Social Metaphor Mixer

Face it: face time remains the most valuable way to forge relationships. While the Web makes it possible to find almost anyone, nothing compares to shoulder bumping and elbow rubbing when you want to make useful business connections. That's why networking remains the most compelling reason to attend the Buying and Selling eContent conference. Not only is the show a content-biz Who's Who, almost every aspect of it is designed to provide networking opportunities. In fact, sometimes the actual conference sessions feel like they get in the way of why everyone is really there.

This year, the keynote and several sessions revolved around user-generated content (UGC), mostly as the foundation for or result of social networking online. The BSeC roundtable discussions offer an excellent hybrid of networking function and conference sessions, and I moderated one on UGC. While most participants were hesitant to 'fess up to the specific interest or problem that motivated them to choose that particular discussion group, we were lucky to have a few social networking/UGC ringers in the group, including Socialtext CEO Ross Mayfield and Release 1.0 editor Esther Dyson. Mayfield has a vested interest, given that his enterprise wiki concept is predicated on user participation and contribution. Dyson, while a professional author and editor, bases much of her work on how the Web empowers the people and vice versa.

Overwhelmingly, those who participated in the discussion recognized that, given the success of sites like MySpace, Friendster, and LinkedIn, social networking can enhance the draw and stickiness of their sites. Yet the Net is much like offline social ecosystems in that having a party does not mean anyone cool is going to show up, much less get up on stage and rock the karaoke machine for all to see. Sites can deploy all the technology they want to facilitate site-visitor interaction and hang up a "Welcome, contribute your content here" banner, but it takes a mysterious mix of social lubricants to inspire people to make their thoughts public. In the case of MySpace, one of the most well-known, widely used, and controversial online communities, the primary user group—teens—has a low threshold for participation: simply seeing themselves online meets a fundamental "look at me" need. Friendster works similarly, enabling online communication among peers, while LinkedIn is all about expanding your network of professional contacts. An aspect all share, despite the potential for Web-wide exposure, is the semblance of exclusivity, requiring invitations to participate.

LinkedIn, one of Dyson's favorites, works like a chain letter on steroids and relies on the desire to make business connections, inspiring viral networking pass-along. During our BSeC roundtable, discussion of LinkedIn prompted Mayfield to emphasize the power of recommendations from influentials. In other words, at first you only invite a few key people to contribute "and seed your user-generated content with some quality goods," and then encourage your A-team to invite others to join, and so on. Just like the thrill of finding any other under-the-radar hotspot, hearing about a content site from a friend or colleague and finding that the site's appetizing menu works wonders for making you want to frequent the joint. Fine, you've got your invitees contributing content and bringing others in to check out the fare (and maybe even comment on content), but that's a long way from building a volunteer army of content contributors à la Wikipedia.

Unfortunately, even a roundtable peopled by content luminaries can't produce a single replicable formula for creating online communities around content, much less inspire users to contribute. However, there are some things almost guaranteed to lubricate social situations, and something similar can be said about the Web. Free drinks—in the form of content samplings—may bring visitors in, but to bring them back, interaction needs to pay off by providing either visibility-cachet or meaningful social interaction. At BSeC, I find the social interaction meaningful, even inspiring. This year, my session table-mates inspired me to try something new in podcasting. Paul Gleason and Brian Sherrill, JDV Online COO and VP, respectively, told me a bit about their latest venture, (an online content marketplace), and we decided to collaborate on something on the spot. At one of BSeC's trademark networking events, the Cookout on Mummy Mountain, we recorded some rough audio and video, and took some photos. Then Gleason and Sherrill put a Flash slideshow over the edited audio to create their own flavor of podcast (dare I coin the term Flashcast?). I happily gave their new format a whirl.

While it remains to be seen whether netizens dig the format, much less my foray into podcasting, at least one online community site exists solely for those who don't like it (or any number of other things): Snubster, an anti-social networking site that gathers people around what they hate. Hey, whatever gets the party started, right?