Rising above: Communities of practice

Let’s talk local on foursquare

When thinking about rising above the global social media fray, it appears to me that certain people are helped by their local communities of practice.

If you have ever studied strategy from an academic point of view, you may be familiar with the lesson contained in the case of the Italian ceramic tile industry.  In a nutshell, it’s a story about how the competitive dynamics of a tiny town in Italy helped local businesses capture 30 percent of global market.

I see similar factors at work when seeing how local communities help individuals connect and gain attention.  As the old saying goes, “out of sight, out of mind.”  And while having an active online presence raises one’s visibility, it must be backed up by a real-life community of practice.  Let me show you a few examples of what I mean.

These local goings-on are frequent and low key compared to big-bang events like SXSW, BlogHer, or Web 2.0 Expo.  Serendipity can happen on a more regular basis, if you’ve got the right local community.

Moreover, all of the events I’ve mentioned above are the ones that are actually blogged and tweeted about.  They’re just the tip of the iceberg.  The really valuable conversations are the ones happening as a result of 1-1, live conversations.

I know there’s an apparent irony here – that all of this social media stuff is virtual and location is less important than before.  That may be true at a surface level, but the digital world has never and will never replace the physical world…except in Hollywood stories.  DMs, hashtag chats, threaded conversations are all useful and can help us initiate and maintain relationships.

But the core of credibility is your local community of practice.  Rising above is much easier with a strong one.

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  1. Social psychology tidbit of the day: proximity is the biggest predictor of friendship. So it’s almost as if we’ve developed all the means you call out above (DMs, hashtags, etc.) as proxies for physical proximity. I know, it’s not new to think of those methods as ‘means’ to strengthen ties, but helpful to think of the ‘end’ as building perceived communities of practice– moreover, ones that feel local.

  2. The biggest takeaway I received from this post? Get on the Foursquare train now. (I’m on-board already.)

    Would be amazed if Twitter did NOT acquire them in the coming years…just too valuable a service for localized integration.

  3. This is a fun observation, Pete … and an important one.

    The UNsurprising part of this is something we all know … the magic of “social” has little to do with tools or technology, and everything to do with the way that people interact with one another. The social media “boom” has certainly enabled that on a scale (geographical and sheer magnitude) that we never imagined, but it’ll never replace the local and the face-to-face … geography just carries too many “connecting hooks” between people to ever be replaced or disregarded.

    Thanks, as always, for sharing thought-provoking stuff!

  4. The proxies work to a limited extent – reinforced by sporadic in-person contact. This isn’t just in the social media world, I’ve experienced it when working at Forrester and PUMA. Emails and IM regularly and then meeting once in a while in person.

    I wonder if a hyper-active online participant can actually create ties as strong as an in-person network. It works for online dating, right? The connection is initiated online, strengthened over time, and then consummated with an in-person meeting.

  5. I feel affiliated with a handful of different localities and right or wrong, feel that some are better primed for community success than others. For example, I’ve met some smart people in Louisville, but there are just too few in the area to make a difference. Austin is a pretty small community as well. Boston is active, but the practitioners seem to be concentrated in the PR agency world.

    San Francisco, the peninsula, and the valley are undoubtedly the epicenter of social today. New York has decent mass as well. Tough to gauge the health of non-US cities, but I think Sydney and London are quite strong as well.

  6. Peter,

    As obvious as it seems, this is a point worth making. The world turns on daily routines, local habits and what we might call communities of practice (but many would just call the “everyday”). Local and real world habits are arguably much more binding and strong than offline ones. We all need face to face, regularly and with regulars!

    It’s the reason I still use my corner store — not price, product selection, or some other “incentive.” Incentives are necessary when the relationship is too loose or thin to provide cause for return.

    it seems the challenge for many businesses that do have a strong local following is to leverage and extend that loyalty online, through use of social media. And the reverse challenge for brands big on social media is to deepen and anchor that loyalty in grounded and local communities of practice (as you put it). I’m not sure a brand can ever “create” a community of practice, but it can certainly try to attach or embed itself in one. These are mutually reinforcing efforts, different and unique in their own ways but increasingly cross-pollinating as a result of the proximity, presence, and immediacy effects of (new) social media.

    There’s an implication to your post that i like — it’s that online “relationship” are not all that; and offline get-togethers are not just that. Online our relationships are driven by “talking” — messaging, sharing, etc: messaging and communication is the emphasis and it’s a reason that brands take to the medium. Offline, our relationships drive talk and conversation according to our natural social articulations: friendships, peer relations, and so on.

    In other words, online the communication seeks to become relationships; offline our relationships bring conversation to life. The two are different, and while I hesitate to say that they are co-dependent (the online world can appear bigger and more meaningful than it is), a commercial strategy that recognizes the mutually reinforcing benefits of pursuing both “communities of practice” is smart and firm.


  7. That’s why 8+ years of monthly (sometimes more) live events with thought leaders, innovators, and disruptors as curator of the Fast Company social network in Philadelphia – it is the best way to learn about, practice ideas, and create projects in addition to meeting cool people you may not normally meet in the course of a regular day. Those Italians – watch out, they rock! Did you read about Brunello Cucinelli? Warning, linking to a post I wrote a long time ago – simpler times at Conversation Agent : )

  8. Thanks for including me in such good company, Peter. I don’t hesitate to say that all of the social media work I do online would be relatively unsatisfying if it didn’t lead, at least some of the time, to face-to-face meetups and connections. Doesn’t matter how good the online tools are; sitting down across the table from each other and brainstorming (or having a beer) will always be the most powerful form of communication.

  9. This is an excellent post Peter and one that really resonates with me! Before moving up to Boston this year I spent an entire year driving up here 2-3 times or more per month to attend events while I was living in CT. Many times I had to drive for longer than the event lasted. The reason I did it was because I cared about being a part of the community. Now that I have moved up here I haven’t been as great about making it to local events due in part to my travel schedule. But, it is something that I think is very important.

    Your local communities are the ones that will support you and each other. You build strong bonds and they’re more likely the ones that you’ll see more often. It makes going to the bigger conferences even more fun because then not only do you see friends from other locales but you’re able to have a blast with everyone from your community, outside of your normal area.

  10. I take for granted that I live in a densely populated urban space where daily interaction with people is a given, even though I work from home. It allows me to be somewhat lazy about how I manage my relationships, whether online or in person. For example, I haven’t had coffee with my best friend in over a month, even though we live and work a 1/2 mile apart.

    My husband is being transferred to Madison, Wisconsin, however, and so now I’m facing the prospect of moving to a place that –no matter how hip and connected– is nothing like San Francisco. As a result, I’ve been planning to conduct my own personal experiment in whether using meetups, or FB or Twitter can actually help me establish a new community in my new home. And whether those same tools can help me stay connected with my current peeps.

    Daunting, indeed.

  11. We’re very lucky to have Bryan Person here in Austin now. I’m pretty intrigued by our ability to form in-person relationships as a result of first connecting online. I’ve never tried the online dating thing, but have made a number of connections online in Austin, and beyond, that are resulting in quality relationships. It’s almost as if we’re learning to read body language and intuitively size people up our online communications. For example, my instincts about Bryan Person, based on his writing, his avatar, etc. have been almost exactly right. He’s even nicer in person than I thought he would be, but I was pretty close.:)

  12. In Cleveland I started meeting many of the locals I knew online through Meet-Up groups such as the Cleveland Webbloggers group. Then last fall, some folks started the Cleveland Social Media Club. We now have over 800 members, meet monthly, and collaborated on an ebook, http://www.welcometosocialmedia.com, the first in what we plan as a series to help local (and other) businesses and individuals learn more about social media.

    Something I’ve discovered through this is how the online and real-world connections reinforce one another. After I meet someone in person I seem to also converse with them more on Twitter, Facebook and the like. We read each other’s blogs and pay more attention. The reverse is also true. Last summer when I went to speak at a conference for Web developers in higher education I felt like I had a ready-made group of friends, because I’d already chatted with so many on Twitter and Ning. A year later I still feel more connected to the ones I met in person than to the others I’ve yet to meet. Overall the ability to meet in person gives us a chance to grasp more of each other’s personalities, while the online associations help to maintain those bonds during the time that passes between real world meetings. It’s a good balance.

    Something similar, if not quite as powerful, happens when you connect with people on more than one network. When you add Facebook, LinkedIn, blog comments, Skype etc. to a connection first made on Twitter you also get to see more sides of a persona. It’s not as rich as meeting in person, but adding these layers, does offer more depth to the overall experience. I’m also seeing this transpire via real-time Twitter chats. By meeting in real-time we can have more indepth conversations, even through 140 character Tweets. In this case, with chats we’re creating communities within communities, even if local applies to time and topic rather than time and real space. But the point is it doesn’t stop with chat, the conversations also segment into smaller communities, and teams that might share e-mails, make calls on Skype, etc.

    Whether local means Cleveland or a small splinter group from chat X, it all serves to help us take the conversation to the next level.

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