Jeff Jarvis on companies who don’t realize the commitment involved in hosting ‘a community’

Jeff Jarvis on companies who don’t realize the commitment involved in hosting ‘a community’: “Mattel is shutting down its American Girl Club and our daughter is rightfully upset. She joined the community and made friends there and now Mattel is pulling up and leaving town. Because of the anonymity features of the community, this means that thousands of friendships are suddenly cut off; they communicate only through the club. It’s like putting up a Berlin Wall around third grades the world around.”

My observation: Companies (be they toy companies or media companies or technology companies or Web 2.0 startups) can attract people to connect with one another regarding a specific brand, product or topic. But the flaw in calling that “community” is the misguided perception on the part of the company that they “own” or control the identities of participants — granted, they’d never actually “claim” to do this, but in practice, they do it. That’s why I like blogging. This blog (and the other ‘sharing’ tools I point to on it) are my online identity. When I connect with others on a topic on one of those “branded” communities, or in comments on another blog, or wherever, I link back here. This is the only place I know will be around (at least in my backed-up version) for the long haul (or short haul — I determine when the haul stops).

The issue here is one of “identity.” Who owns ‘me’ online? I think I own my identity, but the weasles at Mattel obviously think they own the identities (even if they are “anonymous” avatars of real girls) of the American Girl Club members. I want to control who I am online (even though I know I can’t control what people say or think of me — as I can’t in the offline world, as well). I’ve been looking for a simpler way for a long time, but for me, the most simple way to ensure that I have one identity that I control is this blog. There are other schemes and complex theories on how an economy of identity and “attention” could be developed, but I’m into simplicity these days and can’t quite grasp the big picture — I can only understand what identity means to me and to the fourth-graders who have had their identity hijacked and walled off by Mattel.

The topic of “identity” online has been explored for a long time by many really smart people. Doc Searls has blogged on the topic of “identity” for years. Heck, they even have conferences at Harvard on the topic. However, as I see what companies like Mattel do — and, frankly, as I look at lots of Web 2.0 ventures popping up that will depend on people creating yet another identity on yet another website, I wonder what these folks are thinking.

Update: And yes, I know “identity” also refers to lots of personal data about us that can be stolen, not merely hijacked. That’s not what I’m talking about — or maybe it is.

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  • bhudgins

    In “Cat’s Cradle” Kurt Vonnegut coined the term “granfalloon” described in this essay (http://www.kcoyle.net/granfalloons.html) as: “One of the basic concepts of Bokononism, the secretive island religion of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, is that of a granfalloon. A granfalloon is a recognized grouping of people that, underneath it all, has no real meaning. The prototypical granfaloon in Vonnegut’s book is Hoosiers: the main character of the book finds himself journeying to an island nation in the company of fellow Indianans, but other than the fact that they hail from the same state they have no significance in each other’s lives.

    “The opposite of a granfalloon, or at least one alternative, is the karass. These are the people whose lives are entwined in yours in mysterious yet profound ways. Often they are not part of any of your more obvious granfalloons, but in the end it is their presence on this earth that has great influence of the direction of your own life. Recognizing members of your karass is not an easy thing and some you may never identify, but part of the spiritual mission of Bokononists is to celebrate their karass.”

    This is not to say someone in a granfalloon can’t have a major impact on your life, if for no other reason than proximity – co-workers can be a granfalloon. So, the American Girl Club could be a terrific example of a granfalloon, while a blog might attract members of one’s karass.