Virtual Communities in Businesses

Thomas Malaby
Associate Professor of Anthropology
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Social networking. Virtual worlds. Online communities. Not long ago, these existed exclusively in people’s personal lives. Now, the phenomenon is making waves in the business world as well.

As an anthropologist, I know that most people seek places where they can connect with other people. I spent a year with a company called Linden Lab, studying the virtual world they launched in 2003, Second Life, and its effect on its creators and users. What I learned has implications for businesses as well as individual participants.

If you aren’t familiar with virtual communities, someone you know is. In Second Life and other such worlds, you act through a virtual representative, or avatar, to create any type of life you desire. The beauty is that everyone begins effectively equal, with greatly reduced obstacles of time, space, and physical ability. For some time, businesses have known the value of a web presence for consumers, but the real power of virtual communities lies in connecting employees. This can be as simple as a company wiki or blog site, or it may mean a virtual world, bringing far-flung teams together to collaborate on projects.

The Trust-Building Advantage

If you’re thinking that communicating online or through an avatar isn’t “authentic,” look at the history of communication. At first, people thought the telephone was impersonal and peculiar. It’s all about perspective, about making spaces meaningful. If you can express yourself clearly and keep a persistent identity in that space, you are authentic, as will be the relationships you form there.

In virtual spaces and through online games, people can experiment. Their actions aren’t consequence-free, but the stakes are reconfigured to value failure.

Because virtual communities save costs, there is less baggage attached to failure, and this leads to building trust. Anthropologists know that trust is built from very small acts, like simply allowing someone else to say or do something. In Second Life, this may mean moving one’s avatar out of the way of another who may be speaking. Even in virtual communities, trust is built from the possibility of failure, but also because the scope for social action is broad enough that people are inspired to do little things that make others comfortable.

The Engagement Factor

Unfortunately, many companies view social networking as kind of “anti-institutional.” For people to want to participate, people need to see their virtual world as a place where they could say what they say after work over drinks. This is the part that concerns business leaders, who see social networking sites as ungovernable. For corporate virtual communities to be meaningful, businesses will have to give up some control. The desire to regulate information and employees’ comments could seriously get in the way. It would be marvelous if the corporate world felt less compelled to govern their employees’ social networks.

The Return on Returning

The key is to get people into the habit of returning to the virtual community day after day. People are attracted to online games because they have uncertain outcomes, and they can interact in ways that affect those outcomes. Games command our attention because we want to see what happens next.

In games that require partners (or colleagues), there is a shared objective for building interaction and trust. Without objectives, the site may look nice, but people will have no reason to go there. The goal is to make people want to work together, and as they do, they create a framework for social interaction.

Clever companies use this pull to get people to do work for free. For example, Google has an “image game.” All of their text is searchable, but images are almost impossible to find easily. Google invented a game where users are paired with someone, somewhere in the world. With your virtual partner, you look at the same image and give it a tag name. If your tag names match, you get points. This gives you the incentive to not just invent your labels, but to choose those that most people would use to search for the image. So people have fun and compete, and Google gets a list of usable search tags for images.

Now, think how something like this would work in your own business, pairing colleagues to work virtually in a way that they’re familiar with and enjoy. You may find it well worth exploring.