We spend a lot of time working on getting bigger, acquiring more, whether it’s money, toys, symbols of status, or yes even networks. But how much yield does this give us after we gain certain volumes? The Law of Diminishing Returns claims that hour two on a task can’t ever equal hour one, but how much does this matter when some of us are nearing month two, or even year two and so on? Especially in internet scaled time, where tasks are faster and theoretically more efficient, diminishing return is an unknown quantity.
So much time trying to build, and what does it get us? Are we creating a new sphere of influence, or are we adding ourselves into the mix that’s there already? Sometimes the answer is simple; we happen on a new service like Foursquare and dive in with the early adopters, we become the loud first answer in the focus group behind which everyone falls into like. Other times its less simple, like when we join Facebook after having run a personal boycott for years because we don’t see the benefits of the service. Whether we’re the first on the scene, or the fashionably late arrival, the question we always end up with is a complex one: What do I do here?
Becoming a participant in a service is easy. Anyone can sign up for any website and start chugging along. But all of the media gurus tell us that if we want to get the most out of something we have to build a following, build a community. They’re doing it, and they talk about how, growing and reciprocating, and so on – but the advice is often difficult to follow because it’s almost invariably geared toward someone who speaks the same dialect as the person giving it. There’s a common disconnect, though, and it’s simpler than you’d think.
What you’re building already exists. Communities are everywhere – from the line at the coffee shop to the national identity you carry whether you’re Canadian, American, Egyptian, Iranian – on every scale, in every locale, community already exists. So why do we keep trying to build it?
Because building is always easier than serving. It’s the difference between a million casual followers only there to watch, and a hundred dedicated disciples, engaged superfans capable of further influencing hundreds of thousands of people on their own because they believe.
Some of us are just starting to build our networks, gathering followers, manufacture a platform for ourselves.We do this in any number of ways, but the thrust of it comes down to either social climbing or service to our peers in whichever community we’re acting on behalf of.
How do we know when we can call the process “done”, when we’ll be finished? When do we get to change from being One of Us to being the Leader of the Us? When can we start exclusively reaping the benefits of this circle we’ve joined, farming it for everything its worth?
Easy answer: Never.
Harder answer: Spend some time thinking about the communities you’re most active in, and try to figure out whether you’re enhancing the group by being there, or if you’ve self-included your way to influence without ever serving that community. If the answer is the latter, you’re done already.
And once you’re done, it’s time to leave the group.
Just a note: The force of this, the idea that what you’re building already exists, came out of an awesome discussion with Brendan Myers, author of The Other Side of Virtue, at an informal fireside he held passing through Winnipeg in October. If you’re still wondering hard how to use social media – indeed, any communication – in a noble way, it’s worth studying where your sense of nobility came from.