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Can Real Communities be Built Online?

October 27, 2011

Linda Watanabe McFerrin

Can we be part of a real community through online social media like Facebook and Twitter?

Four enterprising women discussed the power of social media at the Ubud Writers Festival. The four split into two camps, with two espousing the marketing-PR possibilities, and two taking a community development approach.

In the marketing-PR corner were Linda and Anna. American writer Linda Watanabe McFerrin is a self-confessed social media freak who sorts her Facebook input into groups – students, fellow writers, technical information, cool list – like her own personal set of magazines. She schedules her tweets and gets more offers of writing work from Twitter than Facebook. She has four websites for different purposes, one of which is the blog of Erin, the main character in her latest book, zombie novel Dead Love. Instead of sending a portfolio when seeking work, she directs people to her main website. Social media, she said, gives her the level of access previously enjoyed only by PR people.

Anna Maguire is a Digital Consultant advising clients on social media strategy. She talked of ‘Clout’, a way to measure reach by counting connections across social media, such as number of posts forwarded or retweeted, number who click through to an online sale, and number of comments.

Kelly-lee Hickey

In the community development corner was Kelly-lee and Summa. Kelly-lee Hickey was National Australian Poetry Slam champion 2010. She lives in Alice Springs, continuing to write while working in the domestic violence sector and using collective narrative therapy. She sees social media’s value not in creating community but in connecting one community to another. Building a community requires people to meet face-to-face. As a writer, it wasn’t until she went to writers’ festivals and sat in the bar with her peers that she felt part of that community.  She suggested that without meaningful connections on the ground, digital platforms are useless.

There is something creepy, Kelly-lee said, about the quantitative approach to social stuff. People get obsessed with the number of their Facebook friends or the number of comments on their posts. To what extent are we buying into the market model?

Summa Durie works in market and audience development at the Australian Council for the Arts. She sees social media as a useful but small tool in a whole process of building your community and connecting with your audience. Beware of social media experts, she said, we need to actually meet people. Social media expert Anna agreed.

Are social media replacing email? Yes, said Linda, who despises email and maintained that other media are more visual, open and friendly. And yes, said Anna, who said that young people see email as coming from authority. But Summa saw a continuing role for email and enewsletters and quoted research showing that the type of email most liked is short with embedded content, such as links.

The session covered many other issues about social media, such as the immediacy problem (drink and dial), one’s friends turning into the paparazzi, and the increasing numbers of people who will need to change their name by deed poll to escape their Facebook profile.

The four presenters and the chair, Indonesia’s foremost travel writer Trinity, are all strong and successful women, leaders in their fields. Their friendly and respectful debate convinced me that social media can be useful to real, offline communities, but only if we manage such tools well, and not let them control us.

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