We’ve long seen digital platforms utilized to form digital communities that mirror communities in the offline world. Facebook began with Harvard students before spreading to other universities and eventually opening to everyone over 13 with a valid email address. Scott Heiferman launched Meetup in 2002 after seeing New Yorkers come together in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks and waiting to create a way for strangers to connect within their communities. Shutterfly is a popular way for youth sport teams to share information and coordinate around practices and games. In almost all of these cases, these digital platforms are used to facilitate coordination and communication for offline groups and communities. Facebook for example, facilitates keeping up with friends from diverse parts of your life. In most cases, your Facebook connections are people you first met offline.
More recently, I’ve seen a trend towards rapid formation of temporary digital communities that don’t have an offline presence. Cloud services are enabling diverse, geographically-dispersed individuals to share well-specified information for a temporary period of time for a well-defined purpose. In most cases, these digital communities are made-up of strangers who will never connect offline.
One of the first examples of this trend materialized in the hours immediately after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. In those first hours of confusion and fear, the Boston Globe put up a Google Sheets to connect runners or others stranded in Boston with individuals in the greater Boston community offering housing, vehicles, or other support. The Boston Globe has kept that original Google Sheet online as a tribute to all of those who offered help. In this example, there was an offline purpose to the online coordination. More recently, I have noticed the formation of digital communities that don’t have an offline presence and likely never will. For example, customers who have ordered DJI’s recently released Mavic Pro drone are sharing their order and shipment details. Sharing digitized information over cloud services is creating temporary forming digital communities and increasingly these are not facilitating offline communities.