Pulling Together

23 May 2010 by Randall Helms, No Comments »

Via Rod Dreher, I came across this amazing story this morning from Metafilter, a large community weblog.

Basically, a man named Dan Reetz discovered that one of his former Russian students (and her female friend) had been due to fly to Washington, DC to take summer jobs as lifeguards in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Before their flight, they discovered that the jobs had ‘fallen through’, and when they arrived in DC they were told to take a bus to New York where they would have a late night interview for hostess jobs at a bar in the Russian immigrant neighborhood of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.

Worried that they were being tricked into some kind of sex trafficking scenario, Reetz reached out to the Metafilter community for assistance. Over the next day, information poured in, strategies were hatched, the authorities were alerted, all while Reetz was driving across the country, moving his stuff from Wyoming to Los Angeles, yet still checking on the thread and trying to convince the girls of the danger they were in. Ultimately, the girls realized that it was probably not a good idea to go to the bar for the ‘interview’, and were met at the bus station by a Metafilter user, offering them a place to stay and food to eat.

It’s an incredible story; reading the thread through from beginning to end is like reading a particularly choice thriller (if you want a condensed version of the story, the Newsweek blog has a good article on it). What really interests me, however, and what makes it so relevant to this blog, is that it is such a nice vignette of how online communities at their best can work together to achieve common goals. In very short order, information was shared, strategies were debated, help was offered, and sizeable amounts of money were raised. Online communities are real communities, at least in a sense, and they are capable of pulling together in the same way that real communities can and do in times of crisis.

This story is also a nice illustration of how the web not only enables people to find information, but also to share it, and to back it with the implicit authority of coming from a trusted source. Participants in online communities like Metafilter or social networks like Facebook know each other, sometimes personally and sometimes only virtually, but this knowledge is always enough of a connection to provide a certain level of authority in the informational transaction. Authority in this context drives trust, and trust is central to the proper functioning of any group, organization, or society. Because the different parties involved in the Metafilter thread were predisposed to trust the information provided by others they were able to work together effectively.

From a marketing perspective, this is one of the key lessons for brand management in an era of online social networks – messages from untrusted sources carry no authority, and are likely to be ignored and, ultimately, discarded. This is why marketers spend so much time trying to identify ‘influencers’ – those people whose opinions and tastes carry more weight than most, and whose verdicts can be crucial to the success (or not) of products and services. Persuading influencers of the merits of your product can be a powerful way of generating positive word-of-mouth, offering as it does access to (a form of) authority.

How exactly to reach influencers is, however, a topic for another time.

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