When done well, virtual events are and can be the catalyst for bringing a community together, not just for 2-3 days but an ongoing period of time. Jordan Schwartz is the President of Pathable, a leading online community and social networking service for conference and events. Jordan has a passion for community building and shares his thoughts how the first social networks fostered successful communities.
You don’t have to be a psychologist to run an effective virtual event, but understanding some basic of human psychology can help. For example, what do Media Richness Theory, Social Presence Theory and Social Activation of Prosocial Norms have to do with on-line communities? Quite a bit, as it happens, and many virtual events are losing out by ignoring the lesson.
Before we dive into the work of 1970′s era cognitive psychologists, though, let’s visit a bit more recent history: the dawn of the modern on-line social network, because that’s where our story begins.
The first on-line social network to break into the mainstream was called Friendster. It’s still around, but ended up failing in the US. Why it went from the 40th most popular site worldwide to the 800th is a lesson for another day, though. Today, I want to focus on its success: how did it go from zero to 3,000,000 users in its first several months?
If you guessed that it was the first on-line social network, that’s an understandable mistake: you probably never heard of the many that came before. No, the reason it was so successful, the thing that set it apart from earlier tries, was that it was the first social network to include photos of the members as part of their profile.
Amazing, right? Now it seems like every social network has a photo next to your name and company, but that wasn’t always the case. Compuserve, BBS’s, MUDs, MOOs and others all explored the idea of creating on-line communities to varying degrees of success, but what led to mass appeal was the simple photograph.
Why? There’s an enormous amount of information to be gained from “looking someone in the eye”, but there’s also an emotional connection that seeing someone’s face can build, and that’s where Media Richness Theory and Social Presence Theory come in.
Social Presence Theory classifies communication modes based on how much they make participants aware of each other. Talking to someone face-to-face is a high social presence activity, sending a plain-text e-mail is very low.
Photos increase the perception of social presence, they make you feel like you’re seeing someone and talking to them, and there’s a wealth of data that increased social presence can lead to what psychologists call “prosocial behavior”. The rest of us just call it “being nice”. That is, the more you feel like you’re standing next to someone, the more you feel like the people you are talking to are real people, not just words on a page, the more likely it is you’ll spend time helping them, working cooperatively on projects with them and just being polite.
For example, have you ever been involved in an e-mail “flame war”, where someone loses their cool and snaps rudely to a group mailing list? If you haven’t, count yourself lucky, it’s an ugly thing to watch (or worse, to be involved in). But have you ever been involved in a flame-war on Facebook or LinkedIn? They happen, but honestly, I’ve never seen one.
Why are they so much less common on Facebook than e-mail? In part, because of the increased social presence and accountability you have when you’re looking at someone’s face as you talk to them.
So, what does this all have to do with virtual environments and events? Just this: as you choose your solution, be aware of the psychology principles that can determine the success of community. Be sure it includes not just names of participants, but photos and other cues to social presence that will improve the humanity and civility of the community that you create on-line.
I’ll be talking about some of these lessons and other stories from the field with Debbie McGrath of HR.com and James Ward of NFI Studios in our “ Community Strategies and Tactics: Actionable Community Building Techniques” talk on January 12thy at 4:45 pm at the Virtual Edge Summit. I’d love to see your face there.
Play smart with the psychology of your members and you’ll get an A, forget your lessons and you’ll need a therapist.