As we race headlong into a future full of opportunities for online social networking, as we try and build systems to engage students, scientists, librarians or others, we have to remember one thing.
When we build these systems, we need to build them for everyone. Not just the coolest and most technophilic. We have to build for who our audience really is, not who we wish they would be.
And sometimes we just have to recognize that not everyone will be interested in what we have to offer, even if they seem to fit our profile in other ways.
Wayne Bivens-Tatum does a very good job of reminding us of all that in his blog post about his own preferences in terms of online engagent.
Recently a couple of people have asked why I haven't joined some of the social networking services they find interesting or useful, particularly Twitter and Friendfeed, but the question could probably apply to more of them. The simple reason is, I don't see any way I would benefit from these services. Some people would consider that statement an incentive to either persuade me that I would benefit or dismiss me as a Luddite who just doesn't "get it." But I do get it. I know some of the ways people benefit from these services. It's just that I don't want those benefits. Partly, it's a personality issue. I'm not very social, and I don't have interests in common with many people. For example, I have almost no interest in: television, pop music, celebrities, fashion, food, cooking, new movies, sports, contemporary fiction, cars, gardening, crafts, diets, scandals, or the weather.
Wayne very helpfully identifies the online social networking "features" that he's not that interested in: Neophilia (love of the new), Diversion, Networking, Sharing and Discussion.
It's a great post, very thought provoking and stimulating. It's well worth reading the whole thing. I suspect a great many people sympathise with what he's saying but that they're not the people that are part of the blogging/twitter/friendfeed echo chamber.
Now, the message I take away from it is this: building community is very hard. Everybody wants to build a new Facebook for scientists or librarians, or a way of engaging a campus full of university students but the important thing to remember is what do your potential audience really want. Which of those five features are you trying to provide? What are the ways your audience are already fulfilling those needs? What are the potential gaps that you can fill? Is what you're offering very clearly better, easier to use, less disruptive to exisiting workflows? And most importantly, when you consider preaching to the unconverted, will enough people care?