In Search of a Community That Takes ‘Me’ Out of Social Media

    by Dan Schultz
    December 15, 2009

    As someone who aspires to be a new media expert, I don’t actually use many popular social media services. I dislike Facebook, I rarely tweet, and before winning the News Challenge I had never written a blog post. It would seem like I’m downright un-hip; yet I’m a young technologist who has been communicating online for more than half of my life.

    Why the disparity? Simple: I care more about community than myself.


    I’m sure you’ve heard people talk about the ego-centric nature of today’s social media, which tend to focus on one-to-one and one-to-many communication. Not only does the spotlight on the individual create an unappealing blend of “often boring” and “always noisy,” but it also makes it essentially impossible to facilitate real community. In fact, even the systems that are designed for groups leave much to be desired.


    We all want to inform, and form, our communities using today’s digital tools, but how is this possible if the proper tools don’t exist? If there isn’t anything out there that can host community on the Internet without sacrificing something important, then maybe it’s time to invent something new. I’ve been thinking about where community stands at this stage of the digital era, and what these new tools, or tool, might look like. Here are some of my thoughts.

    Charting Digital Media

    I’ll try to simplify things by visualizing the current state of social media in terms of “focus” and “scope.” (See image below.) The location of each icon on the spectrum is subjective, so don’t ruffle your feathers if, for instance, you think Twitter should be closer to the “group” side. The point is to get a sense of where existing services might fall, and start thinking about the costs and benefits of each quadrant.


    Focus (Individual vs. Group) describes the type of social interaction users engage in on the system. Is the tool’s functionality geared toward private conversations or group discussions? Is content sharing ego-driven, or is there a focus on discussion? For me, if the system is primarily designed for one-to-one or one-to-many communications, then it is individual focused.

    Scope (Niche vs. Global) explains the type of people found on the system. Is the site universally attractive, or is there a well defined target audience? Will users tend to find information thanks to common interest, or will they be exposed to a wide range of perspectives?

    This setup creates a framework for thinking about online services. Here is what I was thinking about when I tried applying it (why I put the icons where I did):

    • Social networking sites (Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn) allow global users to contact one another directly, and create a detailed digital identity. These services provide effective one-to-one communication tools, such as private messages or wall posts, but the group-oriented features often feel shallow and impersonal.
    • News media repositories (Digg, Reddit) let groups share and discover content through collective intelligence. They provide a space for many-to-many conversation, but tend to aim at a global audience, since they rely on network effects to achieve a critical mass.
    • Personal media publishers (YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, blogging platforms) make it easy for users to get their message to the world, and therefore focus on one-to-many communication.
    • Discussion Platforms (Ning, PHPbb, and niche community websites) facilitate communication by creating a space for groups to use. This makes it possible for niche communities to function, though they do so with an element of isolation from the global community.

    Looking for Trends

    There are a few traits to consider within this framework:

    The Noise to Information Ratio: How difficult is it for a user of the system to get the information they want? Intuition tells me that global services have more content, but they also have a better chance of getting enough users to support collective intelligence — and collective intelligence can help the system route information more efficiently. Niche services, however, have less content and a more specific audience, so there will be less noise in the system.

    The Value of Contribution: A participatory system can only exist if it has users contributing content. It seems to me that it is much easier for a user to “freeload” on the activity of others in group-oriented sites by lurking in the shadows. On sites with an individual focus, the user won’t get nearly the same experience if they don’t interact in some way.

    There are also some unscientific generalizations to be made about the four quadrants.

    • Global-and-Individual (upper left) leads to popularity. There is a lot of interest in being able to share your voice to the world, and these sites do exactly that. These are the places online where an individual could become a superstar, or at the very least feel important. If I were a psychiatrist, I’d probably be able to make an argument that people flock to these sites because they secretly like themselves a lot, but I’m not, so I won’t.
    • Niche-and-Individual (lower left) promotes personal relevance. If a user chooses to participate in a niche-content system, they presumably belong to that niche (or aspire to). If the interactions are individual-focused, they are probably applicable to the individuals involved. This adds up to a system where most of the messages are naturally relevant to the people that see them.
    • Global-and-Group (upper right) creates and organizes knowledge. There is something to be said about the crowd’s ability to organize information. When you have a global user base behaving as a collective, there is huge potential for the creation and organization of knowledge.
    • Niche-and-Group (lower right) facilitates community. Community requires group interaction with an underlying common identity. These sites provide space for exactly that.

    Dreams of the Future

    Community tools exist, but they are drastically underpowered. The systems lack the popularity of Facebook, the societal potential of Wikipedia, and the personal relevance of email. As a result, they are drowned out by the far more successful alternatives that I outlined above.

    To change this, we need something that can:

    1. Host niche communities without isolating them from the rest of the world.
    2. Give individuals a chance to shine without letting their egos dominate the content.
    3. Attract enough people to drive collective intelligence, while maintaining the level of granularity needed to provide a truly personalized experience.

    That isn’t too much to ask for… right? I personally believe that these systems will be the key to meeting community information needs. As such, I believe this is the direction that news organizations need to move if they want to maintain/reclaim their role as community informer.

    Tagged: communities online community social media social networks
    • Roby Dyck

      I must confess that you hit a pretty vulnerable spot when it comes to my like for the Twitter and Facebook sites, but I also know that the right way to go would be the lower rt. quadrant, with the Niche/Global community based systems.
      I went the social network way as a Realtor to generate the opportunity to make myself popular, to beat out the competition. Is there a better way with this Niche idea??

    • Faheem

      Hi Dan,

      I’ve been working on addressing that problem for the past four months. Even if not through me, I expect you’d see the solution to this and a few other things in three months from now.

      I’d like you to be part of the testing phase of the project.

      Also, could you delete this after reading.

      Thank you.

    • Good insightful post. We surely need something like that which as you mentioned has the popularity of Facebook, the societal potential of Wikipedia, and the personal relevance of email.

      Wondering if communities of “Ning.com” fall into that category which is quite popular also in many ways?

      What do you think?

    • This is a very cool post and if more people just gave to community instead of just shouting out noise, the web would be more dynamic. The key is to understand that relationships are what matter in social media, and those that just scream about themselves are creating unnecessary noise that people ignore.

    • This is a hot topic that I teach in several of my university psychology and social media courses; the development of community and relationship in the world of social media.

      I do not think it is going away, but it is getting out of hand in some aspects. I believe that in the next couple years we will see a wave of security issues and ID theft cases coming about due to people passing out their persoanl info like candy. I have written several articles on this.

      Dr. Dave Hale
      The Internet Marketing Professor

    • Hi Dan,
      We are indeed working on a platform to enable community building to tranform the culture of “me” to “we”. Please see the prezi on our homepage for more info: http://www.comradity.com.

      Our unique proposition is that we start in the “real world” where there is still a sense of “we”. Specifically, our mission is to network, organize, and maintain the integrity of the people, data, and sense of community that already exists in the “real world”.

      There may be some interesting benefits to applying our system to a local news membership product.

      Coincidentally, I am a member of the PG community out of curiosity, given our work, and because PGH is my hometown.

      Katherine Warman Kern
      katherine (at) comradity (dot) com

    • “Why the disparity? Simple: I care more about community than myself”

      Dan… this “self” is the “Me” that allows you to ever utter this thought.

      Your “Self” gave rise to this blog and everything you have written about for half your life. Your natural and innately gifted Self defines your natural and innate PURPOSE in life… it is the Me of you that makes you able to motivate (motiv’ = to move) the idea of a new form of engagement and community.

      The gift-based Me is Good and has a We-ness and Purpose that is inherent.

      This is your essential and organic and gift-motivated Me which then defines your work and life to date… and which, at this evolutionary-moment, just happens to be looking at this question of a fuller and, in your view, healthier form of online-living-community engagement.

      Okay, here’s my path-of-ah-ha here-now…

      The quality of an We-formation (Hu-collective) is directly correlated to the quality of each in the nth-dimensional Hu-matrix.

      Each Me is more inherentlhy selfless the more it knows who/what it is… (sit here for a sec)

      … and therein resonates naturally and strongly to a Life-Purpose…

      … and therein their We affiliations or even We creations.

      YOUnique individual (Me) Life-Purpose within a collective should be defined by one’s innate gifts.

      This is not the case today. The Me that is innate needs to become tangibly known and representable-over-time, and lived so that a better We-Systems-Evolution unfolds. This is a new “Self-Evolving” way to go in socnet… and it is happening now.

      Those of us that know our gift-based and innate “Me” are a very lucky and very few. The rest of the world, 98.0 or so %, has no clue what they are inntately “born to BE and do”. So, 98.0% of 7B me’s are essentially floundering. Do you think there are more than 1,400,000 super-conscious people on the planet?

      There is no curriculum for knowing your YOUnique Self as a naturally gift-based Me. This fullness of Hu-Me’s we have yet to see. This other “me” you are referring to is a psuedo-self. The real Me of anyone does real gift-driven We work with others… The real Me knows a life-purpose defined and organically motivated by their natural talents and dispositions and is humbled by the power of synergy with other real Me’s. You are such a small population people. You are the abberation, the 3rd outliers. You are unconscious of your own consciousness and the abberrative position in the mix such that you have decided that Me-ness is not a good thing when in fact it is essental to create the best collections of We’s the world needs so badly.

      Authentic, lasting and positive We’s can only come together, healthfully form, and prosper through the resonant collection of synergistic, natural, gift-driven and YOUnique Me’s.

      There are connections here of course as my work is about “leading-out” (educare’ – education – to lead out) the Natural Me-ness that will most efficiently and naturally produce optimized We’s… and over time.


      and there are NO qualWe’s without qualMe’s.

      The Me is the cornerstone. A selfish me is not founded on a gift-consciousness and gift-driven purpose. It is a fraud.

    • Thought-provoking post, Dan. Our local site, Front Porch Forum, gets compared to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube… but it’s apples to oranges, and your chart helps show why… our service is squarely in the lower right quadrant. Thanks.

    • Thanks for the article, I agree about your ideal vision of the social media you described here. We’re going exactly in that direction with faveeo.com actually. faveeo.com wants to leverage the web 2.0 networks of users to create a recommendation system that would push content to users either by topic or by region all based on social user to user recommendations.

      We posted a grant proposal at knight (http://bit.ly/4mLkOh) cause we really think this can change local news, so would love to have your feedback about it! Maybe this will sound like your great idea?

    • Dan – An interesting post – but you are missing an important part of the equation – context. Or maybe, you are not missing it, I just do not see it shining through. The diagram is an excellent approach to lead the discussion, however. What I mean by context is that if a conversation needs to happen it will, independent of the platform.

      There was a great interesting conversation today on Twitter – Two parts of the conversation made it interesting – 1, there was a hashtag, which was an indicator that it was meant to be a many-to-many conversation. 2 – it asked what Twitter was – answer as can be said about many platforms – it depends – It depends upon what people use it for – just as brands are no longer defined by the Marketing departments who launch them, platforms are defined by how people use them. Your experience is different from mine (not in the literal sense).

      A blog can be used to foster community, if participation is encouraged. Email is really lousy at it, as you point out be putting it in the lower left. I belong to very focused, encouraging communities on Twitter. It just depends.

      My key point is that participation is defined by what and why, not how. After all, these are all just technologies. The how usually just gets in the way, our job is to make the ‘How’ as easy as possible. With this in mind, Ning is a great example, meeting the needs in a much better manner than Email – as you point out.

    • Dan Schultz

      Thank you all for your comments (sorry I can’t respond directly to each of your points, but I tried to hit a few of them below).

      @Roby – not entirely sure what you mean. “Better” in what sense? There’s nothing wrong with twitter, and getting ahead of the competition is definitely a good thing. Like Mitch said above me, the value of a tool isn’t defined by the tool, it’s how you use it!

      @ Faheem – absolutely, but you have to contact me directly (there is a “contact” link somewhere on this blog, you can pick my name and it will send your message to me more privately)

      @several who mentioned Ning
      As someone who does have a few visions up this ally that I’d like to bring to reality some day, I was worried when I first saw Ning a few years ago for fear that it had solved the puzzle before I would ever get a chance to try. But, while Ning is indeed focusing on “group” and it is a centralized system, the groups it hosts are just as isolated from one another as sites using phpBB. Ning is a step in that direction, but I don’t see them as THE revolutionary community system (not just yet, anyway).

      @Katharine – Very nice to see a pittsburgh-er around here! How are you going about organizing that data? Is it being pulled from online or are you actually somehow collecting it from the “real world”?

      @Brian – man that is a complex and interesting read. I know this wasn’t your only point, but I will say that I agree entirely that the “me” is not something to be lost entirely. In fact I very much see community itself the bridge between “Me” and “We.”

      @Michael – I actually saw FPF a few years ago and found the idea very interesting. I wouldn’t mind talking at some point to hear what sorts of tools you guys offer your communities and get a better understanding of your operation.

      @Alexis – I subscribed to you guys, let me know if you want a beta tester;)

      @mitch – All excellent points, and you are absolutely right: in the end of it all, how the system is used are more meaningful than how the system was designed to be used, and no two uses are identical.

      Your Twitter example is a good one. And twitter in general is an interesting prospect simply because people *are* finding such creative ways to use it (what you just described is why I could see a valid argument for twitter being more towards the right). The new list functionality in particular does something interesting because all of a sudden you have well defined groups of people who can talk to one another directly, even without hash tags.

      Ultimately, though, it comes down to this: the information surrounding community and group is ridiculously rich, and goes beyond simply being able to host “many-to-many” communication. From what I’ve seen, systems that aren’t explicitly designed to take advantage of that richness simply don’t fully tap that potential. In other words, meaning is being lost (or unintentionally obfuscated) that wouldn’t be lost on a system that was designed with the group in mind. For examples of systems that take advantage of the potential value of the group look at the systems that would fall into the upper right.

      Also it’s worth bringing up a pretty gaping hole in this whole conversation: we never defined community! I’d be wary to say that many-to-many is the same as community (although it is probably a pre-requisite).

    • Chris Kofer

      People make noise. Get over it.

      People join fb, etc to be part of a community for their own purposes. I don’t see how this is much different than life before facebook.

      I feel strongly that these sites have done more to connect people (build communities) with similar views, needs, tastes, etc than most other social forces. It’s simply the economics that drives the process.

      If you feel strongly that that all individuals should be more community-oriented for the sake of community than they are today, that’s entirely another discussion. This is nothing new.

    • You Kids Get Off My Lawn

      Really Dan? Who are *you* to dictate what ‘we’ need and don’t need on the internet? Who are *you* to criticize how Facebook works when you a) don’t even use it and b) already have a bias against it.

      Facebook and Twitter are popular in the face of your fake community-based buzzwords. The people that use them, on the whole, aren’t trying to fulfill some overblown academic ideal of community. They just like Facebook for what it is, a good way to waste some time talking to friends, and don’t care about what you think.

      So if they don’t care about high concept community, why do you? What, did someone make fun of how out of touch you are? Try actually having expertise before claiming you’re an expert. What your ‘social quadrant’ chart really represents is laziness.

    • Paul Orlando

      Community is what you make of it. One can be active on social networks or not. It’s true that there can be a fair amount of pack mentality on social networks, but social networks are about engagement.

    • Dan Schultz

      Oh boy, I didn’t expect anyone to get upset!

      First things first: I dictate nothing. I’m just putting my thoughts out there.

      I actually agree with a fair amount of what you’re saying: these services are popular for a reason and there is a very important place for today’s social media. My point is simply that I see an opportunity for something else.

      One reason I am talking about “community systems” is the potential they could offer for new and currently untapped information that is out there. Another is that local papers are struggling, people are getting more out of touch with those physically around them, and, well, FB simply isn’t really organized for group conversation. Regardless of how you feel about today’s media, there IS potential for something that ties the best of all worlds, and this will be the case whether I write a post about it or not.

    • Dan Schultz

      Also, I want to say how interesting how different the response from the Twitter crowd (most of the first set of comments) is from the response from the Facebook crowd! (PBS syndicated this post on their FB share this morning.)

    • Pam

      I had lunch with two childhood friends and have a play date with one of their sons and mine all this week alone none of which probably would have happened if it weren’t for Facebook. It feels like a virtual high school (the good parts) to me. They, “Hey, we’re doing such-and-such this weekend. Anybody game?” kind of thing. And people who would never call each other on the phone can message back and forth on there easily. I feel like it fosters more group involvement for me (early 40s). And in regard to the niche sites, I might have an interest in common with someone and enjoy discussing it with them, but that doesn’t mean I want to spend time with them. I think they all have a place.

    • A question for Dan and others – do you believe Email is a good engagement vehicle (tool, channel)? For Community?

    • Jon Pfeil

      Well Dan, I read through your post and found it rather intriguing. A friend of mine has been working on a site called The Globally Personalized Forum for quite some time now, and I think it answers most of these problems. I’m not sure if you’ve ever heard of it, but you should definitely check it out — thegpf could be the solution.

    • Kelli

      Interesting post, Dan. I’ve often found myself thinking how strange it is on Facebook that when someone posts something about themselves, you’re kind of supposed to respond to what they said, and not really talk about yourself. Furthermore, it’s common place for people not to respond to photo comments and other posts, which further supports the notion that facebook can be ego-centric. Do I love looking at friends’ pictures and hearing about what they’re doing? Yes. Do I miss dialoguing about important things with 95% of them? Yes.

      Thanks for breaking it down, framework style. =)

    • peter sam

      i don’t recognize all the logos; please add names for the logs, thanks

    • gg
    • Dan Schultz

      Haha Thanks Jon Pfeil – I think you might be right;)

      Mitch: In my eyes email is a very bulky way to do many-to-many. Wave is a drastic improvement, but is still only good for certain tasks and I don’t see it as the savior of online community. Of course, you can launch messages to a community using email, so it is a decent way of communicating TO a group, but in my experience once you get more than a few people talking at once in an email chain it gets overwhelming fast…

      Peter: here are the names of the logos, let me know if you need to know how they match up:

      Upper Left Quad:
      – YouTube
      – Flickr
      – Twitter
      – MySpace
      – Facebook
      – LinkedIn

      Upper Right Quad:
      – Wikipedia
      – Digg
      – Yelp
      – Reddit

      Lower Left Quad:
      – Blogs
      – Instant Messenger
      – Gmail/email
      – Skype

      Lower Right Quad:
      – Google Wave
      – Ning
      – IRC (Internet Relay Chat)
      – phpBB (niche forums)
      – Local Newspapers

    • Gordon

      Dan: Nice to read something that doesn’t just promote something. The Local versus Global question in my mind is what seems to stand as one impediment in this evolutionary march. Also, there are limits that our brains won’t or can’t break out of.

      Personal preferences also play such a large role and the current speed of evolution feels sort of like musical chairs with half the people refusing to get up when the music starts again.


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