Observations on Connections, Context, Communities and Change
Photo source: Angelo DeSantis on
If you read my previous post,
Online Communities to Support the Evolving Workplace, you might remember
that I work remotely for DNN, so a few times each year, I make the trip from
Charleston, South Carolina to San Mateo, California to work from the DNN office. While not everyone loves traveling (and I
agree if it happens too frequently), I really enjoy it.
Some of these reasons are silly: for
instance, airports have great magazine selections, and I don’t feel guilty when
I buy them for a long trip. I also think
turbulence is fun, like a roller coaster of sorts, but most of all, I am a firm
believer that you can
learn a lot from watching your fellow travelers.
I’ll start with some thoughts after a recent trip and work
- We seek connections
- Context matters
- Change is hard
- What might be uncomfortable at first can lead to new and exciting opportunities
Setting the Scene at the Airport
I know you’re wondering how exactly these things relate to
traveling in an airport. So let’s start at the gate: you’ve checked
in, gone through security, grabbed a snack from the newsstand and
have made your way to your gate. If
you’re anything like me, you like to get there early, settle in a chair near an
outlet to charge your phone (because if you haven’t already, you’re
about to kill the battery checking email and Facebook), and enjoy your book
before boarding the plane. As it gets
closer to departure time, the seats around you fill up. Sort of.
Photo source: Robert S. Donovan on
Have you ever noticed that
people who don’t know each other
won’t sit next to each other
in the waiting area at the gate? Instead, they walk to a nearby gate
that is less crowded or opt to stand up. The whole area is filled with people sitting in every other chair. What strikes me as funny is this: the same
people, and I’m no exception, almost immediately pull out their cell phones,
where they text a friend or relative, check their Facebook newsfeed, post a
picture from their trip (to Instagram), or check Twitter for the latest news and
We Seek Connections
Alone in the airport, we are looking for something to do,
looking for connections with others in the world around us, yet uncomfortable
sitting next to a stranger. What
me as even funnier is what happens next. The gate agent starts the boarding process. Zone by zone, the crowd filters onto the
plane, and the same people who wouldn’t sit next to each other at the gate find
their way to their seats (often smaller than those in the waiting area, might I
They begin to have conversations with those they are
“forced” to sit next to:
- Where are they
- Where are they coming from?
- What kind of work do they do?
- Do they have kids?
Maybe the conversation becomes a networking
opportunity, or a chance to share a favorite
(local) restaurant, or perhaps it’s just small talk that lasts only a few minutes. In those minutes, most people actually enjoy what they had actively avoided
only a short time before.
The circumstances surrounding our interactions matter. It
matters in the airport, and it matters in “real life.”
We are social beings; we seek
out connections; we seek out communities, but for one reason or another, we
often rely on something to push us together, something to enable our
How easily we’ll follow others on Twitter or like their
Facebook pages. Perhaps they’re experts
in their field, and we want to know what they’re reading, what they’re writing,
and what interests them. Plop down next
to them at the airport gate and strike up a conversation? No so fast!
Or at least not without a push, and I do think that “push” is a good
word for this. Frequently, anything that
takes us out of our comfort zone or steps outside of social norms requires
either something that forces us into the situation or facilitates it. Why? Because change is hard.
Change is Hard
We live in a world that is constantly changing, yet change
is hard for most of us. I’ve thought
about how odd our behavior at an airplane gate is time and time again, yet if I
approach a full gate, I would still usually choose to stand up rather than sit
next to a stranger.
Most of us have been
told since childhood not to talk to strangers and we only step outside of this
behavior if there is a compelling reason to. Being assigned a seat next to a stranger on the plane would be one such reason,
because we’ve also been taught that this is good manners. It’s polite to at least say hello or ask how
your neighbor is doing.
It’s hard to change behaviors that have
been in place since childhood, and again, context matters.
Image source: the
Relay for Life page on Wikipedia.
Let’s look at another example: before joining DNN, I
worked at the
American Cancer Society, where the signature fundraising event is
Relay For Life. There are over 5,000 relays across the country each year, during which communities come together to
celebrate cancer survivors, honor loved ones lost, and raise money to support
the fight against cancer. Each event
uses the same T-shirt. There is, of
course, a brand recognition aspect to this, but the
more about creating connections and building communities.
Relay is a special experience, an experience that
participants connect with on a very emotional level. Often, when Relay For Life participants wear
their T-shirts, even outside of their hometown, another Relayer will recognize
they have something in common, and it’s not just branding. For example, what happens if you’re wearing a
Polo shirt, and you pass someone else in the grocery store with a Polo shirt
on? Although you recognize the brand,
probably feel no connection with them.
On the other hand, you see someone else with a Relay shirt
on.You know that person has shared an experience
that you have; you feel a connection to them; you know you belong to a larger
community; you smile or say hi. As an
employee of the American Cancer Society, I would usually introduce myself and thank them for their
Context matters, in the airport, in the grocery store, and in business. If we are going to change our normal
behavior, we will only do so within certain contexts, and recognizing connections
with others around us often provides this context.
What Might Be Uncomfortable at First Can Lead to New and Exciting Opportunities
We’ve established that change can be hard, but once we get
past the feelings of discomfort,
change actually brings new opportunities. I was a junior in college when Facebook
opened up to all college students, and when Facebook further opened up to the
public, there were not many of us who were pleased about it. Now, however, it’s hard to imagine that just a
few years ago, businesses didn’t have a presence on Facebook (and neither did
Today, Facebook isn’t just a source of keeping up with
friends; it’s a way that families stay connected, a way that businesses
interact with customers, a tool to quickly get information to a large and
dispersed audience. People use it to
rally support, raise money, sell items, share coupons, participate in contests,
debate issues, share pictures and much
Photo source: User mkhmarketing on
The Facebook community grew, and to us college users, it was
a little painful at first. But how are those18-22 year old students now using Facebook? They're now around 30 years old. Many have kids. They
use Facebook to share pictures of their
with their extended family.
are now often making hiring decisions at their places of work, and when a
resume comes across their desk, I can guarantee that one of the first things
they do is search Facebook (for the applicant's page). Do they have
any mutual connections? What information
can they gather about the candidate from his/her profile?
Alternatively, the 30 year old Facebook user might own her own business. The 1,271 friends she collected from high school, college, previous jobs,
etc. have more than likely helped spread knowledge of her business.
This would not have been possible without the
change Facebook made in 2006.
Mark Zuckerberg (and others at Facebook) recognized something: that
broader communities often offer more value than more targeted communities. After all, a broadening of Facebook’s
original concept (a way for Harvard students to choose who was “hot or not”)
has profoundly impacted business and society.
In roughly ten years, what started in a very limited community now has over
1.2 billion users worldwide and has even changed our lexicon. A word that didn’t exist prior to 2004 is
now a noun: “Look at this great article I found on Facebook;” an adjective:
“She’s my Facebook friend;” and a verb: “I forget his birthday. I’ll Facebook it.”
Facebook isn’t alone. Consider a few others: Apple originally developed only personal
computers. Amazon started as an online
bookstore. Zappos just carried shoes. Google was once only a search engine. Match.com began as a system for providing
electronic classifieds for newspapers.
each of these businesses expanded, so did the group of people who used them: the community of Apple, Amazon, Zappos, Google or Match.com users. DNN is no exception. In the past several years, our product line
has expanded, and with it our customer/user base, which means more users, who
can contribute more ideas, and those ideas can only strengthen
and our products, while our software in turn is strengthening our users’
My guess would be that your business is changing too, and
that may even be why you are here (thanks for reading!). Perhaps your company is looking for new
technology to build an intranet or add community engagement features to your
website. If that’s the case, what
factors are you considering when choosing a solution?
I imagine mobile readiness is up there, but
would it have been such a big consideration even 5 years ago? According
survey by Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, the percentage of cell phone owners who use their phones to
access the internet or use email doubled between 2009 and 2013.
Personally, I bought my first smart phone in 2010. I was attending a lot of Georgia Southern
football games that Fall and needed a way to keep up with my Hokies (of Virginia Tech).
It All Comes Back to The Community
Photo source: Erich Geist on
Yes, you read that correctly. The sole reason I purchased my first smartphone was to keep up with Virginia Tech’s football team.
Many of you are also members of a community of
sports fans, be it college or professional. You’ve probably never
felt more a part of a community than on game day inside the stadium. You’re wearing your team’s colors,
cheering in unison. You eat the same
snacks and relish the same tailgate traditions. You share a passion for your team, distaste for the opposition and disgust
for any ref that makes a call against your team. You even share in the same
distorted views of reality: if only this one call would have been different, we
would have won the game, and probably gone to the national championship.
While I attended Virginia Tech, it was easy to feel like a
part of the community, but while attending a Georgia Southern game 414 miles
away, how was I to connect with a community I cared so much about? The solution was easy: by keeping up with the
score on the ESPN app and checking Facebook for fellow Hokie fans’ status
updates. I needed a smart phone!
The World Has Gone Mobile
Here’s the funny
thing: even changes that are good, even changes that offer new and exciting
things, can be hard.
I’m not like my
father who is uncomfortable with technology. He calls his flip phone (which my
mother forced him to get) an electronic leash. I grew up with a personal computer. I had a cell phone in high school. But still, I needed that push to trade in my Motorola Razr. And in my case, that push was feeling connected
to the Virginia Tech community during football games.
My phone habits have now expanded, and my iPhone allows me
to have virtually any information I need at my fingertips at any moment. I can’t remember what my life was like before
that. But perhaps more important, our phones
allow us to actively participate in the communities we are not physically
connected to, through Facebook, Twitter, mobile websites, etc. If we want our community members to stay
connected wherever they go, including at that airport gate, then
is a must!
Innovations will continue to occur; business and society
will continue to evolve, and there may be some turbulence along the way, but
one thing that will not change is that
we seek communities. The ways we communicate may change, but will
not change is the fact that new, and often exciting, opportunities will present
themselves when we make connections.
people around us and the knowledge they can share is an unlimited
resource. How to facilitate the sharing
of that knowledge is an important consideration for today’s marketers,
community managers, CEOS, and entrepreneurs.
One Final Thought
And so I’ll conclude with a final thought: is anyone reading
this a Virginia Tech alum or fan? Has
anyone who is reading this ever participated in a Relay For Life event, or
noticed the same funny behavior at the airport? If so, I bet you’re more likely to comment on or share this article,
because we have a connection. And
connections matter, especially in a world that changes as quickly as ours.
I'd love to hear your thoughts in the Comments section below!