Clay Shirky is one of the world's foremost experts on internet technology: how it works, and how it affects individuals, groups, and social and economic interaction. He's written a number of books on the topic, including the best-selling Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organising without Organisations.
I recently ran across one of Shirky's older articles, "Communities, Audiences, and Scale", in which he ruminates about the differences between an audience and a community, and what role the web has to play in creating and maintaining them:
Prior to the internet, the differences in communication between community and audience was largely enforced by media -- telephones were good for one-to-one conversations but bad for reaching large numbers quickly, while TV had the inverse set of characteristics. The internet bridged that divide, by providing a single medium that could be used to address either communities or audiences. Email can be used for conversations or broadcast, usenet newsgroups can support either group conversation or the broadcast of common documents, and so on. Most recently the rise of software for "The Writable Web", principally weblogs, is adding two-way features to the Web's largely one-way publishing model.
With such software, the obvious question is "Can we get the best of both worlds? Can we have a medium that spreads messages to a large audience, but also allows all the members of that audience to engage with one another like a single community?" The answer seems to be "No."
Communities are different than audiences in fundamental human ways, not merely technological ones. You cannot simply transform an audience into a community with technology, because they assume very different relationships between the sender and receiver of messages.
He goes on to make the point that as a community grows, the connections between each of its members become weaker, so that eventually the community (characterised by many-to-many interaction) becomes an audience, where communication is almost exclusively one-way: from the centre to the edge of the group.
Shirky goes on to point out that:
It's significant that the only two examples we have of truly massive community spread of messages on the internet -- email hoaxes and Outlook viruses -- rely on disabling the users' disinclination to forward widely, either by a social or technological trick. When something like All Your Base or OddTodd bursts on the scene, the moment of its arrival comes not when it spreads laterally from community to community, but when that lateral spread attracts the attention of a media outlet.
What he didn't foresee when writing this article in 2002 was that, very quickly, this situation would change. These days, the major media outlets pick up on internet phenomena after they go viral—that is to say, after they have already achieved widespread exposure to communities and audiences on the web.
Or maybe he did. A major theme in Here Comes Everybody is that communities on the web are as likely to be situational as they are to be permanent, and that they grow and disperse with the same life cycle as the topics around which they are centred. What does this mean for organisations that want to make social media a part of their web strategy? Most fundamentally, it means that if they want to create communities around their content, rather than a large, passive audience, they need to keep their content fresh, up-to-date, and topical.
As Dr Kelly Page pointed out at VerseOne's Customer Day last October, the web moves quickly. People will be more likely to engage with an organisation on the web if it keeps up with what they find important at a given moment. This is the essence of social media, and shows how important the many-to-many conversational model has become as the web has evolved.