Join the Parade: 5 Easy Steps to Participating Visibly in Communities

Like the 2008 Rose Parade, a community has organizers, participants, cheering crowds, not to mention dazzling displays that amaze and entertain. But without the crowd, it's just a bunch of people in costumes walking down the street. That's where you, me, and everyone else watching and enjoying the spectacle matters.

Participation takes many forms, and everybody has a role. Even the folks quietly observing and taking in the sights are important. Without them, communities can't grow, the organizers lose interest, and people drift away.

Reading this blog, and other posts on blogs.sun.com, is participating. So is browsing your friend's photos on flickr, watching a goofy YouTube video someone shared with you, or downloading your favorite music from iTunes.

Ready to cross the security line and join the parade? You'll find many friendly and helpful people to guide you. Plus, participating visibly in communities has tangible benefits, such as establishing your presence and "social equity" in networks to help you win friends and be influential.

And, the social equity you build over time in an online community is valuable — eBay's reputation system is a great example — but let's face it: not everyone can be a social media star or starlette.

The good news is that for the rest of us, it's easy to participate more visibly in ways that benefit our professional or personal lives. Here are 5 simple techniques to help you get started:

  1. Think about your interests and goals. Time is precious, and we always want to invest it in ways that will benefit us and others around us. Spend a few minutes writing down things you want to change — for example, learning a new skill, changing jobs, getting to know your co-workers better, exploring a hobby, sharing your knowledge with others, and so on. Starting with clear interests and goals motivates, encourages, and guides us. Use your list to direct your online activities by seeking out people and communities with similar interests.
  2. Build on what you know. You're probably very comfortable with e-mail — why not build use it to stay connected with communities and web sites? Most e-mail clients (for example, Thunderbird, Apple Mail) and Web browsers (Firefox) are RSS aware, meaning you can subscribe to your favorite online places and people and automatically receive updates in your inbox. You can get started by searching technorati for keywords from your list. When you find a blogger you like, locate the RSS icon and follow the instructions provided by your email/Web software to subscribe. Remember that the best blogs are a conversation, so don't hesitate to comment on a particularly compelling post. Now you're participating naturally without even realizing it!
  3. Start small. A big obstacle for many is the belief that establishing an online presence takes a lot of time and energy. While blogging is a popular activity, some may be put-off by the initial time investment. Micro-blogging is an alternative that can be almost as effective as blogging, but with less effort. Start by searching for people or web sites you know or admire on services like twitter or jaiku. Sign up, and start following these folks and exploring their connections. Watch their updates roll in, and feel the sense of presence build over time. Message sizes are limited, so they are easy to create and digest. When you're ready, you can write about what's happening in your life!
  4. Boost your productivity. Tim O'Reilly urges community builders to "build applications that harness network effects to get better the more people use them." The "net effect" translates into convenience and benefit for you and I and everyone else. For example, everyone needs to keep track of often-visited web pages, to avoid having to dig up or remember URLs. del•icio•us has built a community on the simple premise of saving and recalling bookmarks. The more you use the service, the better it gets! Start by creating a del•icio•us account and adding the save and get bookmarks to your Web browser. Save important and favorite web pages, adding tags to help you remember what the page is about. Explore other people's tags, and find cool new stuff that matches your interests!
  5. Widgetize! Widgets are like desk accessories — simple, small and single purpose tools you keep handy, like a ruler, stapler, or eraser. Using widgets, you can receive updates from your favorite web sites or bloggers, send and receive messages to social networks like twitter, see popular photos from flickr, and much more. Since widgets stay out of the way until you need them, you can gradually incorporate them into your daily routine. Start by exploring Yahoo! WidgetsRSS Reader, Flickr Widget, and Del.icio.us Widget are all good starting points. Widgets come with a caution: they consume system resources, so use them sparingly and with care.
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Lou Ordorica's thoughts on community development and social media in corporate settings. A fair smattering of geeky topics, too!

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