Posted on 4 October 2010
Earlier this year, I was invited to give a presentation on “how to blog” for a youth forum focused on sustainable management of local water systems. I don’t know much about the specifics of that, but I do know a little bit about how to set up lines of communication using the internet and I thought it would be an interesting experience, so I agreed.
The one major change I made was to take the focus away from “how to blog” and move it to “how to build communities online.” I feel like blogging, Facebook, Twitter, etc all have negative connotations to the uninitiated– they have an air of triviality about them. And indeed, much of it can be banal, but then so can many books, newspaper columns, and conversations, yet that doesn’t mean those mediums can’t also be capable of great work. The word “blog” may as well be “book” since it refers to nothing more that the way the content is presented, whereas the actual content can range anywhere from the silly to the highly academic.
I was a bit nervous about how I would handle a room full of people of various ages coming at this with different levels of experience, but it turns out I need not have worried. After a fifteen minute on-stage interview for the full delegation, I wound up in a room with only one person (it may not have helped that midway through my on-stage interview about why I thought social media was useful I mentioned that I had essentially given my talk already). However, I did not take this as a negative, and here’s why:
It’s quality, not quantity
My primary message, both in the interview and in my prepared presentation, was that with online communities, it’s more important to focus on quality of your audience rather than quantity. You don’t have a lot of overhead to sustain a Facebook page, so why focus on trying to build a large, largely unengaged audience rather than focusing on those you really want to be speaking to. The example I use is Ferrets North Information and Rescue. For those who don’t know, this is the non-profit society my significant other runs out of our house focused on fostering and re-homing unwanted ferrets in northern British Columbia.
When she was first toying with the idea of starting the society, the first step she took was to set up a blog full of ferret information. Some of the information was highly generic and could be applicable to anyone with a ferret: ferret colours, how to litter train, nutrition. But other posts were highly specific, such as vets in Prince George who will see ferrets or the best places in northern BC to get deals on ferret supplies. To 99.999% of the people online, this information is absolutely useless. But the the 0.001% of people who live in northern BC and have ferrets, this is highly relevant– and this blog was the only place to visit and share this information. Northern BC ferret owners found this information, added their own tips in the comments, and ultimately joined the Facebook community created around Ferrets North (facebook.com/ferretsnorth).
Now, here’s the key. When Ferrets North was ready to move beyond a website and into a full-fledged society, it was this small community of people who helped make it happen. In fact, the founding board was made up almost entirely of people who had connected online thanks to the blog and Facebook page. This is a small group of people– but they are the right people. They make up the core volunteers who provide the time and money to make ferrets north run and provide a home to unwanted ferrets. They may not be a large audience, but they are a quality one. And, of course, once they got involved they ceased being an audience and started being a community– another tenant of social media.
So to bring it back to my talk. There was one person in the room. A couple of others stopped in and asked questions throughout, but they were involved in running the conference and couldn’t stay. But the people who were around were the people I wanted to talk to. One runs a small media company a town, another is starting a blog on how students in Prince George can stretch their budgets. And the one who was there for most of the time has started a blog that I am incredibly excited about: it’s called North of Centre, and it is focused solely on municipal politics in Prince George.
Talk about quality.
I’m of the opinion that there’s a lot of room for citizen journalists to get more involved in covering municipal politics, and the fact that this is being done is fantastic news. I was able to share a few tips I had picked up, but I doubt there’s much I could have taught, so it became more of a two-way conversation, which is actually pretty great. If I was to get into a conversation with anyone about the potential for social media at spreading ideas, there is no one I would rather do it with then the one person who has decided to use the opportunities afforded by the internet to turn a sharper eye on my local government. His idea is that there are people who would like to see a more detailed analysis of municipal matters than currently offered, and I’m among those who would like to see such a thing. I am now in his community, and I’m hoping to help spread the word. And if anything I had to say helps him spread his ideas, than I consider my presentation a wild success.
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