About Me

Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Len focuses on helping small and new businesses succeed through developing appropriate marketing and sales strategies. Len enjoys mentoring, relishes in getting both arms and feet wet in addressing technology, marketing and sales issues. He understands the drivers impacting business results for today and tomorrow including time-to-market, time-to-revenue, marketing, sales channels and social media.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Virtual Community Revolution – How this type of Internet Usage Will Change Our World

I have had an epiphany in 2008, a year that has witnessed a market meltdown, contracting Western economies, people losing their homes, their jobs, and probably a bit of their confidence in the future. That epiphany came about because of so many circumstances, both local and international.

The market meltdown exposed the weaknesses of “unfettered greed,” capitalism without regulatory oversight. It also illustrated how interconnected this planet is, as the economic disaster of sub-prime mortgages in the U.S. impacted countries around the world, like watching falling dominos. In this Internet age there was no way to escape the news, no way to bury your head in the sand, no way to retreat to an isolated place where you could not be aware of the economic impact.

The year 2008 witnessed further remarkable change, a tipping point. Politically Americans elected, to the highest office in their land, a dynamic new leader, firmly planted in the digital generation. As a Canadian watching the unfolding of political events south of the border, it was fascinating to watch the Internet campaign of Barack Obama. Using existing public social network spaces like Facebook, providing video messaging through YouTube, building a cell phone communication network to send out short messages, the Obama campaign created a custom Internet presence that embraced, engaged, and empowered the electorate. It played a considerable part in the campaign strategy. In his article, Obama Election Ushering in First Internet Presidency, posted November 5, 2008, Mitch Wagner, of Information Week, posted the statistics associated with the Internet campaign. Millions contributed to the campaign, all through the Internet. Millions more volunteered, organizing themselves through the Internet.

Post-election, the Internet continues to play a substantial role in this new Presidency even before he has taken office. The site http://change.gov has become an online expression of direct democracy in action. The implications of this new virtual community presence are enormous. Today the President Elect has the means to appeal daily, directly to every citizen, informing them, gathering feedback, and engaging them in policy creation and implementation at the grassroots level. For the Congress of the United States, this virtual community and direct democracy relationship poses enormous challenges. Suddenly the President can develop a one-on-one relationship with every citizen who chooses to join the site, bypassing Congress unless the Representatives and Senators start building their own virtual community presence.

Here in Toronto where I live, I got involved in this change phenomenon at a more personal level. I started publishing this small business blog and wrote an article on my experiences participating and using social networks. Little did I know that I was soon attracting a number of readers who liked what they read and wanted to talk to me more about the subject.

One of those readers was Faith Exeter, President of an Internet software development company, Enable Consultants. For a decade Enable had been building Internet sites for clients in the Caribbean and Canadian markets. They had been recognized by the UN for work in building digital community connections among expatriate Caribbeans and their home islands. Now they were into trying to solve the disengagement problem of marginalized youth that was rearing its head in Toronto district schools, and they were doing this by creating a private social network.

This version of social networking isn’t Facebook or MySpace. It protects youth from cyberbullying and inappropriate content. It has a code of conduct. It is policed by all members of the community and monitored by a super user who determines whether flagged content is inappropriate or not. It is built around the school as a community hub. It focuses on students, teachers, classrooms, parents, school and community partners.

The product is called Recess and its website is www.meetatrecess.com. Recess was tested in the spring of 2008 at a Toronto middle school that was considered by many principals and teachers to be one of the toughest in the City. Known more for students being out of class and expelled, than in class and learning, Recess was introduced to this school as part of an overall strategy for redefining student engagement. The test was one Grade 7 class of 30 students. When first deployed, during class orientation, a number of students appeared disengaged. When approached and through discussion their interests were identified. When told about blogging as a way of expressing their interests the students got excited and involved. Within a few days all 30 students in the class were visiting the site at least once a day. Students created their own profiles, posted photographs, videos, music, wrote blogs, contributed to news, did homework, asked for help, and interacted with their classroom and classmates. During the first month of the test the students viewed 21,364 pages. And when the test was over and the school year ended, those same students continued to view the site at volumes as high as 14,000 pages per month.

Some students published articles online and made them available to be viewed by their classmates. In many cases these postings were not homework assignments, but personal expressions about subjects that were of particular interest to them. One student, who created a discussion paper on child abuse, when asked if Recess had changed her, responded “Yes, I now know what I want to do when I leave school. I want to write.”

Giving youth a vision of their future and the tools to achieve it – that is the goal of Recess. And that is revolutionary. It is a revolution that can be applied to any organization that seeks to use the Internet to effect change. A charity can enhance its programs and efforts by using a virtual community approach to fund raising, education, program support and delivery, and more. A business can reach out to its employees, suppliers, and customers through the virtual community experience to empower employees to enhance the business, to work with suppliers to improve processes and profitability, and to engage customers in ways never dreamed before.

I call this a revolution, not evolution, because that is what the rise of virtual communities online is. With public social networks we have stepped through an Internet door that has led to all types of new engagement. With virtual community we will move beyond engagement. Virtual community is about empowerment of the individual. It is about breaking down communication barriers, creating new solutions to intractable problems. It is about changing the world.


DGCK said...

Once again Lenny, very insightful, actionable information which I know will be useful for me in my work with The Community Foundation of Oakville. Thanks for keeping this up. Hope you have a tremendous '09 and let's be sure to get together soon. I need to pick your brain...some more.

George Tran said...

Great Article Lenny.

I totally agree with you. While social networks like Facebook are great, there is increasingly a need to have a private social network that is branded with the host organization's brand and control...such as Recess for individual high schools.

I've written a book called "The Social Marketing Manifesto" which should be released later Q1 of 09 that outlines this trend and the technologies needed to put it all together, as well as a blueprint of how to successfully launch such a network.

You can find more about it at my blog at socialmarketingman.blogspot.com.

George Tran

Aaron said...

Lenny, You are an excellent writer. There are a lot of positive things highlighted in your article. You have a good heart and i'm proud to say you are my uncle.