There are a number of events on online community management, social software and communications coming up this year. I'm glad to see the topic of community management is thriving even after decades of existence. These are the live meetings in the beginning half of the year or so; I left out the online events and webinars since they are quite numerous.
The Online Community Report indicates events
- Feb 21, New York City, NY - Online Community Unconference East 2008
- Mar 20, Palo Alto, CA - Mobile Communities Unconference
- Apr 14-20, Mt View, CA - Online Community Business Forum 2008
- Jun 18, Mt View, CA - Online Community Unconference
- more in second half
The Society for New Communications Research
focuses more on communications, marketing and PR roles O'Reilly Web 2.0 Expo
Evans Data Developer Relations Conference
- Apr 22-25 San Francisco, CA - Web 2.0 Expo
- Sep, New York, NY - Web 2.0 Expo
- Apr 7-8, Redwood City, CA - 4th annual Evans Data DRC
I'll add more as I find them, but as you can see it's a hot topic this year.
In my earlier view, I only identified two stages: social networks, and communities. The former describes a loose network of people who generally keep in touch with each other for a common purpose, whether purely social or for business purposes. The people within the network usually know the others, and have some degree of strong ties with each other, but they don't really define themselves in detail as a group, have well-defined goals or ideology. This contrasts against the next level of networks, the community
, which do have a common identity and purpose, and where the network of people generally work together for the direction of the community. Beyond the community is the organization,
a very strongly oriented group of people, often with defined objectives, budgets and even some level of hierarchy as to how they should work together.
Somewhere in between the social network and the community are other social models. What Howard Rheingold keeps describing as "smart mobs", a loose social network of folks who gather on an "instant" basis for a specific purpose. This is slightly different than the pure social network since folks in a smart mob have a (vaguely) defined purpose: anyone who is interested in X, let's meet up to do something. Other descriptions for this are often used in events as Birds-of-Feather (BOF) sessions, and Meetups. Unlike the more personal connection of a pure social network, the members do not necessarily know each other from prior contact and simply have a common interest. This can also be a transitional idea; one the meetup is over, the members disperse taking the knowledge gained from the event. Sometimes, they do keep in contact and evolve into a longer running community of interest
, where membes return to keep working on that interest.
Another model that is described aptly in The Starfish and the Spider
(see my book list
). Groups like the Apaches of North America (circa 1800s); Alcoholics Anonymous, a peer-group organization, etc. These have some of the characteristics of a social network in that each group is fairly independent with no overall leader. However, they also go the next step along where there is an organizing principle or ideology, and there are local leaders on a decentralized basis. I call this as something different--some will say I'm just splitting hairs--because the overall larger picture of the group is never centrally coordinated. For that matter, something like this is hard to converge into a realistic distributed model, unless there is a strong need for and common belief amongst the members that the goals and purpose are what they share. Otherwise, it tends to be a localized organized that never grows beyond it's domain.
On the other end, the centralized community, seems like a good idea to try out at the beginning but over time this can grow into an inherent bureaucracy instilled in trying to centralize activities. It has some advantages in that there is less tendency to deviate from the mission of the community across the distributed organization. The Starfish model on the other hand has resilience, but truly works on a decentralized basis if the core goals and beliefs are truly of common interest on a distributed scale, and has been tested over time. Otherwise, it can break down into separate factions as each group goes its own way.
The key to group involvement in any of these types of people networks is still strong leadership and influencers. There are good practices and models for each level that can help people work faster or better, but the idea still depends on a having an interest in being a leader and keeping that interest and momentum going over time. I'm surprised by how many folks keep imagining that they can instantly grow a network from complete zero to success in a very short time. Such situations are pretty rare, and usually, new ideas that work in this vein really leverage existing relationships, population moods or past history to get there, rather than truly working from zero.
I'm reading the chapter in Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams' Wikinomics
book on Prosumers. (see my book list
). It makes a particular point that I should highlight:
The old customer co-creation idea was simple: Collaborate with your customers to create or customize goods, services, and experiences, all while generating a built-in market for your wares...
This is the company-centric view of cocreation. We'll set the parameters by telling you when and on which products to innovate. You'll give us your ideas for free, but we'll choose the best of them...
I couldn't agree more with them on the intentions of the company. However, I still have to agree that the same examples they give in other parts of the book are still similar to this idea. For example, even digg has basic limits on what you can do: write a short port, or vote. Even though digg allows anyone to submit a post, it still sets the parameters on when people can innovate. Fine line? Possibly, but the reality is that short of giving a complete blank slate for anyone to do anything, the real value actually comes from giving guidance and parameters on how people can participate on a social site. If you make it too open ended, it may end up becoming too unfocused on purpose. In other words, if the leaders or owners of the community/social site define the purpose and focus area, then the users have an idea of what to expect and what to do there.
The model for prosumption that Wikinomics
talks about is more about mashup culture, and the idea of enabling consumers to freely interact to create their own versions or interpretations of products. This means that the prosumers--a distinct subset of your overall users, and possibly even a relatively small percentage depending upon the complexity of the product--should be allowed greater freedom on how to use the products and share their ideas. Wikinomics'
suggestions on how to harness prosumers is very good:
- prosumption goes beyond individual product customization (limited only to each user) - it means engaging users earlier in your product development cycle or even making it simple to remix them
- loosing control - you sacrifice some control to allow them to do mashups, and you need to more actively engage the prosumers to keep track of successful ideas
- customer toolkits - make it easy for prosumers to customize the product through user-friendly (not obfuscated) customer tool kits
- become a peer - recognize that the company now plays a role as a peer of the prosumers, not patrons
- sharing the fruits - prosumers expect to be able to share the fruits of their customizations; help them, don't hinder them
The practical reality that I tend to see is that unless it is a very widely used product, the amount of prosumption activity can be fairly small. This goes along with the idea of participation inequality. So the amount of prosumption you enable may really depend on the value you think this work will generate. In some cases, the product is simple enough that people can add or extract the parts they want to create a new thing (with a little skill or perseverance). In others, you need to create well-defined interfaces that allow access to a complex piece.
It's easy to give a hugely inclusive environment like Wikipedia
and then say that wiki's can apply to everything, but it simply doesn't work that way. Participation in wikis, or for that matter any social service, depends upon the number of participants in the system, and more importantly, how many really care to be there. For that to happen, the users and potential prosumers need to easily see the value of being in that community. The simpler or more evident the purpose, the easier it is for people to decide if they want to be in that community or not.
Beyond just reading or consuming the info in the community, you need to find ways to engage or challenge the community to invite participation; and make it easy for them to participate. The more immediate it is to interact, the more interaction you will get. From simpler interactions, you can start building more complicated interactions and generate that recurring following. These return participants are what help to spur prosumption activity, or at least bring that activity into the context of your community. This is where more the abovementioned suggestions from Wikinomics can come into play.
I keep running into Chris Anderson's activities lately. First, I'm listening to his dW podcast interview
on our site this week, and next we had an internal meeting for book authors that Chris came to talk to us about. The main discussion in the call was more about how to approach book writing and some ideas that he found successful for his own bestseller, The Long Tail
(see my book list
). Some of it rang so true but is still missed by so many authors.
For one, he talked about blogging from the very beginning on the book as he did on his research, and carrying the conversation on regularly and for a long time. Chris started blogging from the beginning. It helped in shape his ideas, but also helped quite a bit when it came time to launch the book; he gave away a thousand copies of the book to all the bloggers who interacted with him on his blog. This, I think, really helped to spread the popularity of his book.
Blogging is certainly popular but to many book authors it is still a new phenomenon, even in the tech industry. With that in mind, many authors think that they should start blogging when their book is nearer completion that from the beginning. I think there are two parts to this: a) in general, for a blog to become even barely known takes a long-time of ongoing and active effort; b) blogging about your book helps to build awareness. In other words, if you already have (a) going for you, then (b) should be easier. However, back to my point on blogging still being new with many authors points to the fact that many of them don't even have (a) going for them.
To give my example, I am working on a book and many of the ideas that I have talked about are spread all around this blog of mine. However, I don't think I ever stated that intention. For me, the ideas are more significant--and even more than that discussion of the ideas--than the point that its for a book. But perhaps I should state that intention right away and define the premise more openly. I'll save it for a different post so as not to distract from Chris' point here.
Another interesting point and one that is dear to his heart apparently--he just launched a new startup BookTour.com
on it--is about authors engaging others in live events, book tours, presentations, speaking engagements, etc. I think it's a great idea and fits my philosophy: most people need help on learning how to generate a community around an idea or even themselves. What live or virtual appearances and activities do is help to build that community and reinforce the significance of the work. By Chris' own admission speaking engagements can have a better ROI than book sales, even if they go hand in hand; and I don't disagree with that in terms of getting paid for day-long appearnaces versus spending months on a book. This means that as an author you need to spend the time and effort to actively promote your book and not just rely on the publisher's marketing team. The argument I always hear on this is that most people have full time jobs and do not have the time to do so. This is where I think an idea like BookTour can come in really helpful.
Let's take an online parallel: we at developerWorks are about to launch a new aspect called Expert spaces
amongst other features. This allows a person to create a community around their own activities using different social software tools not unlike what groups of folks are doing with our community topic
spaces now. Like our spaces now, you can start a blog of your own to talk about your project, link in resources your find useful. If you want to go a step beyond, you could even write parts of your book in a wiki online and ellicit comments about the contents you share.
For our own team, this means that we will now need to help these experts get going on communicating in this new way. BookTour focuses on the specific activity of bookwriting; we have a much wider focus on building awareness about any technical expert. We do that now to some degree, but there is a lot more that we could learn.
I picked up Market-based Management
by Dr. Roger Best (see my reading list
), a textbook of the "traditional" approach to customer-centric marketing. I'm looking into the ideas on how companies look at customer focus, satisfaction, loyalty, and retention. The processes are probably very different but online communities of all forms also face some of these same issues and the existing ideas and metrics may give insight into similar metrics from the community view.
There are some very different views here though:
- product markets are much more well-defined and often well tracked by industry watchers, analysts and support organizations, and therefore may have access to industry-wide data/metrics
- a product market can be easily measured in a fairly universal way in terms of dollars (or other currency denominations), whereas communities don't necessarily have purchase transactions or a common currency system
- community value and contributions are by definition more subjective according to the perceived value by the community at that point in time.
- communities tend to start off much more lightweight and sometimes may even prefer to stay that way, versus the goal of most product markets is to grow (revenue, marketshare, customers or other quantifiable items)
Still there are many parallel concepts that can be borrowed. A few of the many examples:
- customer "terrorists" - as this book describes it, where current or former customers who are dissatisfied with the product can turn against the producer. This parallel exists directly in most communities.
- customer loyalty - one measure of community success is through developing a loyal following, whatever that process and metric may be. This concept is broken down into customer satisfaction, customer retention, and customer recommendation, all of which are also important to a community.
Beyond just the basic measurement of each community, there are the issues of measuring the effectiveness of your community program itself. The parallel is measuring the effectiveness of the marketing program or strategy separately of the end-results driven. This means understanding market share, awareness, availability, etc.
The reality is that even with the decades of having online communities we really have not reached a significant level of sophistication in measuring online communities. Perhaps things needed to happen to emphasize that such as the rise of social software and Web 2.0, the acknowledgment of the long-tail phenomenon, the improvement of web metrics collection tools, and the effects of influencers online.
I see this as something entirely different than the success of the online ad marketing, which everyone can see is a multi-billion dollar opportunity. With online ads, some of the traditional ideas and methods still work, and even some of the traditional metrics may apply. However, a community, where the value comes from the knowledge economy, is likely quite different than a currency-based economy.
With growing interest in online communities as basis of support for real-world products and offerings, business & technology development, market reach and awareness, I think this is a large field waiting to be explored.
The sudden charge of Apple stock over the past two days due to rumor--yes, it's definitely rumor not fact--about the coming of a iPhone Nano, so soon after the recent iPhone launch is a quick study in swarm intelligence. As the Business2 blog indicates
, this is an example of rumor going wild and spreading quickly.
Swarm intelligence, if you haven't heard of it, describes how very simple behaviors can amount to "smart" decision-making through the work of a swarm of individuals. This theory started originally in the study of how swarms of insects, birds, fish and other animals seem to make intelligent decisions with relatively simple brains. For example, how a school of fish know to move rapidly away in a direction of a predator seemingly all at once, or how ants know when it is time to rebuild their nest or send our foraging parties. Each creature is programmed with a few very basic rules of how to function: e.g. if one or more of my neighbors is suddenly turning and moving rapidly in a new direction, I should be too. They count on individual actions, and the propagation of reaction through the swarm.
Swarm intelligence is a form of collective intelligence, but when it hits humans, the complexity grows because of our seemingly greater decision making abilities. Collective intelligence is part of the spark of interest in the social networking side of Web 2.0. Swarm behavior exists in humans at a basic level, but we call it by a variety of other things like herd-instinct, mob behavior, market trends, crowd movement, flow, etc. There is a lot we can learn from this in SN: how folksonomies grow and change, how decision making happens in online groups, what causes idea propagation, etc.
In the iPhone Nano case, I can see several basic elements: recent excited activity, seed idea, association with recent activity, trusted parties doing research, publishing/syndication, amplification, individual and market reaction.
- recent excited activity - Apple released its iPhone, one of the biggest 1st day successes in history, to an eager world
- seed idea - several Apple blogs picked up on an Apple patent for a new use of their touchwheel to dial numbers
- association with recent excitement - the idea could theoretically apply to the iPhone
- trusted parties - Kevin Chang, an analyst in JP Morgan (a well known and trusted investment institution) came across this information
- publishing/syndication - both the blogs and JP Morgan published or posted on this, and the trusted party information got syndicated to news organizations
- amplification - news organizations everywhere jumped on this
- individual reaction - individual investors saw this as good news for Apple in the longer term and started buying stock
- market reaction - the individuals and institutions all around eventually pushed the Apple stock to new heights
This isn't all that different than one or two herring thinking they saw a shape seemingly like a predator salmon nearby and started shooting off, and the reaction propagating through the whole school. And we call schools of fish jittery. :)
This trend is well known by successful spindoctors and public relations organizations, and there is a whole industry of job roles behind it. Again, it sounds Machiavellian and controlling, but it really is how information flows.
In terms of social networks, we need greater understanding of what actually works in an online social environment, which is a different setting and may have different behaviors than live groups of folks.
I'll be presenting alongside several other folks to a marketing audience in a webinar 2pm ET on Wednesday July 11th
, on Web 2.0 and community building, hosted by eOne Group and the Multichannel Merchant web site. It should still be open for registration
up till the day.
I picked up my copy of The Starfish and the Spider
again to look back at how they describe their approach to building a community. The book advocates a new view of decentralized and non-hierarchical organizations, systems, even software. The two creates refer to the hierachical organism (Spider) that can survive loosing some parts of its body but after a point dies, as compared against the distributed organism (Starfish) which even when cut into pieces, essentially break up into multiple separate and surving organisms.
The reference is directly apt to communities, and in this light relevant to our Spaces
model. Essentially, it is a way of how a community can organize itself. Per the book, there are five elements that help to make such a system successful: circles, a pre-existing network, ideology, catalysts,
In our view, a Space is a virtual implementation of having a circle of people that allows them to interact in any number of ways their own circle see fit. This is the home room for the virtual membership to gather together, interact or share information.
The pre-existing network comes from the large membership--6 million the last I checked--that already exists in developerWorks. However, that's not the only place. We also expect to draw folks from other areas of the Internet, which is why syndicating information from your space is so important. While circles can survive losses of members, they still need some minimum level of participation to sustain the existence of the system; otherwise, rather than subdividing, your membership simply dissipates. This is why for the long-term it is important to try to recruit new members. Of course, that still depends upon the intentions of the circle itself; they may decide that the circle only needs to exist for a short-term. In our model, the syndication not only helps to share information, but also acts a way to potentially draw more members based on their interest. The potential candidates can judge for themselves if they like the output of the circle.
However, raw information from the circle is not enough to bind people together. This is why ideology is of value. Call it what you like: mission statements, guidelines, values, tattoos, etc. They represent the ideas that the circle hold of importance; their view in relation to the information. Such ideology is not always necessarily complex, or spelled out; they may even be too subtle to ascertain from the regular ruminations of those on the roster. A better organized group works to make sure that their ideology is made apparent. To help shape that ideology, you need catalysts and champions who help raise and direct the circle.
dW Spaces can help shape the circle and tap pre-existing networks. It can even help the circle describe and post their ideology. However, this is where the software meets the wetware. This is where the brains of the catalysts and champions play key roles. In other words, software alone is not to build communities. It helps to to facilitate them, but you still need the people working to bring it together.
Our view in developerWorks is to try to help these communities start and grow, and collect the ideas of what works well in different situations, to feed back into other communities. That's a long-term process as well. Even though, the staff at dW may not be directly be the catalysts and champions, we try to help new them by acting as a common resource to collect and distribute that knowledge. In big companies, that is often referred to as a center of excellence. While we don't call ourselves that, perhaps that is the role we fill.
The Webcast on Social Networking and Software as a Service is available for playback
. It has a free registration link there.
I also did a developerWorks podcast
in that same week, and the feature article
on our main site, all about what we are doing with creating communities with Web 2.0.
We launched our developerWorks Spaces
project at the Web 2.0 Expo last week. The page has more information including a video and an interactive tour of what the project is all about, but in quick summary: with our spaces system, you now have the opportunity to create your own community microsite around a topic, project or other activity for developers that can bring together multiple social networking tools, any of the developerWorks articles or tutorial content, or any RSS feed from across the Internet. We provide an easy web-based tool for you to create the community topic space and publish it to share with everyone. Please visit the URL for the project to see how you can apply for your own space.
I will also share information about the project in a webcast this Wednesday on April 25th, 1-2pm Eastern Time. This 1 hour long joint webcast together with the Software as a Service
team is available through the IBM PartnerWorld webcasts as Social Networking and Software as a Service
. It's a free webcast but requires registration to use the tool to see the slide presentation, the demo, the Q&A, and polls.
After about 4-5 hours of sleep the previous night, I was still in reasonable shape to do my presentation at the 3rd Developer Relations Conference
hosted by Evans Data Corp. This is a gathering of the folks who run developer programs at different technology companies, with speakers from Sun, Nokia, BEA Systems, Eclipse, Motorola, Yahoo!, HP Software, Intel, Borland, AMD, and many more (and of course ourselves from IBM). It seems an anachronism to have an event where all these companies that are competing for many of the same developers to share knowledge but I think it opens minds and views all the same.
My presentation was Extending your developer network with Web 2.0 communities
, discussing what you need to know about communities to pick the right kind of Web 2.0 tools for yours. For all the organizations that may go headlong into setting up blogs, wikis, etc., and even multiple competing instances, without really understanding the communities they are trying to create, I hope this talk gives provides some food for thought. (The powerpoint works best in slideshow mode: F5).
I attended a few of the other sessions but the one I found refreshing was Chad Dickerson's talk about Hack Day at Yahoo! Chad's a Sr Director at Yahoo and responsible for organizing the internal Hack Days, and more importantly, the external Hack Day
last June. I had missed this event entirely (busy with my then-8-month pregnant wife). They essentially opened up the Yahoo campus to 400 developers from all over who agreed to come and spend 24 hours developing new projects and mashups using Yahoo's many APIs. The format was what intrigued me:
- Developers could come from anywhere but they had to agree to code, and not just be an observor
- The developers actually camped out on the Yahoo lawn and ate and slept there for a day or two--even people like David Filo stayed till the wee hours of the morning
- An unconference model where people signed up for any project that they thought of, led initially by talks about the APIs themselves
- Yahoo employees roamed around the developers and stayed with them through the night
- They had Beck give a performance there, which was quite appropriate considering he'd just appeared on the September 06 cover of Wired
- The Legal departments agreed to let the developers keep whatever rights to their own code (seems the right choice but hard to accept by legal teams sometimes)
- People could make whatever projects they wanted to work on, although at times, it raised some eyebrows
Now this is very obvious customer-led innovation. For all the executives and analysts that like to throw that term around, this model is the concept implemented in what I think is its truest form. I applaud Chad and the Yahoo team for doing the right thing and having the guts to put this together. Read more from the TechCrunch blog
soon after the event. Here's hoping to the same success again this year.
Two other ideas from The Starfish and the Spider
(see earlier post
; book list
) as the foundation of peer-developed community are: circles
and pre-existing network
The concept of a circle stems from how most peer groups (small social network) start: with a small group of folks. This is the very old idea of clans, tribes and even villages. Jared Diamond's excellent book Guns, Germs and Steel
, describes how these groups originated in primitive human societies. The fact is that this is still the way many communities start, but of course, with a different purpose than survival. The small group allows the members to get to know each other on a more personal level, become familiar with their interests, and what they want to work on together. This relationship building on a one-on-one basis in a small circle greatly improves the bonds between members and allows that social network to exist.Per my previous scale
, a social network exists when the members know each other and have a vague or a definite idea of why they want to meet, but do not formalize the group with an identity. This means that the group in a social network tends to fall apart as enough people leave, since it only exists based on the individual relationships between the people; once those relationships are broken, the group breaks apart entirely. A community however, has an identity separate of the individual relationships, so the chances are that it can exist without the original members as long as there are enough people who know how to carry on the community.
The value of the small circle is the relatively tight bonds that exist (or the circle just wouldn't last very long). As more members join in, they look to the original circle for guidance and leadership. This is a basis for a stronger community. Having such circles makes it possible to build a community from ground up. There are some prerequisites, many of which are obvious when it comes in-person circles, but harder to implement in virtual circles:
- regular meeting times
- easy ways to communicate directly with other members one-on-one
- easy ways to communicate directly with others as a group
- understanding nuances, facial expressions, body expressions, etc.
By having these prereqs, the circle is able to stabilize around what each member may know about the others, and thereby the basis for building relationships. Obvioulsy, you still need the other elements like Catalysts, Champions, Ideology, etc. but those either initiate the group (catalyst) or emerge from the group (champions, ideology).
This may be the basis for a circle/small social network, but it is still different from large social networks and communities.
As I read a part of Brafman and Beckstrom's The Starfish and the Spider
, it struck me how similar some of its ideas are to Douglas Atkin's The Culting of Brands
(see my list of Books on Communities
). I'm going to have to cross reference some of this again later but both describe at least one common element necessary for building successful peer networks (starfish), or brands (culting of brands): ideology.
Brafman & Beckstrom's book talks about having a shared ideology amongst the members of the peer network. This could mean several things from having a core sense of values to a shared sense of purpose to a shared direction (each different things). However, they do not point out the specifics like Atkin's does:
- How do you motivate people towards this ideology?
- Showing the love, as they say
- A statement of value
- Shared iconography and symbolism
It's not hard to see why they don't because in a pure-play peer network there is no centralization that develops these ideas. They are amongst one of those nebulous things like asking someone why they like Harley's, swordfighting, anime, open source software, Apple Inc., etc., aside from technical details. Loyalty is an implicit and hard to define element, whether it is an organized program, or a decentralized community.
On occassion, when you get enough mass, some of them will try to write down what these are--the Apache foundation went through this, but so sometimes so do the many community folks who start to write a FAQ--but each group goes through a rediscovery process of these ideas.
My view is that communities grow by their own efforts, not on a very focused path, but evolve over time and stabilize at a certain point. Some of the really successful ones actually start off because they are not something else (as in not the mainstream), which often predicates that they do not look into how other communities form. By trying to break into a new direction, they tend to leave all other ideas behind.
The other part is that a truly decentralized community tends to follow leadership (another hard to define quality), and not only does this change over time, but not all our leaders know how to organize a loose network of people such as a community. Without this kind of understanding, it becomes a harder process of successes and failures, and rediscovery of the same ideas.
The books just don't stop coming. I've found three more titles that may be worth reading in relation to online communities and the evolving notions around them: The Starfish and the Spider
, and The Wealth of Networks
. (See my amazon list
for link info).
The first book focuses more on the ideas of spreading organizational behavior from a top-down model to a non-centric or peer-networked model. This sounds like an interesting idea for organizations with many peers doing similar jobs (e.g., consulting), but I have yet to read it to understand how it works on a large scale operation.
Wikinomic's from Don Tapscott is likely a must read for me to learn more from this semi-socialogical study of wiki behavior.
The Wealth of Networks was on the list of best books of 2006 from the magazine Strategy+Business
, alongside other books like The Long Tail
(also on my amazon list). It takes a macroscopic look at peer-networking inside and outside organizations, and the impact of those relationships on a business.
"I have recently entered SecondLife, out of curiosity of this new medium. Many people consider it nothing more than a 3D chatting/dating environment. IBM is not even taking communities on dW seriously, such as the discussion forum community. Why should IBM then be interested in this 3D virtual world of chatting/dating? Graphics are far less then the (2D) websites, information is much harder to publish or to find. Everybody is already hating spam mails and ads on websites. What does make SL so special for IBM??? Or are we going to sit (our avatar) in virtual classrooms or meeting rooms? Why not simply use IM (instant messaging, like Sametime), netmeeting, webcams, Skype, phones and other real-life interaction/communication mediums."
This is only my dime-store psychology at work: I think one big advantage over SL is that it takes into account that most humans are visual animals. If you can see something moving around and doing things, then it is probably "real". However, when it's a post left by someone that doesn't give an indication of who that person is, what else they are doing, etc., it is much more easy to ignore them.
When just read the information on a community site and ignore the actual person who writes it (happens very often), it becomes only a piece of data, and you evaluate it in terms of the value of the data, rather than the value of the person. Unless you are a frequent reader of that site, you may not pick up on names; people tend to ignore or forget names unless something really sticks out about the person, and online with aliases, nicknames, etc. it is easier to ignore them. The first impression is that you may not know who this person is; if you have an opinion about them, you still don't really know what others think about them. Unless you really spend the time (very rare) to get to know a specific person, you essentially take the interaction for the face worth of the data they provide.
What I'm talking about here is the underlying social capital of trust
. It is more difficult to trust an unknown source especially with little background, little peripheral knowledge around that person, limited ways of finding out what else they know or have contributed, little understanding of their relationships with others, limited or disjointed contact with the person, etc. This overall potential but disjointed relationship is hampered by the fact that most online community services are not live. This also sort of explains why some live services are even more successful: instant messaging, online chatrooms, MMOGs, videoconferencing, and secondlife.
Of course, when I say "live" in the online world, I mean it only in thecontext of direct communication within a given session rather thannecessarily an actual face-to-face. With a live service, you can (or at least attempt to) directly communicate with the other person, rather than build up a relationship through separate deferred messages back and forth via email, postings, comments, etc. The more live you get the better your chances for building a connection with the other person and probably faster too.
On the other hand, most people do not have the time to build many relationships and a live meeting takes up direct individual time, and will probably require a number of sessions before such communication becomes any form of a relationship. This is the classic battle between the need to develop relationships and the need to preserve our own time. It's also why deferred communications through postings, etc., counts as the next best thing. And hence we start with basic communication services like discussion forums (focused purely on deferred messages to a group).
What is needed however, is to try to flesh out the deferred interactions, or bring in more aspects of "live-ness". A step up is a blog, which is still deferred but may give you agreater understading about the person (blogger) based on their thoughtsand writings. To get more information about the person, they should have a profile that describes their background. Another direction is a wiki: while deferred, it allows people to change the content in a pseudo-live way, rewriting each others material as they care to. Another really helpful tool is a peer-to-peer rating system, so you can understand what people think of the person's contribution in their various engagements around the community. Finally, having actual live online services that they can attend on occassion or on demand, fills it out.
All these combine to give a once anonymous other person, a greater depth and personality, and a basis to consider whether this person, not just their knowledge, is worth making a connection with
I'm not sure I answered Franks question, but this "live-ness" is part of it. Add on top of it, the ability to create, and enrich the environment with more tools and "feathering" to make it an appealing environment to communicate, gives Secondlife a much greater depth in terms of community building.
But, what Frank points out, and what I indicated about time-restrictions of live activities, remains true. Most information is and probably will always be in text. So, no matter how fancy a visual environment you have, without text content, it may lack sufficient information to learn from others. In other words, secondlife may never truly replace the web, since deferred communications ("do it on my time, not yours") and text ("easy to create info") is still the primary choice.
Sorry to say to all those who dream of living in the Matrix, but when it comes to gathering information, you'll still need the realm of text (until we evolve enough to dispose of text entirely). You can talk to people, and interact as much as you want, but the most common way may still be in reading the information.