shortcuts on the people side of things despite what those woh make and sell technology platforms would like us to believe.

Nancy White said...

I've been on the road and running like a maniac, so finally circling back to nod in strong agreement with my colleagues above. Right on, brothers and sisters! There is nuance. I think many writers want to make a strong statement with a binary. Context always matters!