What Makes a Community?

I normally write articles that carry a bit of authority. I usually write what I know about and have a high degree of confidence writing. I don’t write often because I want what I do write to carry authority and be hard-hitting.

This is not really one of those articles.

I haven’t done what people like Alex Hillman has done in creating collaborative working environments for independent entrepreneurs at Independent’s Hall in Philadelphia.

I haven’t been an organizer and champion of city-wide entrepreneurship like Josh Baer has in Austin.

I haven’t fostered a product community like they have over at StudioPress with the Genesis Framework.

What I have done is work within the context of a thriving WordPress community of developers, users, consultants and advocates.

I have lived in a city that has made it’s name on entrepreneurship and arts in Austin.

I have helped and supported entrepreneurs in their quest to build products in DC and find ways of succeeding both with and without investment money.

Moving Back to Baltimore

For some weeks now, I’ve made it clear that I’ve decided to move back from Austin to Baltimore. In 2008, I left Baltimore because I saw awesome things developing in technology in DC. At the time, there were guys like Peter Corbett who was just beginning to do technology advocacy work in the Nation’s Capital. By 2009, iStrategyLabs would launch the first Apps for Democracy contest that challenged contestants to create web and mobile applications with civic intent. That would morph into similar contest like Apps for America, etc.

You would also see some organizations that would flare out dramatically because of business model, ideas, weak leadership, lack of community involvement, etc.

I would then move to Austin where I would see a city immersed in technology. Lots of money flowing. Lots of incubator action, such as the products and entrepreneurs who would be graduated from the Capital Factory incubator. I would see ATX Startup Crawl occur several times a year as guests would have the opportunity to move around town and visit some of the great startups like TabbedOut, InfoChimps, uShip and more. Thousands of people would come through these offices and see the great technologies and ideas being built, all while enjoying local Texas beers and eats.

I would see awesome projects like We Are Austin Tech highlight influencers in that community (including myself) come up.

And I watched Baltimore grow as a technology community to the point where DC entrepreneurs started paying attention to their up and coming little brother 45 mins up I-95. I watched from afar as Dave Troy would put his heart and soul into building Baltimore as a center of entrepreneurship and tech. I’d watch as Greg Cangialosi would build his Blue Sky Factory marketing firm out and have a successful acquisition, all while continuing to personally invest more in the Baltimore scene.

I even watched great tragedies like the systematic destruction of Advertising.com by Aol.

I watched this all over the last 4 years and realized Baltimore was coming into it’s own. It had successes. It had failures. It had investors. It had bootstrap. It’s still not entirely cohesive, but from my seat, it looks promising.

So I’ve decided to move back to my home and put my money where my mouth is and see if I can take what I’ve gleaned from DC and Austin and apply it here in Baltimore. I may be one of those failures. Or I may not be, but I’ve got to try.

What Makes a Successful Community?

In the last few weeks, I’ve had several conversations with Baltimore business owners and entrepreneurs, and I’m finding a common question and point of discussion: What makes a successful community? The answers and opinions are intriguing. Again, I can’t say my opinion carries any authority. What I can say, however, is I’ve been in a bunch of communities and witnessed elements of success.

Some folks think a successful business community requires investors who are willing to commit their time and money. Anyone who has gone through the fundraising process knows that hands on investors are the best kind. If a VC or Angel investor can help a portfolio company supplement resources (human capital or otherwise) through their network, they bring quite a bit of upside to a startup. Investors who wire money and never pay attention to their portfolio companies, expecting the founders to execute according to plan, are in my opinion bad investors.

So in this light, some entrepreneurs here in Baltimore find the lack of investment money or engaged investors as detrimental to the community.

On the flip side of the coin, some entrepreneurs seem to be thinking that the mark of a good startup community is going to be in the number of entrepreneurs who are able to successfully bootstrap. There is some validity to this claim as well. The more you can do on your own, the less of your company you’re giving away (as I noted in the “Valleyboys” segment of this article a few weeks ago).

However, there is also value in bootstrapping and taking money, if the situation is right.

Other folks I’ve talked to feels the value is in the number of people attend professional meetups compounded by the sheer number of meetups. In Austin, we have a vibrant meetup community. From the Austin WordPress meetup to Austin on Rails to Austin Lean Startup to Refresh Austin and the list goes on.

My opinion is that a city startup community is built on all these things. It’s not money, really. Money will follow success. Perhaps Baltimore needs to have an IPO or high profile acquisition that allows the company to continue to operate and hire in Baltimore to put them on the map and in the conversation. I don’t really think it’s that, per se, but that certainly helps.

It would help if the State of Maryland was more business-friendly to small businesses, as Texas is. People come to Texas, and more specifically Austin, from California and New York because the environment is notably friendly to small business. More business would be created in Maryland with better business policy. It might even attract out of state growth.

Beyond that though, meetups are important but meetups don’t create value if the conversations end at the meetup. The idea of building something – a prototype – as you might get out of a Startup Weekend is good… if it continues afterwards from prototype to business product.

But I think the biggest thing that makes community grow is collaboration and the willing to share ideas without being defensive, sharing resources without being possessive, sharing physical space without being prohibitive. It takes more that an entrepreneurs flying solo behind his Macbook Pro in a coffee shop, but it takes less than structured office space with prohibitive managerial org charts.

It doesn’t take sacrificing lifestyle on the altar of work, but it does take entrepreneurs willing to gut out ideas by working with other entrepreneurs and customers and transparently sharing war stories of success and failure while helping to mentor others new to the space.

It does takes the karmaic “pay it forward” approach without fiefdoms and regional rivalries to ensure that a rising tide raises all ships. What you put in to other companies you have no direct stake in, but can help with informal advice (when solicited) makes for a circle of life that encourages a community to exceed expectations and move from one level to the next. Mentorship is not an ROI term, but it is critical to the ecosystem.

Am I off-base in my thinking here?

WordPress 3.0 Preview Webinar

Yesterday, the iThemes folks graciously hosted me for a webinar. I had the opportunity to demonstrate some of the more anticipated features of WordPress 3.0 (due out next month). In the process, I also expressed some of the philosophies in the WordPress community around contributing and shaping the most popular publishing platform on the web.

Some of my answers to questions late in the webinar are directed specifically toward the fringe elements of the community who approach the project from a combative perspective choosing to take pot shots at people and Automattic specifically while never doing a damn thing to push the platform forward. While I’ve left names out of the webinar and this post, the message is clear: if you want to have credibility in the community, learn how to be constructive and own the features and elements you want to see.

But the webinar was not a political statement. In fact, most of it was a hands on demonstration of the new twentyten default theme in WordPress 3.0, the custom taxonomy and post type features which bring WordPress into approximate parity with other content management systems, as well as a preview of “The Merge” – the combination of WordPress MU and WordPress.

Thanks again to the folks over at iThemes. If you missed the Webinar, here it is. Sorry, iPhone and iPad users…. it’s Flash. ;)

WordPress 3.0 Preview with Aaron Brazell from WebDesign.com on Vimeo.

Buzz Kill

By now, if you follow the technology world at all, or if you use Gmail, you’ve probably noticed a new thingy released by Google in the last few days. The thingy is called Google Buzz and it is billed to be a “status update” tool to allow your friends to know what you’re up to?

Sound familiar? Yeah, it’s supposed to be going after Twitter or some nonsense like that.

I enabled Buzz on my Gmail account and then promptly disabled it (you too can disable it, if it’s already turned on for you, by clicking on the “turn off Buzz” link in the footer of your Gmail account).

I’m going on record today to say that Google Buzz is and will continue to be an absolute failure. The reasons why are fourfold…

No one cares about the Google community

This thing is all about tying the Google community together, though they do have support for Twitter and Flickr as well because, well… no one can ignore those massive communities and have legs for the long run. People care about the YouTube community (a Google property). To a lesser extent, people care about the Blogger community (a Google property). No one cares about the Gmail community. It’s email!!! It’s not about community, it’s about utility and communication. Not community. I get spam in my Gmail. I get business conversations in my email. I get a searchable index of messages sent back and forth over the last five years in my Gmail. I don’t get community in my Gmail. The only community feature in Gmail is Google Talk and I don’t use that in Gmail. I use it in an IM client (Adium).

Google is too spread out to worry about community. They have products to meet needs and diversify web experiences, but their forays into community have sucked. Badly. Last time Google’s OpenSocial was a factor in the collaborative, community space was… oh, well, never. That’s dominated by Facebook. Not Google. Last time Picasa was an actual factor in the photography community was… oh that’s right… never. That’s controlled by Flickr.

And the next time Google tries to be a player in the “status update” community will be… oh, that’s right, never. That’s because Twitter dominates. Just ask Identi.ca. Oh, and Facebook.

Friendfeed is still something small and irrelevant

Why do I bring up Friendfeed? Well, my argument against Friendfeed still exists. Even Louis Gray, one of the biggest historical champions of Friendfeed, acknowledges that it remains a small community. It never has and never will go mainstream. So why has Google essentially ripped Friendfeed off and expect different results?

Comment? Like? Sounds familiar…. Oh, Facebook and Friendfeed do that.

Buzz is insecure

It’s well documented at this point that Buzz is actually pretty insecure. Because it operates out of Gmail, it assumes that your most frequently emailed people should automatically be friends. Except that that assumption is inherently insecure because friends are publicly viewable. Take these hypothetical situations for instance:

  • Bill has been corresponding with a major possible client under NDA. For any number of reasons, the communication should not be revealed to the public. Yet, due to the volume of email between Bill and his contact, his contact is automatically made a Buzz contact.
  • Kelly is negotiating an acquisition of a company. If this information were public, the deal could be off.
  • John is trying to take his wife on a big, secret getaway for her 40th birthday. In emailing with a variety of resorts over the period of several weeks, those resort contacts become part of John’s publicly viewable community.

Are we seeing the problem here? This is like Facebook Beacon all over again.

Why add more workflow and more social networks?

The argument has been made in favor of Buzz that Google has a huge Gmail userbase to jump off of. While this is true, this is one more area of workflow for users to utilize. Why do it? We have YouTube and Flickr and Twitter and Facebook? Do we really anticipate Buzz being added to the repertoire? I think not.

Buzz will have the same result as most other social networks: it will die. Very few have legs because very few are innovative and do new things. Twitter was an accidental success because it innovated on the concept of microcontent over SMS… yes, that’s how it started. Buzz is just one more has been and offers nothing new. It will stay in the bowels of early adopter-hood until it is forgotten.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Update: VentureBeat reports that Google has tweaked their privacy settings.

The Rule of Brand, SEO, Trust and Marketing

Almost five years ago, I started this blog without much idea what was going on. In fact, in many ways, it was an opportunity to pass time at work, in a job that I cared little about and that I was doing little more than doing time with. I setup a WordPress blog, went to town writing about whatever the heck I felt like writing about. It’s a common path followed by a great many bloggers.

At some point, however, I came to find my voice on this blog. I wrote in an authoritative way on topics that I was knowledgeable about. I challenged assumptions made in industry, and brought a common sense, no bullshit approach to conversation. I’ve been rewarded with many fans, followers and friends. Literally, my brand, personal or otherwise, is golden. As it should be.

This blog is not a make money quick kind of venture. In fact, I think I made $35 last time I got a check. Not much more than beer money, but that’s fine – I make my money because of my blog, not via my blog. I don’t play the game of SEO, link building and trying to get the most page views. That is a game played by a few power players who have worked the system and built up alliances. I have built my authority and stature, not on making money with my blog or by selling someone elses product in return for a kickback. I have not worried about how many pageviews and selling CPM advertising. I am worried about the quality of the content, the truth in my writing, the community that pays attention and, basically, changing the world one word at a time.

This is my value. This is why when I talk about Government and the web, even though I’m not one of the Goverati, people pay attention. This is why when I write about marketing, I get listed as a top marketer despite not being one. This is why when I examine technology policy, executives from technology companies email me.

This is the real shit. This is not fraud. This is not get rich quick scams.

I’ve said it many times, the most recently being at the excellent Bootstrap Maryland event… You do not control your brand. Your customers do.

I do not control my brand. My readers do. My community does.

My brand is not destroyed by Google bombing my name or brand into search engine rankings. When I get negative press, I let my community protect my brand. It makes no sense for me to engage in a protectionist way since I can’t protect my brand anyway.

This morning, I woke up to this story, where Jeremy Schoemaker attacks my brand and my name. Besides the fact that the post is completely schizophrenic and not very well thought out, much less executed, let’s look at the marketing techniques and think about brand. The title of the post is loaded up with my name and brand. He makes sure to this because that will weigh higher in the Google index. Indeed, his post is the 7th SERP in Google when you search for my name after only a few hours. Whatever.

It doesn’t change my business. It doesn’t change my brand. In fact, it doesn’t change my authority because my trust is with you, my community. On Twitter, I am being defended. Fine, whatever. I appreciate it.

In today’s online world, I am constantly hearing about companies who are afraid to converse because they don’t want disagreement. They lose the conversation. In some cases, they try to erase bad publicity.

Conversation is going to happen. Negative conversation is going to happen. The reality is that bad PR doesn’t kill a company. How the customers or community respond make the brand.

Class is adjourned.

Friends vs. Fans

I think that maybe we’ve done some serious harm to the concept of friends with all this social media stuff.

Seriously.

On Facebook, how many of your friends are really friends?

I have over 2000 followers on Twitter. How many of them know my real name without looking?

How many events do people with significant online personal brand go to where people know who they really are?

Or is brand all that really matters in friendship?

Is it more important to have presence? Or relationship?

What do we do off camera, and who really knows?

If a tree falls in the middle of the woods, and everyone sees the tree online, did it really happen?

Do you find more value in spending time with four people or forty?

What does technosailor mean to you? Aaron Brazell?

Food for thought. Questions to be answered. Have we hurt our human experience or helped?

Grow Where You're Planted

My offline friends will tell you how much I hate where I live. I moved here to Baltimore as a preteen with my parents and aside from a 4 year stint galavanting around New York State, including 2 years in NYC, I’ve lived in the Baltimore area since. I graduated from high school here. I got married here. We had our son here. I’ve developed my career here.

For better or for worse, Baltimore is home. I can point out The Wire locations. I could give you a photo tour of Hamden, Federal Hill and Catonsville. I can introduce you to “the best crabcakes in Baltimore.”

Historically, though, I hate it here.

In recent years, I’ve considered relocating to Seattle, San Francisco, Toronto, New York, Boston – anywhere would be better than good old Bmore.

The last move consideration was to Toronto where my employer, b5media is located. For whatever reason, I decided that wasn’t a great move for us. And so, we stayed in Baltimore. At that time, I decided that I was going to grow where I was planted. I’m in Baltimore, so I’m going to make the most of the opportunity to flourish here.

So, I began interacting with likeminded people here. (I did expand here to include Washington, D.C. since – it’s really the same place with only a 45 minute drive between us. I began attending as many social media events as I could. In Baltimore, I met , Greg Cangialosi, Steve Fisher, Greg Gershmann and more. (Some of these guys I’ve known for awhile). In D.C., I met Shashi and Shana, Rana and Eric, Jeff, Jonny, Jim and many many more.

Last night, at DC Media Makers I looked around the room (and the subsequent compulsory after-event at Capital City Brewing Company) at 30+ passionate people from very different background and very different lifestyles (Scott Stead comes from CNN, Stowe Boyd has a respectability aura all of his own, Chris Penn dropped in from Boston) and thought – how cool is this scene? Besides Boston, I don’t know of any single social media community that is well defined, interesting and really family-like as the Maryland-DC-Northern Virginia tech community. It’s actually sort of unreal, if I’m honest.

As I made the drive home from DC back to Baltimore, the phrase “Grow Where You’re Planted” kept turning over in my mind. You may not particularly like where you’re at, but you can make a difference in the community that you find yourself in. My take away for the weekend is that, as social media types, you should be doing everything in your power to get out of yourself and help the community grow.

I’m not sure that I have done anything particularly special for this community, but I know that I would rather invest myself in this community than in any other regional community anywhere else in the world.

Afrika

protagonize.jpgFor quite some time, I’ve dreamed of starting an historical fiction blog. I’ve toyed with this idea as I think it would be a fantastic experiment in social media. In my eyes, the blog would be written by a World War II Army soldier, and would be dated and conveyed as such.

This morning, I discovered Protagonize, a community-driven, collaborative fiction writing service that just recently launched. I’m late to the game, however, but better late than never.

Protagonize is one of those ideas that slaps you in the face and asks, Why didn’t I think of that?

The concept is community-driven, collaboration on works of fiction. As a social media kind of guy, anything having to do with “community-driven” or “collaboration” is going to end up on my radar (again, late, but it appeared). It’s just the way I roll.

In this case, Protagonize resounds with me because now I can write my story, but I can let you add to it, provide your own missing pieces, and, well, collaborate. I’ve begun a new story, Afrika, which begins by introducing Johan “Joey” Friedrichson, a German-American U.S. Army officer in World War II who is in deep cover in Rommel’s Afrika Corps trying to collect intelligence on Rommel’s plans. We are briefly told about his wife, Michelle, who has yet to have a picture painted. Why don’t you add that part? Or help us figure out what Joey’s plans are next? The story is wide open.

Twitter Contest: Be my 1000th Friend

I’m at a special milestone in my Twitter career. Most people don’t end up with 1000 friends but the Twitter community is vibrant and I’m fully engaged so at this point, I have 999 friends.

I thought it would be cool, in the spirit of Twitter and community, to hold a contest for the 1000th friend milestone. In true Twitter fashion, this is how it will work. Below is an article about community. What I want you to do is to post a summary of the article in your own words on Twitter and leave a link to the Tweet in the comments. For the sake of community, also post the contents of the tweet in comments so people don’t have to go clicking everywhere to see what’s been said. The winner will be chosen exclusively by me (I can be subjective, right?)

There’s a twist however. In order to get participation from everyone, including the 999 people that are already my friends, the winner will choose my 1000th friend for me. You can choose yourself if you want, but if the winner is already my friend they could choose somebody that they find interesting and they want me to follow too. Could be fun, right? Right, so let’s get to it.

Engaging Community

We’re in the political season again and people are avidly watching the races for the Republican and Democratic nominations. It hearkens back to the bad old days when I first started blogging in 2004. The presidential election gave bloggers lots of fodder to talk about and, back then, everyone seemed to be a political blogger of some sort. Fortunately, the blogging world has diversified and is now rich in technology, sports, celebrity gawking, etc. It’s a much more accurate view of real life where people are very different.

One of the main problems that has plagued bloggers for as long as blogging has been around is the sense that blogging is an individual sport. Rarely do you see communities – true communities – spring up around single blog properties. There are a few notable blog centered communities – SEOMoz in the SEO world; Digital Photography School in the, well, digital photography world; all of the Gawker properties, I think. Mostly however, blogging is an individual sport and blog participation is a spectator sport.

Why do you think that is?

When we talk about social media, inevitably blogging gets lumped in with Facebook and Twitter as though blogs are somehow social. Generally, they are not.

When I first heard the term social networking I always word associated with social engineering, a scary term that denotes manipulation of lemmings by a single person or entity. When I thought of social media, which is used interchangeably with the word social networking, I thought of communist state government.

Where the word came from is irrelevant. It is the word. What it means is a grassroots community revolving around a topic or niche. In most cases the “friending” is a function of the network that allows people to connect and interconnect with each other, thus creating grassroots networking.

I come back to blogging, where in most cases, this is not occurring. Blogging is still mostly a one way communication tool where the blogger, or bloggers write. There is interaction via comments, but this is non-commital action that people can take that is contrary to the “friending” process of social networks. Anyone who blogs knows the feeling of being a “one night stand” where a commenter comes by, does a drive by comment, and leaves. Wham! Bam! Thank you, ma’am!

This is not community. Community requires a level of commitment, if only as menial as a friend request to “ensure” the tie that binds.

I’d love to see more communities emerge around blogs. Heck, I may start a forum here which would be a first step but it wouldn’t be enough. There would have to be the follow through from readers where community could begin to coalesce.

What are your thoughts on community?