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How do information and opinion feed community growth?

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That is one of the primary questions asked by Laura Gurak in her 1997 book “Persuasion and Privacy in Cyberspace” (Yale University Press), which I came across recently searching for a text applying rhetorical theory to community and social media. In the 13 years since this book came out, the cyber world she described is now a full-fledged daily part of most American lives. In fact, ”cyber” starts to feels anachronistic, because it is accepted fact that people of all ages use the web for news, information and entertainment. So much change in 13 years.

Gurak examined how the ethos of those early Usenet exchanges developed into a force that kept the Lotus MarketPlace product off the shelves and stimulated protest of the Clipper Chip. A combination of flaming discourse, hyperbole, overstatement and one-sided discussions helped fan flames that both drew the community together and (mostly) served the rhetorical purposes the ad-hoc groups that formed around the communication itself.

And that’s the piece worth noting: community formed around the communication. The identification of a problem coalesced a group around an issue. People chose to become engaged through a mostly techie communication tool (as it was back in the early 1990s). Many set to work on identifying and going deeper into the issue, even as they shared what they knew publicly.

I had a conversation recently with a small business owner which helped me see that he (and possibly others) is not understanding the much larger context within which his business sits. Many of us still think of the interweb as a (very) big Yellow Pages. It certainly is that, but less so as time goes on. But our “Yellow Pages” vision restricts our thoughts about web presence to getting our banner ad to some location where people can see it. And maybe we can manipulate the web so that our banner gets seen more clearly, or at least more frequently, than our competitors. But the budding promise is that like-minded people are finding each other as they make information, and themselves, more accessible. And more: people are finding others to be like-minded—even before they knew their own mind on a particular topic. That‘s the way conversation has always worked. I’m suggesting that the conversations on the web are creating community members and, possibly, customers. But for small companies, in an age where meaning is more and more important, are customers really the bottom line?

Yes. And no.

I write as a small business owner myself. I cease to exist as a business without customers. And yet, I’m constantly searching for something more than customers. I’m searching for partners who want to develop a compelling vision together and well, change the world.

Gurak traces the movement of several pieces of standard rhetorical theory as she walks through the history of these arguments surrounding Lotus Marketplace and the Clipper Chip. The tools of communication that helped make an audience back in 1990 are in process today much more accessible to many. The question is: can we keep from duplicating the ethos of hyperbole and one-sided argumentation?

Just what kind of communities are we trying to form, anyway?

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