Mobile community: The holy grail of m4d?

Last week I wrote a post on the difficulties of running a “mobile for development” – or m4d – project. I tried to make it challenging, and was hoping to stir up some discussion around the merits of mobile-initiated development projects versus development-initiated mobile projects. You can read that post here.

Unless you’re one of the bigger technology blogs – Mashable, TechCrunch, Scobleizer and so on – it’s hit-and-miss whether or not a post will get the traction you’re looking for. Apart from a couple of dozen tweets and a dozen or so comments, the post didn’t generate as much debate as I’d have liked. But it did get me thinking – if these kinds of discussion weren’t taking place here, then where were they taking place?

I’m regularly asked at conferences for hints on the best sites for people to post questions and stimulate debate around mobile technology, and I always struggle to give an answer. It seems crazy that, for a discipline which began to fully emerge probably about seven or eight years ago, there still isn’t a genuinely active, engaging, open online community for people to join and interact with each other.

In order to get a sense of which communities exist, I recently sent out a message to a number of ICT4D and mobile email lists I subscribe to, and posted the odd message on Twitter. Very few people could suggest anything. A few people mentioned email lists which dealt specifically with sectoral issues, such as health, but not specifically with mobile (although mobile was a regular thread in many discussions). Only MobileActive suggested MobileActive, which was a surprise considering its positioning as a global, mobile community with over 16,000 ‘active’ members.

Finding nothing was only part of it – many people clearly had different ideas of what made up community, too (I’d put this down to a challenge of definition). When I pushed out my call for sites, I specifically asked for those which were “open, active, collaborative and engaging”, things that I thought would be pre-requisites for anything worth being a member of.

According to Maddie Grant, a Strategist at SocialFish, a consulting firm that helps associations build community on the social web:

What makes a community open is when there’s “a lot more outside the login than inside”, so most of a community’s content must be at least viewable and shareable without logging in. To be active, most of a community’s content must be member (user) generated, not owner-generated, and must have some degree of conversation which includes comments, discussions and reviews

Going by these criteria I don’t believe we yet have a truly active, engaging, open mobile community. This seems a little strange when you consider the attention the technology has been getting over the past few years.

On the flip side though, it might not be so strange after all. As Jonathan Donner put it to me in a recent email, “Why should m4d have it’s own groups and community sites? Can’t we – or should we – just mainstream ourselves into ICT4D?”.

This discussion clearly has a long way to go. I just wonder where that discussion will take place.

81 thoughts on “Mobile community: The holy grail of m4d?

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  2. kiwanja says:

    @Wayan – Neat diagram, which maps out perfectly where the various *technologies* overlap. However, I’d argue that this isn’t automatically reflected in *community*. By way of a slightly poor example, perhaps, “Weight Watchers” don’t have separate groups or meetings for people hooked on burgers, chocolate, pizza, etc. – it all gets captured in the wider Weight Watcher community. I’m not sure if your diagram deals with this, to be honest.

    In the process of reading your diagram post, I followed the Nate Barthel link, here:

    Interestingly, part of the community discussion seems to have moved from an open, fully-accessible blog (here) to a Google Group, which isn’t (as far as I can tell) fully and easily accessible. It’s certainly less visible. This neatly summarises the problem and the challenge for me. These discussions need to be had out in the open, and ideally in one place, rather than in some open and some less-open places. Remember, part of the definition of community in my post is that “there’s a lot more outside the login than inside”. These discussions should be had on fully open blogs, where anyone can read them and contribute.

    Also, I’m not particularly interested in helping MobileActive figure out how they can be more participatory – they say they have community experts there with years of experience, so I’m sure they can work that out for themselves. We need to go way back to the more fundamental questions of “why” and “for who”, I believe, and not just try to fix something that’s not working.

    Let the debate continue.

  3. Wayan says:

    Its all about scale, Ken. In that same Weight Watchers meeting, there might be 4 folks into pizza, 5 into chocolate, and 3 into burgers – and one person could be in multiple groups. At the local meeting, not enough to form a separate chocoholics group, but on the national and international scale (what we’re really talking about here), there’s enough interest to have the chocoholic conference.

    Need an m-example? How about the mHealth Summit? (those into only health and mobiles)

  4. kiwanja says:

    @Wayan – Absolutely! There are specialist ‘groups’ which deal with “mobile and health”, “mobile and agriculture”, and so on. But there’s no active, engaging, open “general” community for people just interested in “mobile and stuff“, and it’s that community I’m questioning. We don’t even know if people with a general interest want to be connected, do we?

  5. Alex says:

    @kiwanja Perhaps it’s not relevant whether these people *want* to be connected – I’d suggest there is a professional responsibility to share resources.

    Taking Wayan’s Venn Diagram, surely wherever there is overlap there is potential for collaboration.

  6. James BonTempo says:

    I can’t help but think of the 90-9-1 rule –

    Will an online community ever achieve the high levels of participation we seek? Or do we just need to be satisfied with a few superusers & a mass of lurkers? The former will assume positions as experts & the latter will be well-informed (and make a few, scattered high-value contributions a la the long tail).

    Just some stream-of-consciousness action as I come to this thread late…

  7. kiwanja says:

    @James – I think ultimately any community would seek high levels of engagement, so multiple responses and the widest level of participation as possible. Of course, getting there is the challenge. It’s the same with blogs – entry after entry without any external expressions of interest in what’s being written reflects on the content, and activity is the same measure for a community site, I’d have thought.

    @Alex – In the ideal world people would share knowledge and resources, but the reality is often different. When another member answers a question on the FrontlineSMS forum before you get to it, do you ever wonder why they bothered? There’s always opportunity to collaborate and share, and finding out what drives that is the secret to a successful community.

  8. James BonTempo says:

    “entry after entry without any external expressions of interest in what’s being written reflects on the content”

    I’m not sure I completely agree, Ken. I think content can be excellent w/o readers feeling the need to respond in any way. I read blog articles all over the web everyday and, with rare exception, feel no need to post a comment. That doesn’t mean I haven’t found them interesting &/or useful, just that I didn’t feel the need to engage in a conversation around them.

    As for the the 90-9-1 rule, my point was that most of the community will just read, not write. But just because you rarely, if ever, hear from them doesn’t mean they’re not finding value in being a member. And it still means that content is user-generated, it’s just a very small proportion of members that are creating it.

    I guess my question is, how far would the numbers have to be skewed from 90-9-1 before a community met your criteria for being engaging?

  9. kiwanja says:

    @James – Good point. Not all blogs and posts encourage, want or warrant discussion and comment. I was thinking of it in terms of community sites where members communicate with each other and discuss mobile-related topics. Community sites *do* need some degree of interaction between members and authors (and have a large amount of user-generated content), I’d argue. Else what makes them community sites?

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