Social Media Workshop: The Imaginary Friends Who Live in Your Typewriter

anonymous internet protest

“Imaginary friends who live in my typewriter” is my friend Gavin‘s term for people he knows from online. I met Gavin on The WELL and he’s a classic example of the friends I’ve made in online communities–smart, accomplished, and interesting.

The WELL has a long tradition of supplementing online community with offline get-togethers. That might be why it’s known for the amazing depth of connections that were made there.

Yes, there were exceptions, but for the most part, people who were delightful online like Mr. Jalopy and Howard Rheingold were also delightful offline. Each realm showed you stuff you wouldn’t have seen from the other. Online community was a way to get to know someone in a different way. It didn’t replace face-to-face relationship, it deepened it.

If you didn’t have that kind of introduction to online community, it’s easy to imagine that it’s all a giant computer game. You sit at your keyboard and type in different things to find out how the game works. This lies at the heart of trolling, or (by my definition), shaking up the ant farm purely for the pleasure of watching the little buggers swarm.

The complicated fuel behind social media

Although there’s a strong human tendency to anthropomorphize technology, there’s also a countering tendency to view human beings–if you know them only through their technological shell–as data.

If you’re going to enter the world of online community and social media for some reason–maybe to build a larger customer base or get something big done–you need to remember an important complicating factor.

Behind all those blinking cursors and strings of text are confusing, troublesome and resourceful human beings.

They will do stuff. They will almost certainly do stuff you wish they would not do. And if you’re lucky, and smart about how online community works, they might take action in a massive way that moves (sort of) in the direction you were hoping.

The inverted Matrix

The addictive game World of Warcraft added a social component and became ten times more addictive. Millions of teenaged boys became scarcer and scarcer at dinnertime as they burned tens of millions of hours playing “Warcrack.”

On the other half of the world from suburban kids in the States, young men in China are making a living playing Warcraft for 18 hours a day as “gold farmers.” Earning real money to buy real food to support real families in the real world.

This is the other side of The Matrix. Strings of computer code are powered by real people doing real stuff that has real effects.

The Church of Scientology is learning this to its dismay, as a collection of people under the rubric “anonymous” has been organizing systematic protests against them.

This is a pretty good description of what Internet-based collective action tends to look like.

  • It protects itself by masking its identity.
  • It’s heavy on the inside jokes.
  • Mockery is a given–sometimes witty and sometimes not.
  • It’s peaceful but also potentially pretty intimidating.
  • It tends toward the ridiculous and the profane, but it is not cynical.

If you think you want to mobilize social media for your business, your nonprofit, or your cause, you need to get comfortable with what that might look like. Whether it’s monks in Burma, music fans in Myspace, Diggers, Sphinners, Stumblers, “anonymous,” or any one of a thousand other online communities that mobilize for collective action, you’ll find some common traits.

Your group will be messy. They will be chaotic. And they will never do quite what you wish they would do.

Make peace with that and get good at influencing the direction it takes, and you can move the world.

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  1. James Hipkin says:

    The objective might be simple, the strategy elegant but the execution will always be complicated. Beware the complication.

    Great post, as always. Really emphasizes the importance of considering consequences. Something I have been drumming into my teens.

  2. …Unintended consequences too, huh James?

    I like the Inverted matrix idea, considering things from both ends.

    I cannot remember where this comes from but I once read that if you pick up a stick you get both ends of it…you know ugly and beautiful, chaos and elegance, trolls and supporters…

  3. It’s almost silly to need the reminder, but you’re right – it’s easy to forget that the people you’re communicating with online are thinking human beings. Especially if you’ve been tuned into WoW general chat in the Barrens for more than 5 minutes. :-)

    I’m wondering how to take your ideas into account when building an internet-based community for our business. I’ve got no problem with chaos or autonomous thought, since the people who use your product on a daily basis often have great development ideas to share, and a little chaos keeps things interesting. But, if this was set up, I’d be curious to see what actions might be the result, and what the consequences (if any) might be.

    Thanks for the food for thought – I enjoyed your post, and new perspectives are always welcome.

  4. Karen Swim says:

    Sonia, such a thought provoking post. You pointed out what appears to be frequently overlooked and that is our inability to control the chaos that is inevitable with groups of people. For those seeking to simply blast a message to “crowds” and influence their desired result, this post points out the flaw in that strategy. People online, offline will never do exactly what you want.