The internet has changed the world in countless ways. My two personal favorite things about the internet are the immediacy of information and the development of online communities.
I will never forget one late night, pre-internet, my friends and I were arguing over who wrote “Blinded By The Light”. Some of them thought it was Manfred Mann, since that version is so iconic. The rest of us knew it was Bruce Springsteen. With no way to check, the argument could not be resolved that night. The next day we drove to a music store to look at the copyright dates on the CDs. Today, that argument would not happen. The debate would end as soon as someone asked Siri. While this example is somewhat trivial, the fact that we all now have the sum knowledge of humanity at our fingertips is monumental.
My second favorite thing about the internet is the creation and sustained existence of so many online communities. Before the internet it was a lot harder to find people with like interests. If you were lucky there might be some sort of club in your area with regular meetings. Even that was only generally available for the more popular and mainstream hobbies. Today, however, you can find and join an active online community for a massive and ever increasing list of interests.
The options for hosting communities online have grown and evolved over the years from early online BBSes, to internet forums, to today’s massive social media platforms. There is no one right way for a community to exist online. Some may find the communications flow of a LinkedIn group or Facebook group to be the right fit for their community. Others may prefer a traditional website forum, perhaps to support a more organized repository of useful information. Yet others may choose to meet in Google Hangouts over video for a more personal connection.
Recently, I’ve noticed a new tool being used to support online communities. Persistent team messaging solutions, today’s hottest craze in business communications and team productivity, may be the next big thing in online social networking. I myself am a member of a few groups of technology analysts and productivity enthusiasts on Slack and Cisco Spark. There are several things that I like about hosting a community on this type of platform.
First of all, it has the advantages of a controlled private forum. A Slack group of productivity geeks isn’t likely to attract internet trolls or troublemakers and if someone does get out of line they can easily be kicked from the group. I also like the fact that these solutions do a great job of blending synchronous and asynchronous conversations. Some platforms are better suited for users to make a post, and then check back later in the day. Other platforms are better suited for live, immediate, text chat. Team messaging solutions do a particularly seamless job of supporting both.
Another benefit of hosting communities on these types of platforms is that it can support a community’s growth and transitions in a very natural way. For example, an online course created a Slack group for its students, with a number of existing channels/rooms. The existing rooms were created by the course leaders to support the expected discussion topics. This worked well at first, but the students soon started creating new channels/rooms to accommodate new areas of interest to the community. While a traditional forum can certainly create new subforums, this seemed more organic and spontaneous.
I thought it was even more exciting when the students started creating regional channels/rooms for the Slack group. For example, there is a Florida channel where local students can share information about local events or meet-ups. Again something similar could be achieved with other online community tools, but it seemed to happen very easily and naturally with this Slack community.
Although we are still in the early stages, I have seen a significant variety of online communities hosted on team messaging platforms. In addition to online courses I have seen hobbyist groups using these platforms, bloggers creating groups for their readers, businesses inviting customers, groups for industry analysts, and more. Whether it is the novelty of these new online tools, or the smoother flow of communications, people seem to be taking to it well and many of these groups appear to be very active.
It is too early to tell whether this is a fad for online communities, or whether our good old forums have finally met their replacement. For now, it is just a really nice thing to see people interacting and making new connections online that they wouldn’t have made otherwise.
Are you currently participating in a Slack (or other) group other than your work group? If so, please share your experience in the comments below.