It's easy to focus on the benefits of online community and social networks. But they have their dark side, too. And until online leaders (and social network sites such as Facebook and Digg) learn to cope with the problems of community management, the chances of businesses effectively exploiting these collaboration tools are somewhere between "slim" and "none."
Online communities are collections of people who connect based on shared interests. The only thing these people may have in common is that they write software in C#, or they have stained glass as a hobby, or they have passionate feelings about a political candidate, or they get excited about books. The area of commonality might be simply a desire to be entertained by "cool stuff," which is how Digg became popular. A community (whether forum, mailing list or social network) enables people to find one another irrespective of distance, geography, race-color-creed and all that stuff.
That's great—and it's why I've spent most of my life as an online community maven, starting with expensive dial-up BBSes at 1200bps and using late, lamented proprietary online services you never heard of.
But social networks have grown exponentially since then. The Facebooks and Diggs of the world have millions of users, and thus greater challenges around community management. For them to survive—and thrive—they have to figure out how to manage groups and the members within them.
Overall, we like to think that people can work things out for themselves, and in most cases they can. But there are always cranks, and people who get a wild hair up their butts, and those who see the community as their own personal marketing opportunity. Some community members seem to specialize in learning where the moderator or terms-of-service draws the line, and wiggling their little toes right on it.
It makes sense for a social network to set reasonable rules of conduct, but frankly, few of them are doing a very good job of managing that responsibility. As these services try to cross the chasm from teenagers' toys to business environments, they have to get better.
Need examples of recent community management failures? Let's start with a recent propensity for social networks to ban members for perceived breaches.
As my colleague Jarina D'Auria wrote about some months ago, Facebook's automated system decided that her perfectly-reasonable businesslike activity was the act of a spammer, and locked her out of the service with no warning or opportunity to respond. Magically, she got back in after telling the company she was reporting on the incident. (Sometimes it's nice to have the power of the press.)
However, apparently a Facebook virus is causing some havoc in the user community, with the company (or rather, its software) auto-banning everyone who falls prey to it. With nothing but silence when users complain.
That's pitiful. Businesses don't stay in business unless they actually listen to customers. Particularly when the customer isn't actually at fault.
Another example is Digg, which had a recent rash of member bannings—80 of them, according to TechCrunch—particularly of top contributors. The company's reasoning, according to that blog post, is that the Digg terms of service prohibit the use of scripts to submit stories.
Which might wash, except that one prominent Digg member who was banned, DiggBoss, wrote a script that (a) did not submit stories and (b) enhanced Digg.com's functionality. (In short: Digg lets you e-mail friends to share stories you think are cool. Nothing in the existing software prevents someone from sending the same "shout" to recipients a dozen times. DiggBoss's script removed the duplication if the friend already dugg the story.) The result? DiggBoss was told he was banned for life. Gosh. That's a long time. You think that's maybe a little excessive?