Digital Communities

The Best Way to Approach the Digital World Is to Be Intuitive. Here’s How.

We need to stop thinking of the internet and social media as something new. Human needs and interests do not change. Radio, television, computers, the internet and cell phones have all provided new channels for us to do what we have always done. We form friendships, fall in love, develop peer groups and barter.

In ancient and medieval times we did this with others who lived near us. Today we do the same, only our community is spread out over large cities.

In the broad social perspective, the most significant difference between contemporary and historical times is the space between us. We are 300 million in the United States and we are spread out over three million square miles. The internet is actually normalizing our lives by allowing us to maintain relationships like we still lived in villages.

The best way to approach the digital world, then, is to be intuitive. Contacts on Facebook are digital neighbors. Customers and vendors we interact with online should be looked at as fellow business people from down the street.

Penny Lane

The Beatles released a nostalgic song in 1968 called “Penny Lane.” It is a wistful memory of John and Paul’s childhood in Liverpool. As they take us down the street we visualize the barber giving someone a shave, a banker without a raincoat in the rain, and a girl selling poppies. Then and now it seems terribly fanciful, but it is an apt metaphor for our relationships with other members of our online communities.

We used to know our neighbors, then air conditioning, television and computers shifted our attention indoors. Once we walked from store to store to do our shopping on Main Street, now we drive, zigzagging across the landscape like bees. Online reality may be virtual, but it collects our business contacts for us and it offers the potential to develop familiar and lasting relationships.

Digital online channels make us members of communities again, and the old rules apply. We need to stay in touch, share our accomplishments and disappointments, and be supportive.

Here are some ways to maintain and profit from the online community.

  • Be nice, but don’t be phony. Communicating online doesn’t mean people can’t tell if you are insincere. Long-lasting relationships are built on trust.
  • Share the good news and the bad news. For the last 100 years businesses used mass media mainly for advertising their products and services. They created one-way communication relationships that were exploitive. Sharing a broader range of information opens the door for more traditional and more meaningful relationships.
  • Take time to respond to posts from others in your online community. Every post doesn’t require a response, but responding to two or three community posts a day accumulates and lets everyone know you are paying attention and not just using the channel for your own selfish purposes.
  • Don’t inundate your online friends with unwanted emails. Email was a novelty for early computer users. Then it was an asset for progressive businesses. Now it is a problem. Think about the neighborhood. What do you do when you realize someone talks endlessly about themselves and isn’t interested in really communicating? You cut them off. Send email sparingly.

Quarries and transportation businesses are most interested in their customers and employees, but customers and employees react to the business’s reputation, and reputation is established through interactions with all publics: employees, customers, neighbors, civic leaders, news media and vendors. All of them should receive attention through online channels.

Online communication isn’t creating a new world, it is recreating an old one. Your quarry may be on the outskirts of Chicago, but online it is in Mayberry.

Tell Aunt Bee and Andy I said hi.

Thomas J. Roach Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Northwest since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected].

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