The power of the third place, and why Twitter ain’t it.

I believe so much in the importance of The Third Place.  The bar, the library, the club, the place you spend time when you’re not at home or at work.  (incidentally, this is at the heart of Starbucks’ model.)  A third place instills a sense of belonging to something larger, of having friends, of being loved.

Courtesy MITThis is not the same as an online community.  Although bonds can be formed and connections can be established, there is a limit to the depth of relationship you can have without breathing the same air.

It just doesn’t replace the third place situation.  It cannot.  So much of the experience is sharing a real space, sharing real energy, sharing your stories and laughing together. It’s real connection on a human level, divorced from specific professional or pre-existing social context, and it just can’t be found in its entirety on Twitter or Ning or anywhere else.

One of the reasons I don’t go to many industry conferences is because (for me at least), they don’t function as a third place.  Most of the conversations I hear are around “lets talk about Twitter or about how much we don’t like talking about Twitter.”  It’s not really a third place, its an extension of one of the first two. Meet me for coffee afterward.  Those are where the bonds are formed.

I guess my point is this.  I’m honestly worried that we (us younger folks especially) may be duped by the rhetoric around technology into thinking IMs, Texts and Twittering are meaningful as a ‘real connection’, and that we will settle for a life with wider swaths of shallower connections and not know what we’re missing.

So, if you run a local business, work at a school, have any connection whatsoever with a space that could serve even sometimes as a place for people to connect, meet up, have good times, talk about their shared experiences and generally feel warm and fuzzy, why the hell aren’t you bending over backward for people to have those experience in them?

Why wouldn’t you want people to have those kinds of experiences and connect them with your space?  It’s never been easier to incentivize people to come give your place a try.

Be a Third Space.  Breed connection.  Save intimacy.  Don’t let Starbucks have all the fun.

On Authority: We don’t have it when we think we do.

Judge using his gavelIn this business, we all talk a lot about authenticity, transparency, engagement.  I’ve seen a ton of blog posts, tweets, and whitepapers that say “corporations are no longer in control”. We focus on the new meaning of influence.  This is all well and good, they’re conversations that need to be had, and they are admirable goals that can in fact map to business ROI.

We still make assumptions, though. There are still some old habits we continue to believe to be true. One of the biggest things I’ve been noticing people falling back on when interacting, especially on behalf of a larger organization is speaking from a position of authority.

Authority is one of those nebulous positions that seems to have more to do with our own self-image than about any particular knowledge.

For me, the most appropriate definition for Authority in this context is the typically inaccurate assumption that a given person or organization’s content has inherent merit based on its source, rather than on its actual value to the community.

We all still fall into this trap sometimes. Our blogs are full of posts about the great things we (and the companies we work for) do, we create sweepstakes (read: bribes) built around using a particular product, we try to tell people what to think and what to do. At this point however, it’s not a safe bet to make any assumptions about the authority your voice carries within community. A few of the reasons what we say often doesn’t have the sway we think it does are:

  • We have not built a trusted relationship within our community. You work for the company that makes the product? That’s great. So what? What have you done that would demonstrate to me that I should take what you say about your product seriously? As my friend Jason Falls says over at SocialMediaExplorer, “The trust you build is largely dependent upon the ability to convince them your intent is pure.” If you are the representative of a company, by definition your intent is to sell me on something, which tweaks the bullshit detectors in many of us.
  • We as consumers trust users more than creators. Say you’re a member of a cooking community. Which person would influence your engagement more: The Communications Director for All-Clad, or Bobby Flay? The truth is, unless you’re in a tiny micro-niche industry, there are other more publicly visible experts on your product than you. This already puts you in second place for ‘entity with authority’.
  • Assuming authority without earning the role of trusted advisor from the ground up makes us come off as obnoxious. Instead, (and here’s where the social media nerd comes out) start by listening, and then become a person-sized learning atom within the community.

All of this is hard for us to process. The loop of “We made it, of course we know best, don’t be silly.” is hard to break. For me, I’ve noticed that underneath stuff like that is fear.  There is a fear and insecurity that “if we don’t talk about ourselves, nobody else will have a reason to either”

I’m here to say that I don’t think this is true anymore, and that not always having to be authoritative takes a lot of the tension and strain out of our day.It frees us to lean forward, engage, learn, connect.

Interestingly, that may also be how we build up true credibility in the conversation, as decided by others around us.

What we’re talking about when we say "Be Human"

Community (TV series)
Image via Wikipedia

One of the things I love so much about online communities is how supportive everyone is of each other.  When Christopher Penn announced that he just took a job at BlueSkyFactory, the outpouring of support flooded my twitter stream. Similar things happened when Teresa Basich (and later Katie Morse) announced they were joining the Radian6 team. Interestingly, these congratulations were aimed not just at Teresa and Katie, but also at Amber Naslund, who hired them.

It’s really important to me to support my community and spread the love around whenever I can (I’m not always perfect at it, especially when I’m stressed, but it’s always a good feeling).  This is part of what we all mean when we say ‘be human’.  What we’re talking about is “Give.”  Give respect, give attention, give time, give congratulations, show gratitude. This is what creates a community as opposed to a random collection of twitter followers or a Facebook page that people join and never ever go to again.

When I was younger, I went to a summer camp called the Usdan Center for the Creative and Performing Arts, which was out on Long Island (an hour-and-a-half commute).  On the bus ride there, I became fast friends with a group of 6 people around my age.  We would each have our own regular seats, have lunch together, and generally were a fun little clique who would support each other.

Earlier this year, one of those six people performed with Billie Joe Armstrong and Green Day to open the Grammies. She’s also been on the Tony’s, and co-starring in the Broadway hit American Idiot. I could not be more proud of my friend Rebecca Naomi Jones, and I was able to spread the love to my network of folks who might not be aware of the show or her.

You can follow her at @rebeccasername.

Who can you give love to today?

Are we going about this whole communications thing backward?

(Inspired by Justin Kownacki’s post “I Tweet, Therefore I Am Empty“)

Theres an increasing backlash against Social Media as shiny object lately, and rightfully so. The concept of communicating online to meet business goals, when wrapped around this aura of Next Big Thing can easily mutate into the “Get me a Facebook account!” nightmare that haunts our dreams.

Every time we recommend a channel plan in place of re-learning basic communication skills and applying them to the betterment of the audience, we do everyone a disservice. It turns out that companies (and people) that are bad communicators are bad communicators, regardless of whether they’re communicating on Twitter, in person, via an ad campaign.

As those who are ‘in the know’ and focused on improving communications as much as we know how, should we be focused less on providing a friction-free way for the people within organizations to map their bad habits on to new channels (surely not a recipe for success)?

Or are we going about it backward? Should we instead be focused more on swaying people’s hearts and minds toward investigation and communication styles that we know to be more effective, even if it is technically ‘outside the scope’ of what we are officially responsible for?

How far up and back does our responsibility to influence the process and the mindset go?

Be a person-sized learning atom within your own community.

[This post inspired by a post that Rich Millington wrote about Why Most Companies Shouldn’t Try To Create an Online Community]

Most organizations really want a big following, not a community.

A following is an audience that interacts with you. A community is an audience that interacts with each other.

One of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about in my capacity as a digital strategist is the choices companies make with regard to how they position themselves within the communities they enable.  I think as an industry we may be doing a disservice to the overall success of these communities by not stressing the following point:

Even though you are the creators of the ecosystem, that does not mean you are the most essential part of the discussion.

In fact, taking a stance “above” or “apart” from the rest of the community will only detract from people’s willingness to engage. Nobody likes to feel like ‘big brother’ is there, or that they’re being talked down to.  This is another example of ‘us vs them’ thinking.


Sheridan classroom

Whether people choose to start conversations or not is a function of how you position yourself within the community.  If you are the ‘voice of God’ and ‘the one with all the cool stuff, tips and tricks, and information,’ of coursepeople aren’t going to chat. You’ve made it clear with your tone that you don’t need their help, you can handle it all yourself.  People respond to that by going elsewhere.


Instead, consider become a person-sized atom of your community.  Answer questions, yes.  But also respond to unrelated comments, ask people for advice, take your cues from what people are talking about.

Pretend you’re not the administrator, just be a fellow user who happens to have access to some of your companies resources.  The only special power bestowed upon you as an administrator is control over the technical parameters of the community.  Your voice in the conversation is exactly the same as anyone else.

You will be much more valued as a humble human presence that is there to learn and grow and be inspired by those who choose to spend their time with you than anything you could say as ‘the authoritative voice of your product with all the answers’.

Or you could continue to build a “following” of people who don’t really care all that much.

Up to you.