When we think of online communities we generally think of massive scale. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and even E-Bay did not gain any real credibility until they reached a critical mass of millions of participants. A primary reason for this was that a huge connected community allowed anyone to find other groups of people who shared very specific interests of passions. E-Bay’s sheer size allows it to be a viable marketplace for everything from arcane collectibles to general products. Once people understood this scope it became the premiere online auction site. But the idea of virtual communities succeeding because of scale is, in a way, the opposite of how actual communities have grown. Nations evolved from states, states evolved from cities, cities evolved from villages etc. What’s happening in the world of virtual communities today is the opposite. Small, local and hyperlocal communities are evolving from the success of larger communities.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the recent rise of locally based service or lending sites. Sites such as neighborgoods.net and snapgoods.com are communities that allow you to “share” real goods for a small rental fee. For example, as I am writing this snapgoods has a hardshell bike shipping case for rental locally at $5 a day. If I had to buy this for a cycling vacation it would cost me $379. Renting it from a neighbor for two weeks would cost $70.
The trend is summarized in a quote from the management consultant Charles Leadbetter: "In the past you were what you owned. Now you are what you share". As massive virtual communities have become more commonplace their rules, organization, protocols and even code has become a familiar to many of us. This familiarity has trickled down to the local level and created these communities of interest based on sharing. After all, if we share stories on Facebook, why not a lawnmower with the family down the street?
Admittedly this is not an entirely new invention. Ski swaps are a related example of a similar activity that has been going on for a long time. The difference is that local sharing sites have the potential to build real community interest and involvement as well as actual face-to-face communication. And that wouldn’t be a bad thing for the virtual world to take credit for.