Meg Pickard turned her background as a social anthropologist into a role as the Head of Digital Engagement at the UK's Guardian News and Media. And the really weird thing? It's not as big a shift as you might think. Here Meg reveals the secrets behind the way online communities work - and can work for you.

Written by
Meg Pickard
September 2011

Near my house is the stop where I catch a bus every morning to get to work. I’m not alone. Every day, there are half a dozen people already standing in line, glancing at their watches or variously lost in books, music, or the morning papers. I join the line and more people join behind me until finally the bus comes and the journey begins. Is this group of people a community?

We share a common location, motivation, and cultural understanding (we know how important it is to form a line), but we’re not (yet) a community – the relationship that we have isn’t with each other but with the service provider, in this case the bus company.

Whenever we think of a group as a community, stop and check: If it’s a group of people with lots in common, but without interactivity or interrelationships, perhaps what we actually mean is an audience or demographic.

In the digital environment, companies have more opportunities than ever to find ways to encourage the people formerly known as the ‘audience’ to flourish into communities of common interest, circumstance, and, best of all from a commercial point-of-view, action. Digital engagement has become the voguish term for some well-established skills in this area: Community management and organization, digital communication and participation planning, social product development, and strategy. It’s a catch-all term describing different kinds of participation in and around digital products. It touches tools and technologies as well as skills, approaches, and policies.

My role as Head of Digital Engagement at Guardian News and Media in London is about exploring and supporting new forms of interactivity and participation, as well as ‘digital praxis’ – realising our desire for alternative forms of storytelling and collaboration brought to life through new platforms and skills.

Although I’ve been working in digital content for well over 14 years, my background is in social anthropology. In the mid-’90s, I found myself a world away from the early internet boom, in highland Bolivia, doing ethnographic fieldwork on the subject of community formation, identity and the small daily rituals that signified belonging to a particular cultural group – the equivalents of raising a glass and saying ‘cheers’ when drinking with friends. If I, an outsider, could adopt the habits and rituals of a community group, would that make me part of the community? Of course not. Community is more complicated than that, isn’t it?

People’s activities, relationships, and social groupings online are just as valid and interesting as those in the ‘real’ world. Behind those hundreds of millions of screens are real people, in real communities.

After spending time in Bolivia, I started looking at similar issues of community formation and rituals in what was then called ‘cyberspace.’ My dissertation supervisor told me dismissively that there was no such thing as community online, and I’d be better off going back to South America. The university now teaches courses in digital anthropology.

It may seem like a strange transition – from the Bolivian Altiplano to the cutting edge of the internet – but social anthropology has always been about understanding people, relationships, social structures, patterns of behavior and beliefs, and how they impact, reinforce, and challenge cultures and communities.

Through that lens, people’s activities, relationships, and social groupings online are just as valid and interesting as those in the ‘real’ world. Behind those hundreds of millions of screens are real people, in real communities. Social activity online is an extension of community and socialization, and it challenges as well as extends our social literacy, norms, and identities. Since the internet is powered by people, what better place is there for an anthropologist?

During my first few years online, I wasn’t really using my anthropological training a lot. As a producer and editor for a global internet company, most of my time was spent creating content and products for audiences. But in the evenings, I was sharing photos, meeting up with fellow bloggers, and hanging out online. When the world started to wake up to social media around 2004, I was already experienced; immersed in that world but with the business insight and analysis that came from my anthropologist’s brain.

What looked like a hobby became a career in online communities, social media, and now digital engagement. Engaging in the social web as a creator and community member, not just a detached observer, has made it easier for me to understand what’s going on in that world, because it’s my world, too.

Corporate research and customer insight teams are very good at helping staff understand the makeup and movements of audiences on site, but on external social media platforms like Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, and so on, there’s no substitute for spending time with the communities, talking and listening to them in order to understand them better. Anthropologists might call this ‘participant observation,’ but it’s basically just hanging out, meeting people, and paying attention.

It doesn’t just open doors in terms of access to communities, it opens your mind to what motivates, delights, and displeases them, which means you can make better products and services; things that actually solve user issues and fill customer needs. They may not be your (only) customers, but you can learn a lot from spending time with them in their space.

Too often companies embark on social media strategies that emphasize broadcasting to a community rather then engaging with it. My motto is ‘embrace, don’t replace.’ Don’t bend a service such as Twitter to your will, or treat it as an extension of your own site. Be aware of the norms and etiquette of the communities you are engaging with. Listen more than you talk, be prepared to learn from your community members – and let that change what you do in future. That’s a truly social media approach.

Nor can you magic a community into being. They already exist and have established ideas, membership, motivations, and ways of working. Think about how you can work with those established groups, and help them do what they want to do. Act as a platform or a way of enhancing their activities rather than trying to get them to do something that only suits you. The best communities enable people (including businesses) to engage in contexts of mutual interest, for mutual benefit.

In the Guardian community standards, we say, ‘The platform belongs to us but the conversation belongs to everybody.’ This ‘mutualized’ approach is something that we’re seeing across the media landscape. It drives loyalty and personal investment in a story (or brand, or product), and makes people more likely to share their participation in it with their social graph

Becoming a truly social media organization means thinking differently. Here are five simple things you can do today to help social media help you.

1. Commission, write, edit, and curate with the web in mind.

2. Anticipate and plan for likely interaction. Is this a conversation? How would you like people to respond? Sometimes you need to invite particular kinds of contribution. If you think your content has the potential to get heated, tell the moderators in advance and keep an eye on it yourself.

3. Participate and encourage participation. Keep an eye on conversations you start and get involved where relevant and possible. Invite particular perspectives and tease out interesting kernels into new ideas and conversations.

4. Recognize and reward quality contributions. Give attention and praise to things that are constructive or interesting. Don’t reward negative behaviour with attention.

5. Keep it up! Try and build some digital engagement activity into your daily routine, even if it’s just running Twitter in the background and reading/responding to comments once in a while.