I’ve worked with online com­mu­ni­ties in one form or another for most of the past 15 years. They’re a pow­er­ful thing. And, through the use of social media tools and social net­works empow­ered by hyper­con­nec­tiv­ity, they have the capac­ity to make a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence in the world.

So, why are so many peo­ple (espe­cially the media indus­try and the ad/​marketing/​PR folks), sev­eral years into this ( r)evolution, still obsessed with the tools — Face­book, Twit­ter, LinkedIn, Tum­blr, what­ever? I see it every day: we need more fol­low­ers, how many peo­ple retweeted us, how many Likes, etc., etc., ad nau­seam. Remem­ber those awful “big social media num­bers” videos? Kill me now.

Of course, there have been times I’ve been as big a cheer­leader as any for aspects of the tech. Mea culpa.

I’ve had the very great priv­i­lege to be a par­tic­i­pant at the start of some­thing amaz­ing. I guess I’m some­thing of an elder amongst the Aus­tralian (and global) social media com­mu­ni­ties; espe­cially those bits of the com­mu­nity that have a focus on the ben­e­fits offered to using social net­works and social media tools within gov­ern­ment and business.

But now, the thing I’ve been evan­ge­lis­ing for years is com­mon­place. “We need to get peo­ple to col­lab­o­rate!” Social intranet. “We need to get our mes­sage out!” Social media pro­files. “How do we com­mu­ni­cate man­age­ment views to staff and cus­tomers?” Blog!

Now, all these are actu­ally legit­i­mate choices. Absolutely. And you should prob­a­bly do them. But take a breath first. You don’t need a social media cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. You don’t need to buy fol­low­ers and likes (you espe­cially don’t need this). You don’t need to find the gurun­in­jarock­star social media expert (with 125,000 of them, they’re as com­mon as muck) who’s just added it to their LinkedIn profile.

There’s so much used car sales­man in the social media indus­try today, it makes me cringe.

But there is a bet­ter way. Look at some of the impor­tant words I’ve used above. “Worked with com­mu­ni­ties”, “pow­er­ful”, “empow­ered”, “difference”.

I’ve been lucky enough that the major­ity of my work with peo­ple online has been about exactly that. Peo­ple. Com­mu­ni­ties. Empow­er­ment. Most of it’s been with gov­ern­ment, where more often than not, there’s noth­ing to sell, and so much that can be learned. It’s a beau­ti­ful thing when you see some­one, espe­cially some­one senior, have that moment where they realise that their work just got a whole lot eas­ier because they could now con­nect directly to the com­mu­nity they need to serve and under­stand. Usu­ally that work got a whole lot harder too; it’s never easy to have a 24×7×365, highly engaged focus group in play on your par­tic­u­lar pol­icy or program.

So, to the title of this post.

Noth­ing that we do with online com­mu­ni­ties can’t, in effect, be done on 3×5 index cards. The tools are not the answer — they’re merely the scaf­fold­ing to make great things hap­pen; it’s just poten­tially a whole lot eas­ier online. I don’t want you on Twit­ter, or Face­book, or LinkedIn, or blog­ging. I want you talk­ing with peo­ple. I want you build­ing and nur­tur­ing com­mu­nity. I want you gath­er­ing valu­able data to make your pol­icy, pro­gram or infor­ma­tion bet­ter.

[box style=“note” ]FOOTNOTE: It’s mildly annoy­ing when you wake to dis­cover some­one whose work you respect has beaten you to the punch and pub­lished what looks more or less like the post you’ve been work­ing on. Nonethe­less, I highly rec­om­mend you read Steve Radick’s piece on this issue.[/box]