Mohit Hira
Guest Article

<font color="#ff0000">Guest Article: </font> Online Communities: Liabilities or assets?

If there's an idea brewing somewhere, this is the time to take some risks – almost all the successful brands we know today were born in troubled economic conditions

The Web 2.0 Expo in Berlin is organised by O'Reilly Media and TechWeb, two US based companies that spawned a series of events in San Francisco, New York and Tokyo. Founder Tim O'Reilly, credited with coining the term, Web 2.0, runs this show, which is now on in Berlin with more than 1,000 delegates from around the world.

Day 2 and Day 3 rolled into one… two broad themes emerging as speaker after speaker rolls on. At least the ones I caught.

One: The future is in communities, in networking. (Nothing new here.)

Two: These very networks of users could bring down the Web. (Ouch!)

Perhaps that’s why it’s called Web two point oh.

<font color="#ff0000">Guest Article: </font> Online Communities: Liabilities or assets?
Mohit Hira
If O’Reilly was exhorting us all to think different and to take on bigger challenges that would make the world a better place to network in, Drew Bartkiewikcz underlined the risks of a world in which users could destroy brands as easily as they build them. With so much information online, data is both an asset and a liability.

Personalised target marketing is one way of looking at it, but is this sunrise industry also spelling the end of personal privacy? What happens when we die and our profiles live on as ghosts, to be abused, perhaps, on Facebook or Orkut?

As websites get hit by legal inconsistencies in different geographies, they’re realising that it’s not enough to have terms of use, they also need to enforce terms of use... copyright material, harming people, abusive feeds... ‘If you create the environment and let it be, then you’re responsible,’ say some laws. Regardless of what Eric Schmidt of Google may say in an interview carried in the McKinsey Quarterly recently, user empowerment transfers onto a company as a liability. eBay, Google and MySpace have all been at the receiving end of user generated content (UGC). Talk about double edged swords.

Companies will have to identify and insure what are called ‘blind spots’ – areas that make them vulnerable to attack. They will have to ensure that they don’t collect data they won’t use because if it’s sitting on some server with poor IP and privacy controls and archaic privacy agreements written years ago but never updated, they will be responsible for the actions of their users.

So, while most people are trying to make a quick buck out of UGC, some are looking at the other end of the spectrum – and pretty profitably, too.

We also had niche communities in focus with Lee Bryant of In a very long-tail-ish approach, they’re either building or consulting with small, but powerfully focused networks like Dopplr for frequent business travellers, for working women, Frontlineclub in the UK for journalists,… small is evidently the new big. Reminds me of

And if you thought social networking meant that people in offices were not working, have a chat with Luis Suarez of IBM. He’s proved over the last nine months that he can work outside the inbox: In a world plagued by the desperate need to check email every five minutes and play the cc/ bcc political game, Suarez connects with colleagues and customers globally via Facebook and Twitter. No email. And he claims he hasn’t lost any business yet – the fact that he still has his job in a company that thrives on the email business is proof, I guess.

Consider this: We work best with people we trust in an open, transparent environment. Email is private, opaque and prone to petty office politics. Simple.

Finally, there were some case studies of how BMW has used social media to manage information, identity and relationships. With large fan followings on all major social networks, millions of video views and very little spent by way of advertising money, it’s proved it can fish where the fish are.

And the short head of media (TV, radio, print) are the ones being affected by the thick, fragmented long tail of blogs, podcasts, viral videos, RSS feeds, wikis, etc. Caveat: There is no accepted global digital currency/ metric to measure return on investment yet, nor is it possible to plan these campaigns in advance. You have to be prepared to lose control and let users take over the building of your campaigns.

So, what’s in it for India?

Clearly, the future isn’t what it used to be. It doesn’t lie in building a better Facebook for Indians. Or a poorer version of Amazon. If there’s an idea brewing somewhere, this is the time to take some risks – capital may be hard to come by, but almost all the successful brands we know today (Microsoft, Google, YouTube, Skype) were born in troubled economic conditions. Check back and see.

This is probably the time when good old ‘desi’ austerity will work along with some great team building. And if it isn’t the small startups that do it, then can the large builtups encourage the risk takers, please?

Auf wiedersehen. Again.

(Mohit Hira is a former advertising and digital media explorer. Now netvangelist at large.)

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