Friday, 1 April 2016

How to stop your communities becoming LinkedIn-style ghost towns.

The LinkedIn groups are failing as a medium for community discussion. How do we stop communities of practice in our own organisation going the same way?

The Huffington post article by JD Gershbein, entitled "The LinkedIn groups have become ghost towns", describes what he terms the demise of the groups. Seen initially as a technology to support discussion and knowledge sharing in global communities of practice, the groups have "devolved into a bottomless pit of shameless self-promotion".

Certainly the groups are becoming less about dialogue and more about monologue. When I analysed LinkedIn group discussions in 2011 I found that about 60% of the thread-starters were questions while 40% were statements, and that the threads started with statements received few if any answers, and sparked no discussion.  I repeated this analysis this year and found that only 10% of threads were started with a true question, while  90% started with a "notification"; someone sharing something, usually presented as a statement, but sometimes as a pseudo-question like"What's the best way to introduce social media? Read my website and find out".

The notification threads received on average 0.1 follow-up responses and comments. The 10% of the threads that started with a real question received on average 13.5 comments.  Questions promote discussion, but the percentage of questions is low, and falling.

So JD's view matches my observation - that the LinkedIn groups have not fulfilled their promise of being a discussion mechanism, but have become another avenue for people to promote themselves. Where people have questions, these are generally answered and may create some rich dialogue. However the questions are becoming fewer and fewer, and self-promoting notification more and more common.

Why has this happened?

JD suggests that an increased complexity and activity level in LinkedIn has turned people from contributors into browsers, compounded by the new LinkedIn moderation policies. However I think there may be something more fundamental. LinkedIn is, by its very nature, a forum for self promotion. You promote yourself through your profile and through your activity, and so find jobs and contracts.

This individualistic drive competes against the more social drive you would hope to see in the groups. People on LinkedIn like to be seen to have answers; they don't like to be seen to have questions. Over time the individualism has become the default culture, and the more the groups are filled with notifications, the less people feel like posting questions.

What can we do about it?

Obviously you don't want this to happen in your in-house communities of practice. We know from the Knoco 2014 KM survey that successful CoPs have a high ratio of Pull (questions) to Push (notifications), as the chart here shows. 

By these figures, the satisfaction rate with the LinkedIn groups should be very low. 

How do you avoid this problem?  Here are some clues. 

In 2011 I noted that one thread showed a really rich pattern of interaction  and discussion due to

"the involvement of the person who originated the thread and his activities in responding and reframing the discussion, and the social interactions he generated. He has taken the role of discussion facilitator, and as a result has a far longer and richer result".

Similarly  JD Gershbein picks an exemplar LinkedIn group where a moderator, Tsufit, provides active facilitation.

"She offers thought-provoking questions and comments that are designed to help members artfully and appropriately promote themselves. Tsufit actually serves in the role of a recruiter for her group, identifying good candidates through LinkedIn Pulse and other online media. “I seek out influencers, thought leaders, heads of organizations, speakers, and authors who are community-focused. Once in, they are not to do the old teach-and-preach. Instead, I encourage them to pose questions that will evoke a response.”

Similarly Clay Shirkey, in his blog post "a group is its own worst enemy" offers three conclusions to help the purpose of the group succeed over the purpose of the individuals;

  1. As you can't separate the social from the technical issues, then ensure the group addresses the social issues from the start. This is where the bedrocks of Communities of Practice come in - the facilitator moderator, the community charter, the behaviour ground-rules.
  2. There will always be a core group. Clay calls these "members" as opposed to "users", and they are the people who care about the purpose of the group.
  3. The core group has rights that trump the rights of the individual. Generally it is the core group that writes and "enforces" the charter.

You can do the same in your groups. 

  • Set up a core group, a moderator and a charter
  • Ensure the charter promotes questions and discussions over notifications and self-promotion
  • Ensure the moderator plays an active role in weaving discussion
  • Ensure the core group are active in monitoring behaviour, and driving questioning. 
In this way you can engage the community in discussion, and avoid the community forums becoming ghost-towns of self promotion. 


J.D. Gershbein said...

Hi Nick, thank you very much for proper attribution in your piece. (Please note that the correct spelling of my last name is Gershbein.)

I agree with your assessment of LinkedIn as an individual marketing platform. We are increasingly seeing that personal priorities outweigh community responsibility. Up until, say, 2015, I felt a sense of belonging to several of my LinkedIn groups. These were robust online communities in which actual discussion took place. Then came the changes. (It has oft been uttered, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Yet, for some reason, LinkedIn felt a need to fix it.)

At the time I authored the Huffington Post piece, the groups were diminishing in effect. They were veering away from rich exchange and lost their fertility as a source of connecting with like-minded professionals.

The thing about ghost towns is that many were re-inhabited. People came back. I hope this is the case with the LinkedIn groups.

Nick Milton said...

Thanks JD - your name now edited to correct spelling.

My personal feeling is that without active moderation, these groups are doomed. Certainly something has to change if the ghost towns are to be repopulated.

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