The Anorak

There's no such thing as community.

There, I've said it. It's not often one can ape the words of the mad Baroness without a feeling of shame or fear for one's sanity, but in this case… I have always hated the term. Every internet project I've been involved with has started from the premise that 'community' is a pointless and dangerous term. This has not been easy to get across to bosses who want to catch up in the noo meeja game and who believed the lie that floated a thousand overblown dotcom 'startegies'.
At the height of the bubble the term was bandied about as a guarantee that the entrepreneurs were focused on their audience and were going to build a vibrant and profitable collection of users.
Psychologically, this was nonsense – people don't behave like that. Sociologically it was worse – the new media was not working out that way. And in business terms it was disastrous – even if you could hold your disparate and fickle audience, you couldn't monetise them. And when it all went horribly wrong, I pulled out my told-you-so T-shirt, sent my CV around again and re-read The Cluetrain Manifesto.
But something's changed. Mobile media is not only creating powerful group-based network relationships (no, I still can't bring myself to use the C-word), but they're making money.
Two recent conferences showcased a new breed of internet businesses that don't bother with the C-word but instead concentrate on enabling people to create their own networks. These businesses don't try to create a community and then expect people to join up. They give them the tools to create their own, enable them, and then take the profits. And the profits are substantial because the people are happy to pay. The conferences were on mobile messaging, from short messaging service (SMS) now, through simple animation enhanced messaging service (EMS) to full multimedia messaging service (MMS) and its partner, location-based services.
An example of these new services is uboot, which hit the headlines recently with a piece of viral marketing where a jilted girlfriend posted risqué pictures of her ex on the site's boards. A hoax, but an effective one. The company has enabled thousands of users to create profiles, share messages, have their holiday snaps posted on the internet and on their mobiles. They have created networking tools for a restlessly communicative generation.
Another example is Israeli technology company Vallis, which has enabled Swisscom Mobile to create mobile channel CellmaZe to enable teenagers to find friends close to them at any particular time and send messages. Vallis' chief technology officer explains how the company works. He says it began by asking how it could make CellmaZe a part of people's lives. With a team including psychologists and young people themselves, Vallis began to identify flagship programs that would be the core tools for the audience to build their own community. A community is not pages but community tools, such as Napster. Swisscom saw 1,500 new registered users on day one, with usage running at one location request per second and we're talking $0.11 per SMS message, or per minute on WAP. Do the sums.
This is not the average law firm's audience, but watch this space. The C-word has been as much a part of legal internet rhetoric as it has elsewhere. Vallis' philosophy is one that could well be adopted by any firm looking to lock its clients, or disparate staff, into a network. The community you desire arises from them, not you. It demands tools that arise from its users' demands and that fit into their lives and culture, not yours.
I still believe that community is the wrong word. It implies something homely, static and defined. What we have the potential to enable is something far more active, involving, and dynamic. We cannot create it, we cannot steer or control it and we would be foolish to try to own it. What we can do is facilitate it with the carefully positioned, professionally supported and clearly targeted tools that will allow individuals and their families to create their own content and relationships.