Here be dragons: the corporate community trap

As the big social networks start tussling for turf - are they starting to behave like the corporate titans of old?

Back in the early days of the social web – 2003 or so – the phrase “they don’t get it” was often used to dimiss the attempts of big corporations to get involved. Their clumsy, business-minded versions of blogging or community building were often failures – or even embarrassing failures. While those sorts of disasters are still common, you don’t see the patronising “they don’t get it” phrase much anymore – thankfully – but I found it creeping into my mind again as the latest round of shennanigans between Instagram, Twitter and Facebook unfolded.

It all started last week with the news that Instagram had dedided to drop support for Twitter’s cards – the markup that allows rich media from other sites to appear in the Twitter stream on the main website. All of a sudden, rather than seeing the full Instagram photo in your feed, you’re back to a link to the Instagram site. Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom (pictured above) denied that this was driven by Instagram’s new owners Facebook and explained it by suggesting that it was a “better experience” for users to be directed to the website, where they could like or comment on photo directly.

This is exactly the sort of behaviour that used to get big corporations accused of “not getting it”. It’s an easy trap for businesses to fall into – we’ve paid for this infrastructure, we’ve built this community, now we own the community. Two of those three are accurate. That last is not. You cannot own a community any more than you can own the clientele of a restuarant. Make a change that they don’t like – and you lose the community pretty sharply. Once, memorably, a community I worked with decided to change the off-the-shelf software it was using for some custom, in-house created equivalent. The community took one look at the “revamped” site, upped sticks and left for its own site, set up using the very same software the company had just abandoned. The company’s sense of ownership of the community was quickly proven illusory.

And now we see the social giants starting to display this same sort of arrogance. Instagram is starting to tell its users where they can and can’t view their photos. This is exactly the sort of corporate decision-making that has ruined many a community – “our community should interact here,
because it suits our interest”. That only works for as long as the user and the corporate need are closely aligned. Are they in this case? If it leads to less exposure of a user’s photos – and that’s the likely outcome – then no, it isn’t.

This is hard on the heels of Twitter telling its users that they can’t use their own follow information in other apps (like Instagram and Tumblr) or even use the apps they want to browse the community.

Are all startups doomed to start behaving like traditional companies once they get to a certain size? Perhaps this is an inevitable function of growing to a huge userbase where each individual user seems so much less important in the overall corporate strategy. The people start to fade away into a mass of undistinguished users, just as the staff start to become “human resources”.

The most important word in “social media” is the first one, not the second. The more companies forget that, the more their actions serve their own interests over that of their users, the more they’ll become the types of business that “don’t get it”.