All I Really Need to Know About Social Online Communities I Learned Peering Over My Wife’s Shoulder

My wife Julie is a gifted humorist. She is also a good and loyal friend to those she has welcomed into her life. These qualities have served her well, especially since several of her friendships have been forged exclusively online.

Dr. Deborah Tannen, a sociolinguist, has written and lectured about the wide chasm between the way men and women tend to communicate. In her book devoted to the subject, which predates the whole Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus book franchise of the 90’s, she says that you can ponder whether it’s nature or nurture or a little of both, but the fact remains: The genders use language very differently. Men tend to use language as a weapon — as a way to establish and defend hierarchy while getting work done.

[brief interruption in writing]

Sorry, I’m back now. My wife called me into the next room to read something on her computer, a comment that was posted on her favorite online community.

It made her guffaw, and I admit, the comment was a pretty imaginative riff. A friend she’s never met was lampooning one of her comments posted earlier today. She’s now firing off a public reply. And so it goes.

As I was saying, Dr. Tannen reports that generally, men use words as ways to divide, or at least categorize, while women tend to use them to build consensus and — well — community.

Both linguistic techniques have their merits. But one approach definitely helps in the service of intimacy, and I never would have imagined that so much intimacy — non-sexual in this case — could be nurtured so remotely.

The knowledge my wife has about online communities was acquired slowly, one post at a time, while responding variously to discussion threads on the forum board of an ageing rock musician’s official web site.

I have a theory why she connected so quickly and deeply with a few of the board’s members. It is, after all, a forum associated with a revered singer-songwriter, someone who is known for both literate lyrics and catchy but often intricate melodies. 

This man’s music attracts artists and writers from many age groups, and these folks particularly have responded well to Julie’s droll observations and quips. They enjoy her company for many of the same reasons that her “non-board” friends do.

Take this example from earlier today, a comment she posted in a thread where newer members are welcomed into the fold by board veterans when they have racked up a certain quantity of posts. This post is directed to “Tom” (no real names here), but readable by the rest of the community:

Congratulations, Tom, on your thousandth post! Now you’re eligible for our prescription drug plan. Just don’t take as many as John!

How different from the work-oriented dialogs I engage in on the forums that I frequent!

I’m sure John loved the attention of Julie’s post, as did Tom. And although these two members aren’t female, it’s no coincidence that it was two women from the board who have enjoyed her posts enough to begin first an emailed correspondence, and then frequent phone calls. This summer one of these online friends traveled 800 miles to meet Julie and the other friend. They greeted each other like old buddies, and had a wonderful time visiting and sharing. The relationships continue to deepen on the board.

So what has Julie taught me about a social online community? These are her lessons for me so far:

  • The closest (non-sexual) relationships seem to grow among women. I use as further evidence the activity on SecondLife, a metaverse that I wrote about in May, and that attracts a surprising number of women of Julie’s generation.
  • Similar to a successful cocktail party, an online social community will be more of a success if the mix of women to men is fairly even. I suspect that in both, the women tend to keep the men around.
  • To continue the analogy, it helps if you have the same level of courtesy and empathy that makes for good cocktail party conversation. Maintaining a fair level of sobriety also helps.
  • From a marketing perspective, online social communities have loyal readerships that are willing and eager to endorse products and services they like. Julie has passed along to me several viral ad URLs she’s learned about on the board and thought I’d enjoy. This forum is currently buzzing about the movie Snakes On A Plane. I’m hoping they’re being ironic.
  • Finally, these freewheeling forum threads keep the site’s Google AdSense advertisements fresh and varied. One ribald thread attracted ads focused on hemorrhoid medication for three days. No one was asking for help of this type, but the embarrassment factor makes this type of product perfect for online advertisement. The fun context of the discussion might conceivable even lower consumer defenses and encourage clicks on the ads (does anyone have statistics to suggest this is so?).

Dr. Tannen says that men tend to not want to talk about work when they come home. It’s the wife who usually transgresses, with questions like: How was your day? What Dr. Tannen couldn’t know is I continue my work education at home, every time I ask Julie, “So what’s new on the board?”

4 thoughts on “All I Really Need to Know About Social Online Communities I Learned Peering Over My Wife’s Shoulder”

  1. I stumbled on the community that Jeff wrote about while looking for concert dates, CD recommendations, etc. I had no idea how addictive these communities could be, Besides the social function, the board serves as a place for people to trade music, family photos and a quick laugh before going back to their days. A kind of virtual water cooler. Since its focus is an artist known for his wit and good humor, it attracts like. I don’t feel compelled to participate in other forums, but this has been a terrific experience.

  2. I’ve had a similar experience with a forum for writers drawn by their interest in a particular author. But I’d really like to see a study on the cycle of these communities. The few I’ve checked out seem to begin with a handful of hard-core fans; attract growing numbers of lurkers and enthusiastic participants; then be dominated by a few especially active posters–often not from the oriiginal core.

    Which phase offers the most marketing potential? The hard-core folks clearly support the author I mentioned, not only buying her books but also paying to attend her seminars. The second-wave members also post often about what they do to promote her books. There are so many posts now, though, that I can’t read them, and I’m spending less time there. As Yogi Berra supposedly said, “Nobody goes there anymore–it’s too crowded.”

  3. Jennifer Crusie, who not only writes well but also really knows how to build community online. She blogs on her own, with two female writing partners, and with writer Bob Mayer in “He Wrote, She Wrote” ( There’s also a Yahoo! discussion group for her fans and, best of all for me, a writers’ community, the Cherry Forums (, that’s a fantastic model for forums and boards.

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