This one goes out to the fence painters

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Tom Sawyer whitewashing a fence.

I’m always looking for interesting new communities to highlight here on Over the past year, I’ve covered everything from Wikipedia to OpenIDEO to The White House and am, frankly, overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of new community-building efforts going on out there.

Seems like every day I get an email or see something on Twitter or Facebook about a new community that sounds interesting and innovative. I’ve found some amazing people and visionary ideas. I hope to continue to highlight the best of these new communities here on the business channel.

But at the risk of sounding like a hater, I must admit I’m getting a touch of new-community fatigue.

I think I went over the edge a few weeks back when ex-advertising industry celebrity Alex Bogusky (yes, the same guy who did all of those weird chicken ads for Burger King and famously tried to make Microsoft cool) announced his new “Collaborative Community/Brand For Social Entrepreneurs.” He calls it Common. No offense to Alex, but when the advertising agency folks are hopping on the community brand bus, you have to wonder whether the seats are starting to get a tad bit full...

I also wonder if there is a bit too much Tom Sawyer-fence-painting going on in some of these new communities. In case it’s been a while since you read Tom Sawyer, here's how Wikipedia summarizes the story of Tom Sawyer and the fence:

After playing hooky from school on Friday and dirtying his clothes in a fight, Tom is made to whitewash the fence as punishment on Saturday. At first, Tom is disappointed by having to forfeit his day off. However, he soon cleverly persuades his friends to trade him small treasures for the privilege of doing his work.

It seems like many people approach community strategy with this Tom Sawyer thinking (see: crowdsourcing). How can I get people to paint my fence for me?

Why is the default reaction of most people and organizations usually to create a new community with them at the center? Why instead don't more people look for and join a community that already exists with a purpose or goal similar to their own?

I've even seen this Tom Sawyer thinking creeping into the business book world. How many times have you read a great new book, only to be greeted at the end with a plea like this one: “If you like the ideas in my book, please come join the discussion on my website, []”? (Sidebar: I have a new book coming out this fall. It’s called The Ad-free Brand. I mention this because, instead of starting Yet Another Community around my book and asking you to come join, I’m going to try my best to use my ideas to help paint fences that already exist. Promise.)

So this post goes out to the painters, the underappreciated folks (the open source world is full of them) with enough humility join communities started by others rather than only being willing to participate in communities centered around themselves.

If more people thought this way, perhaps we could help get everyone's fences painted.



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Chris Grams is the Head of Marketing at Tidelift and author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Building Successful Brands in a Digital World. Twitter LinkedIn Email: chris(at)


(Now that I've got the attention of all you LOTR lovers, read on.)

Chris: great post. I've often been told that social media is all about joining conversations and participating in dialogue rather than creating new, segmented places for people to share their thoughts and opinions. (“Hey, you, come over here and say what you just said to these people!”) So I'm 100% with you on that train of thought. In fact, my old boss wrote a book that talked about some of this as well (oh, the irony). It's called “Social Media is a Cocktail Party” and talks about just that (maybe I'll see if Mr. Tobin wants to comment too).

The question/comment I pose to you (and anyone else reading this) is whether or not we think there could ever be a platform or community-based site that could some day accommodate all schools of thought and all special interest groups/subgroups accordingly. Obviously the Internet itself was a catalyst for this, but what’s the next step from a community or sharing standpoint? Many sites are trying-- I see Facebook promoting their groups option for example. They’ve even aggregated groups based on interest entered within a user profile in order to possibly spur conversations despite otherwise common social barriers. (WARNING: This is just an example, I definitely don't think Facebook has the answer.) But what if we had one community resource to rule them all? And user-submitted content could be entered and directly routed appropriately to interested parties. ("Interesting. Let's Google it!") Then maybe these silo-ed communities could become more fluid and beneficial to each other because there would no longer be an entity at the center. It could be more of a common-use, free market exchange that had less silos and no domain names to jump between. Just users and thoughts.

Trippy, I know. Just something to noodle on though.

thanks for the great ideas, chris! a few more from me:

i think open standards are actually the key here... seems like we need some sort of way to openly connect all sorts of different communities and people using a common protocol or platform. Of course, this is basically what the internet is, but optimizing the whole internet experience for social/community connections (as opposed to content connections) seems like it would require something new.

However, this is unlikely to succeed as long as companies like Facebook would rather keep community activity on their own platform (and have enough gravity around their platform that other options don't make sense to them). It would take every company attempting a Facebook-like move to work together on a standard interface between different types of communities.

Maybe a project like this is already underway, I'm not sure... perhaps someone else might know?

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