Dunbar's, blogs, fans and community
Over the past few weeks, a few of my blogging colleagues have raised the issue of Dunbar's number in the context of establishing relationships with bloggers and communities. Among them Kami Huyse, Jen Zingsheim and David Wescott.
Dunbar's number? You may not know it by name, but you certainly do by reputation. The general gist is that the upper limit of a social circle is 150. It is often cited in discussions about community building; if 150 is an upper limit for relationships, how can social media scale? Of course, Dunbar's number has its origins in the study of primates and grooming circles, which is not completely extensible to human relationships and certainly not to online relationships, which are not subject to the limitations of the physical world.
Even online, though, one to one relationships don't scale. On either side, company or blogger. In this respect Dunbar's number is correct. We cannot be “best friends” with everyone.
Kami recently suggested that we think about social media outreach as building relationships with communities.
But we don't build relationships with entities; we build them with people.
A relationship with a person may be extended into the community if the reputation of the one merits it, but I'm hard pressed to call that a relationship in the strictest sense. The strength of the one person’s relationship with the rest of the community dictates whether this works. It all depends on how much the others in the group rely on her opinion, model themselves on her behavior etc.
The question isn’t, are they her friends? It is, are they her fans?
That’s why I think Kami is onto something, but I would cast it in a slightly different light. When we aim for scale, the answer isn't to focus on the community as an entity. It’s to understand that what we want are fans.
When we aim for scale, it is a one to many relationship. We will probably use some one to one relationships as the building blocks for the larger effort, but net net, it will be an entity – a company – trying to build or influence a community.
And really, what we are trying to do is turn our customers into our fans.
In order to do that, we have to tap into what makes people care. What makes them love.
Because community isn’t just about group dynamics, although they are part of it. Or the need to assemble in a collective, what Francois Gossieaux calls tribalism.
What brings, and keeps, a community together is love.
This is why when I think about building communities, no matter how dry the product may seem, I focus on what makes people care. What inspires them.
And why I think we can learn a lot about building communities from studying fandom.
What’s fandom? In the simplest sense, it is the informal and formal groups that spring up around entertainment -- an artist or a team or a television show or a movie franchise. It’s the passion that makes people paint their bodies red white and blue before a Patriot’s or Red Sox game. Dress up as Mr. Spock, Princess Leia or John Crichton for a “con.” Read and write fan fiction and spoiler sites. Buy boxes of pencils to send to media moguls during the writers strike.
Even though people have been collecting due to shared interests for as long as we've had society, fandom as we are discussing it here is mostly a 20th century phenomenon driven by mass entertainment like the movies and organized sports.
The shared interest and relationship to a franchise – show, artist, athlete or actor -- brings people together. Over time, the members develop relationships with each other. Sometimes those relationships last longer than the fan relationship, leading to a community that interacts on multiple dimensions – the initial thing that brought the folks together, and then all the other shared interests that the members find they have. As Shrek might say, like an onion, with layers.
While fandom existed well before the Internet, the Net and particularly social media have most definitely accelerated and expanded the fan effect.
If companies want to achieve a similar impact, by either building a new community or influencing an existing one, we need to understand more about what makes a fan.
Why are the fans so passionate?
It starts with the product – the quality TV series or the top sports team or the great band. But it's more than just the entertainment value that builds the passion of fans.
It's the relationship that the fan has with the franchise, which doesn't have to be “real” to have tremendous power. The fan doesn't “know” the artist, character or athlete, but she feels she does. The perceived relationship, the one way relationship is enough.
Not because she's delusional. Because the artist reaches out to fans in numerous ways that create a sufficient relationship for the fan. Starting with the performance and moving from there. Fan clubs. Conventions. Sports teams thanking the fans for their support.
Celebrities make personal appearances, attend conventions, authorize fan clubs, set up their own websites for communicating with fans. They share what they can to encourage the fan to feel like they know them, to stay invested in them, to appreciate their work. Joss Whedon is a great example of an artist who does this exceedingly well. Among other things, he participates regularly on fansite Whedonesque; his fans feel connected to him and every project he does has a built-in audience of viewers before it even hits a screen.
Even though we don't really know the artists, athletes or actors, we know they value and care about the fans. That they strive to deliver a good product that we will enjoy.
So the first two elements a company needs to deliver if it wants fans are:
- have a good product that meets their needs - Value;
- show you care about the fan and walk the talk – Engage.
Now, once you have fans you have to keep them. This is where Respect comes in.
Some artists and athletes forget that their power, their franchise, is fan supported. They may have the raw talent, but if people stop watching the show because the star is phoning it in or the producers replaced a fan favorite with another performer, it's hero to zero in a flash.
You must respect your fans. Don't stop listening and never think you don't need them. Because the last thing you want is fans gone mad.
Where does the love come in? It runs throughout.
Love your product and make sure it has what it needs to make your customers love it. LOVE IT.
Love and respect your fans as much as they love and respect you. You need them collectively far more than they need you. They can always find somebody to love. Doesn't need to be you.
So, if we believe that fandom will help us build community, how do we make that happen for our products? Most products aren't sexy or entertaining or funny, although advertising certainly tries to make us think they are, or that we will be if we buy them.
But that doesn't fly in social media, right? We cut through the bullshit or at least we like to think we do.
How do we find and feed our fans? That's the key to community.
And the topic for another day.
We will probably touch on some of these themes in the Social Media and the Writers Strike panels at BlogWorld Expo on Saturday. If you are in Vegas, hope to see you at one of them.
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