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Article: Building Online Communities

However vehemently today’s web enthusiasts proclaim that “content is king”, I suspect very few have stopped to consider just what this stuff called content really is. If it’s anything at all.

Take any well-branded cereal, for instance — one of those packages of sugar-coated corn meal with a recognizable cartoon character mascot on the box. What’s the content there: the cereal, or the cartoon character? Is the animal cartoon a communicator of the product’s brand image, or is the food itself merely a medium through which the character is communicated? It’s a tricky distinction.

When my father was growing up, bubblegum companies competed by offering free trading cards inside their packages. Little pieces cardboard with the images of baseball players proved the most successful, and soon children were buying whole packs of baseball cards with only a single stick of bubble gum. Today, baseball cards are sold without any bubblegum at all.

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Despite gum’s textural attributes, baseball cards proved to be the “stickier” content. Why? Because it provides a richer media experience. Not only can collectors look at pictures, but they can compare and analyze the statistics of each player as chronicled on the card’s back.

More importantly, this depth of data allows the card to serve as what I’ve started to call “social currency.” While children can debate the merits of one brand of gum over another for only so long, they can talk endlessly about the players’ whose cards they’ve collected, trade them, or even just peruse one another’s collections. See, the cards aren’t really ends in themselves; they are the basis for human interaction. Johnny got some new cards, so the other kids come over to see them after school. The cards are social currency.

We think of a medium as the thing that delivers content. But the delivered content is a medium in itself. Content is just a medium for interaction between people. The many forms of content we collect and experience online, I’d argue, are really just forms of ammunition — something to have when the conversation goes quiet at work the next day. An excuse to start a discussion with that attractive person in the next cubicle: “Hey! Did you see that streaming video clip at streamingvideoclips.com?”

Social currency is like a good joke. When a bunch of friends sit around and tell jokes, what are they really doing? Entertaining one another? Sure, for a start. But they are also using content — mostly unoriginal content that they’ve heard elsewhere — in order to lubricate a social occasion. And what are most of us doing when we listen to a joke? Trying to memorize it so that we can bring it somewhere else. The joke itself is social currency. “Invite Harry. He tells good jokes. He’s the life of the party.”

Think of this the next time you curse that onslaught of email jokes cluttering up your inbox. The senders think they’ve given you a gift, but all they really want is an excuse to interact with you. If the joke is good enough, this means the currency is valuable enough to earn them a response.

That’s why the most successful TV shows, web sites, and music recordings are generally the ones that offer the most valuable forms of social currency to their fans. Sometimes, like with mainstream media, the value is its universality. In the US right now, the quiz show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” is enjoying tremendous ratings because it gives its viewers something to talk about with one another the next day. It’s a form of mass spectacle. And, not coincidentally, what is the object of the game? To demonstrate one’s facility with a variety of forms of social currency! Contestants who can answer a long stream of questions about everything from sports and movies to science and history, are rewarded with a million dollars. They are social currency champions.

Content on the Web is no different. Sure, the Internet allows people to post their own content or make their own web sites. But what do most people really do with this opportunity? They share the social currency they have collected through their lives, in the form of Britney Spears fan sites or collections of illegally gathered MP3’s of popular songs. The myth of the Internet — and one I believed for a long time — is that most people really want to share the stories of their own lives. The fact that “content is king” proves that they don’t. They need images, stories, ideas, and sounds through which they can relate to one another. The only difference between the Internet and its media predecessors is that the user can collect and share social currency in the same environment.

Those of you who think you are creating online content, take note: your success will be directly dependent on your ability to create excuses for people to talk to one another. For the real measure of content’s quality is its ability to serve as a medium.

By Douglas Rushkoff

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