What Works – and What Doesn’t

I sat in a meeting yesterday and heard an interesting presentation from a person who is trying to build a new church community in a suburb – without a building, and the hope that a gathered community would have enough strength to move toward one some time in the future.  His target audience is families with young children – people quite like himself – and he is trying to do this by meeting the people where he knows they are – probably on public transport where they spend large portions of their lives. Because he also has a technology background he has created an app to make contact with them.  He calls the app, “Redeem the Commute”.  His target group is also described as “unchurched” – in other words, those who have no experience of or context for the kind of community that he is trying to create.

It’s a new way to try to combine local with global – and what was engaging was the honesty of his reporting.  How many of us get real about how things work – or don’t.  – in the worlds of social media and mobile apps.

His idea was to offer online mini- courses – parenting, marriage preparation and relgion 101.  I immediately found myself questioning the first one here – did he have the necessary credentials to offer a course on parenting – especially as a new parent himself?  While I have decades of parenting experience I’d be inclined to recognize my views as opinion rather than credentials.  Marriage prep and Religion 101 were fine. These are churchy things and related to the business he is in.  There were hopes that participants would group themselves around topics and form discussion groups.  There were also invitations to come to real meetings in a real location  Here are some of the things that happened.

Clear measurements took place over a 60 day period. There were a fair number of downloads of the app and quite a few visits to the website. But there was very little interest in the parenting or marriage course; there was better response to religion 101. The online communities never formed.  There were a very small number of visits to the local website.  Turning up for local events was sparse. Some local initiatives worked so much better.  An outdoor movie night attracted 400.  A Christmas party brought out 40 parents and children.

What do these things say to any of us who write for blogs or websites or posts for social media? We may be fooling ourselves quite a  lot of the time.  I had the same experience writing for a local community grouping in downtown Toronto over a three year period.  There were interested subscribers from all over the world – even a reporter from the Washington Post checked in – but local interest was sparse at best.

My Facebook friends are people whom I would recognize if I met them on the street – and some of them live a plane ride away – but the truth is we have common contexts for being digital acquaintances – and let’s face it, we are not all friends in a real sense but more often colleagues, classmates, and acquaintances.  It’s extremely difficult to develop relationships unless people have something of substance  in common – and what the targeted group had in common here was actually defined – no knowledge of the enterprise that was trying to recruit them. Social media is now based on the economic hope that what we “like” will be adopted by our “friends”.  Such friendship will come at a price and it doesn’t really build human bonding.

What did work was what the movie and Christmas party have in common.  They were local events where real people could actually meet and interact with other people.  When I think back to Howard Rheingold’s lovely book, The Virtual Community, Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier”, which I first read in the early 90’s, I realize how much things have changed.  Local combined with digital was possible then – to have a local community like the Bay area “Well” where people could meet online and share theirv real life experience.  But they also shared the context of San Francisco.  What there is to share in the sense of a new suburban commiunity is a a bit hard to say. There often is no sense of history or common experience and sometimes even landmarks are hard to spot.  Apps, on the other hand, are almost by definition, global.

So this honest presentation raised far more questions for me than it answered.  The presenter suggested that he might go in an app direction or a local relationship building direction or possibly a combination.  What did seem necessary was to make a choice – because the strengths and limitations of both were clear.  And I found myself leaning toward building relationships.