Mark Pollard shares this excellent presentation given to the IgniteSydney crowd recently. In it, Mark talks about his experience of running a large, interesting, and influential website, Stealth Magazine … well, it started out as a magazine, but is really a meeting place – a community – for hip hop. Since 2002 there have been 128,000 posts, 11,000 topics and almost 2000 members. Clearly this is a vibrant (and viable) website – and in this presentation, he shares his Seven Things to be Learned from Hip Hop. You can read through the background notes here.

What was particularly interesting to me was Mark’s conception of community – and his point that “anonymity is the antithesis of community”. This,in turn, generated some debate with Julian Cole and Matt Moore driving alternative points of view. Of course, like any definition, “community” is also hard to pin down.

My interest in community is mostly around the way that communities move (and can be moved) in relation to human behaviour. Whether we know it or not, almost every interaction we have with another person leaves a trace of our identity. Think Gattaca on a physical level and think language/nuance on an emotional level. Think style in terms of our visual footprint. The thing is, we are pre-programmed to be social – so we betray ourselves even with our best attempts at subterfuge. And for all the chaos and noise of our daily lives, it is remarkably easy to find the holes in “fake identities” only because it is incredibly difficult to be consistently somebody else. And this was made abundantly clear to me recently when I was the subject of an experiment in chaos, courtesy of Marcus Brown.

Taking a lead from this speech by Heath Ledger as the Joker, flipped a coin and decided to unleash a little chaos. On me/my site. It appeared that he had learned of some flaw in Feedburner that opened a door … or so he claimed, and I was being singled out as “Mr Age of Conversation” – yet another . But he paused before moving ahead. He published a poll asking whether chaos should be directed at me, or at his own site. He gave us a choice. By coincidence, this all happened during a week when I was disconnected – on holiday and with very limited Internet access … so I did not really know what would happen and what the outcome would be.

I waited for the votes to come in. I checked my email each couple of days, but could not see much action. I visited Marcus’ site a couple of times but the voting looked pretty close. Eventually, the votes were counted. I had received an enormous number of votes – and I thank everyone who supported me. As Marcus explains:

People will do anything to save Gavin Heaton. What surprised me most was how devious they were about doing it. I know for a fact that most of the people (there were about 700 of them) came into vote off the back of an email. It was brilliant to watch because they were keeping so quiet. There were only a couple of tweets about it and the volume was very low. It was fascinating to watch.


What Marcus was watching via voting patterns combined with web analytics, was the activation of a community. But more interestingly, it was a swift and directed course of action set in train by a single request (as Marcus explains, most voting was triggered off the back of a single email – sent not by me). And this is where community comes into play. While the “network” could have been used – such as Twitter or a blog post – that sort of open dynamic can also invite additional chaos and randomness into the mix. That means, that for every positive response (on my behalf), there could well have been additional random responses which could go either way.

In my view, community is about belonging. It is about the actions and interactions over time which build a web of mutually reinforcing reputations. These repeated patterns of micro interactions allow us to create a “social judgement” about the people with whom we interact – even if we don’t know their names, we know them by the traces left in the consistency of their actions, in-actions and communications. I was “saved” from chaos by the orchestrated mobilising of a community to which I belonged – by the people in whom I had established a bond. And at the heart of this, at the very centre, was trust. As Valdis Krebs explains:

… people are loyal to what they are connected to and what provides them benefits. People stick with established ties they trust. Interacting with those we know and trust brings a sense of warmth and belonging to the virtual communities we visit via our computer screens.

By activating a community (rather than a network), response could be directed.

As I have said before, Marcus is one of the foremost practitioners of social media creation. He inhabits and creates a storyline like no one else I know, and activates it with an intensity that turns our gaze around on ourselves – making us ask the question – will he do it … or will I? That is, he forces us into a state where non-participation is also an act of engagement.

When I read the lead-up posts on Marcus’ blog, I was wondering who he was targeting. But by the end of the first post, I had an inkling that he was talking about me. There were clues scattered throughout that were pointing in my direction. And yet, even when he did announce that I was the target, it still sent a shiver down my spine. My intuition had read the signs, but I had not yet comprehended this – I was caught by the story, and had not yet brought it into my real world. But I was reading superficially. I was reading what was SAID, not what was MEANT. I was ignoring the mind reader’s toolkit.

What does this all mean?

Clearly “authenticity” is hard to fake – but we ARE easily swayed by a compelling story. It’s why headlines work so well – they set the parameters for the narrative that follows. For in the story – and in this case -  a live unfolding of events, we are in-effect practising SOCIAL JUDGEMENT. And while, in real life, we are able to use a variety of cues to determine the trustworthiness of certain situations and/or individuals, in an online environment, we are still finding our way. As David Armano asks, do you know who you are talking to?

The thing to remember, however, is that trust trumps story.

On reflection, I realise that over the last few years I had followed, almost to the letter, each of Mark Pollard’s seven steps … but it was the last THREE steps (pass the mic, let the community self-regulate, get off the computer) that were the catalysts for action. And this is important – because my interest is in driving behaviour and creating the conditions for participation.

And as we move into the meat of 2009, and your marketing plans firm (or shrink), I want you to consider this. Think about how “social” your media plans will be. Think about the directions you want to move and how you want to get there. Determine the conditions through which you can create social judgement. And most importantly, ask yourself – who do you trust – and who trusts you?

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