Building SMART Online Communities

Community management posts have become a bit stale. There are a lot of people saying the same thing. Not that any of this content is not worthy (although some of it is questionable depending on source and experience), but it is a lot of the same direction regurgitated or repackaged in a BuzzFeed approach. Over the past two years, I have thinned out the community management and digital voices I was listening to and started to look outside our industry for inspiration. A year ago, The Community Roundtable (one of the few resources I kept on my radar because of quality of content and internal discussions) invited Thomas Vander Wal to present about the links between community management and urban planning. Instantly intrigued, I took copious notes and read the recommended book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. The original copyright of  this book is 1961, yet many of the messages in the book are timeless. I read the 50th anniversary edition and covered the book in highlighter and Post-It notes.

“Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance — not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any once place is always replete with new improvisations.” 
― Jane JacobsThe Death and Life of Great American Cities

The way Jacobs explained the design and user experience of a city dweller, I understood the connection Vander Wal presented, so I began to seek out current urban planning thinking and discussions and stumbled across the smart and sustainable city discussions. If you follow me on Twitter, you have witnessed my obsession with this content. The community management discussion and linkage extends beyond social media community and into the broader digital ecosystem development. Social media networks are merely the green spaces or collective areas within the online city. More on that later…

The blog discussions led to the reading of The Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time by Jeff Speck (check out the TED video), The Happy City by Charles Montgomery, and Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia by Anthony M. Townsend. All three authors reference Jacobs and build on her original ideas to propose a user-centric environment. Many of the same urban planning principles and phrases used in the books I also found referenced in online development resources. Websites, social media networks, mobile solutions, and other digital assets are being created by organizations to serve one or several communities.

We are building online cities.

(And some organizations are creating viable pathways between nodes or neighborhoods, while other companies are facing urban sprawl challenges as they create unrelated mobile apps and microsites.)

The spark was lit. For the first time, in quite a long time, I was inspired to once again discuss community management, and present best practices with fresh perspective. Earlier this year, at SoloPr Summit, I mustered my courage to present on this topic and was encouraged by the positive reaction to the connections I was proposing. Over the next several months on this blog, I will outline the links between community management and urban planning and the five-step process I have already started to put into practice.

  1. Understanding the digital ecosystem
  2. Establishing zones
  3. Building crosswalks
  4. Developing green spaces
  5. Packaging experiences

It is time to go beyond theory, stop talking strategy, and forge a pathway that can only be discovered through action.

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