User profiles do not a community make

user profileI find myself somewhat sceptical about the value of user profiles and of so-called communities based around individuals: a social network in fact.

Joining a social network and setting up your user profile often gets you nowhere – you know nobody and you cannot communicate with anyone because you have no “friends” – there is no obvious way to create ties to other people other than having to go and “butt in” on their page and introduce yourself. And then what do you next?  If you do manage to connect with someone – that’s one person you’ve made contact with, not a community or a group of people. It’s the new-school  playground all over again.

Unless you are “adopted” by someone who is already well-connected you can forever stay at the periphery.

Step 1: I join a network, fill in my profile, find two people I know or like the look of and friend them, and then nothing happens.

Forcing oneself upon individuals who do not know you is daunting – anyone who’s ever been to a networking meeting can tell you that!  To create a sense of community there needs to be an extra level of engagement – the group.  Joining a group is much less daunting, and if it is public then by definition new members are welcome.  There will be things already going on in the group which will allow you to start taking part. In that way you may meet individuals and communicating one-to-one, or you may continue to interact one-to-many in the group space.  A group allows for peripheral participation for those who haven’t the confidence or the time to interact in a more visible way, and it allows for vicarious learning because you can read what others are saying to each other and pick up information from that.

In a social networking environment where user profiles are central, groups are often set up willy-nilly by individuals.  You may have no idea which groups are active or useful, at least until you join them, and there may be hundreds to sift through.

Step 2. I search for groups on my topic of interest and join three. One turns out to be defunct – nothing has happened since 2007, one has become a private chat group for a group of mums in Southport, and I’m rejected from the other (which looks the liveliest and most interesting).

Of course Facebook is living proof that this kind of thing works. There are several reasons for that – because it has mass adoption, because it is based around existing real-life communities (based on educational institution), and because there are conventions that people tend to pick up.

Stuart Sutherland writes in the ALT Newsletter about how user profiles are at the core of the  National College’s new online networking and learning environment. He reports early indicators of success.

“The user profile is a key element which makes our system the sort of “open learning environment” anticipated by Jane Hart. Your view of other people and of their activity is not dictated by your membership of a particular course or programme.

“Early anecdotal evidence of how our members are using the system suggests that user profiles have a real influence on how other members discover activity. They are a key ‘node’ in the network via which members can find other activity and knowledge through people.”

From The National College’s online network. A case study in building and managing a professional networking and learning system by Stuart Sutherland in ALT Newsletter, 1 Feb 2011

Since my early days in managing communities back in the 1990s I have been convinced that some provision needs to be made for nurturing communities, for taking it beyond a collection of individuals to become a genuine community of interest or community of practice.  But back then most people were unfamiliar with online network and community behavior and conventions. Perhaps people are now able to take over more of the community creation activities than was previously the case.

In the paper mentioned above, Stuart comments on community management and facilitation actions that have been found useful. I remain convinced that community stewardship, management, moderation, or facilitation (whatever you want to call it) remains an essential, if changing role if we’re not to move our users straight onto Step 3.

Step 3. Nothing is going on, I can’t see how to further my involvement in the network although some people seem to be able to interact a lot.  I give up, stop visiting, direct email updates to my junk email, BUT leaving my full profile for the next new member to come along and find and vainly attempt to make friends with me.

I’m thinking of doing a small research project of my own, possibly in the successful ELESIG community, to see whether and how members use each others’ user profiles and associated pages and comment walls.