Web 2.0 Expo: Successful Online Communities–Brought to You by the Muppets

Note that this is an expanded-tweaked-with-examples version of the FOWA talk from June.

Let me just start out by saying that this was really all just a fantastic excuse to talk about the Muppets for the next thirty minutes. I love the Muppets. I mean, some people love the Muppets… but I looooooove the Muppets. I’ve seen all the movies about a billion times, Muppet jokes are a running gag in my family. (“I’ve got to catch a plane.” “With that tongue? No way.”) And much like any good addict, I can apply any life situation to a Muppet framework and come out with a reasonably good set of advice. For some people it’s BSG, others it’s True Blood, still others it’s AA and 12 Steps, but for me: Muppets.

I’m curious who’s in the room here, too, before we get started. Who are the app developers? Who are the biz dev folk? OK, what are the rest of you? Just shout it out. Who came here because they’re also completely obsessed with the Muppets and they CAN’T WAIT TILL THE NEW MOVIE COMES OUT THIS THANKSGIVING.

A little bit about me: I’m a media technologist and author of a fabulous book called “Share This! How You Will Change the World with Social Networking.” I live in Brooklyn NY with a monkey of a little dog named Izzy Louise. I work with media and advocacy organizations, mostly of the do-gooding sort, and help them figure out just what the heck they should be doing online. My life has been a random compilation bits that led up to right now: I’ve been a nerd my whole life (first computer: TI994A in 1982). I studied honors linguistics, worked in telecommunications, advertising and finance. Eight years ago I decided I needed to spend more time making the world a slightly better place than how I found it, so I quit the 9-5 and became a consultant. When social technologies started to explode and go mainstream about five/six years ago, it was like the melding of all my professional worlds, and that became my primary focus. All that culminated into writing my first book, which came out last year, and here I am today. Viola. Voila.

What we’re going to cover today. You know that everything is upending itself. And you know that you’ve got to get on board with “social,” but God only knows what that actually means for your project or your business. I’m not going to ply you with “10 specific tools” to make your social business or app work. What I’m hoping to do is get you to think about communities a little differently, away from what the smarmy marketing gurus and ninjas out there have been selling you.

A lot of us have a very mistaken notion that we can create communities. We think that we can plant the flag and hope that people flock to it. Honestly, even if you have the COOLEST FLAG EVER, that’s just not going to work. Your job is not to create community. Communities aren’t built, they’re discovered. Your job is to find passionate threads in people and weave them together. Solve the problems they didn’t know they had.

Obviously, that’s easier said than done, right? There are some big mistakes that you can make going into this work, though.

One is that the work that you do requires not just smart thinkers and VC money, but a serious emotional investment to do things differently. A lot of people think that they can just take the old way they’ve been doing business — this sort of top-down, “I know what’s best for you” style — and tack on some community features, and think this is going to suffice. They are wrong.

You’re going to have to make a serious emotional investment in changing how the work gets done. And that’s like the old psychologist lightbulb joke — how many shrinks does it take to change a lightbulb? One, but the lightbulb has to want to change. You are the lightbulb.

It’s not enough to develop a product or service or campaign and then figure out later what the community strategy is going to be. This happens to me a lot as a consultant; organizations spend oodles of time working on something, and then they come to me and say, “How can I promote this? How can I get people excited about it?” And I have to explain to them that they’re doin it wrong.
(To switch movie metaphors for a moment–I always go back to that part in the Princess Bride, where Wesley’s just woken up from being mostly dead, and Inigo Montoya says, “Lemme ’splain. … No, there is too much. Lemme sum up.”) Community cannot be tacked onto what you’re doing. Community has to be what you’re doing. x

Notice also that when I’m talking about communities, I’m not talking about “consumers.” I saw Doc Searls give a talk at the Personal Democracy Forum in NYC early in the summer, and he mentioned that the language we use for talking about constituencies — whether that’s users, consumers or voters — is the language of slavery. We talk about targeting and acquiring and retaining. Whoa. We HAVE to stop thinking like this. Now.

But: why the Muppets? Well, I want to take you back to the first movie for a second. The whole premise of the movie is a fantastic metaphor for what it means to find communities of passion and develop them. And why on earth you’d want to do that in the first place.

Here’s what happens.

Kermit gets discovered by Dom Deluise, and decides to go to Hollywood and make it big. Here’s where our first clue is that things are going to be different.

The ad in Variety looks for frogs who want to be rich and famous. In the lingo of the social, those are those ninjas and rockstars and gurus. These are not the douchebags you are looking for.

What’s different? Kermit, as he’s pondering this there in the swamp, doesn’t even mention “rich and famous.” What does he mumble a couple times?

“Millions of people happy.” The potential to make millions of people happy. That’s what hooks him into leaving the swamp heading for Hollywood on his Schwinn.

Along the way, he meets Doc Hopper, who wants him to shill for his chain of frog leg restaurants. This dude is evil. He’s a BAD MAN. He ends up chasing Kermit across the country to get him to give in. When this doesn’t work, he hires a FROG ASSASSIN (!) to take Kermit out. Kermit confronts him towards the end of the movie. He says,

“Yeah, well, I’ve got a dream too. But it’s about singing and dancing and making people happy. That’s the kind of dream that gets better the more people you share it with. And, well, I’ve found a whole bunch of friends who have the same dream. And, well, it kind of makes us like a family. You have anyone like that, Hopper? I mean, once you get all those restaurants, who are you gonna share it with? Who are your friends, Doc?”

Sharing! Dreams! Like a family! These are the things that tie the Muppets, and any community, together.

There are loads of lessons in the Muppet framework for how to do social right. Whether you’re working on developing a social app (shoutout to my nerdcore peeps) or you’re here to figure out how to socialize your business, the Muppets have a little something for everyone.


This is the one time that I’m going to go meta and talk about the Muppet creators and what they understood from the get go about who they were dealing with. They wanted to work on a children’s show, sure, but they knew their secondary audience were going to be the parents of the kids watching. There are obvious business reasons for that, but if you look at what Henson and company were saying when they were working on these shows and movies is that they wanted to do things that made them laugh, that made them feel passionate about the work. Ding ding ding!

So you’ve got kids’ shows and movies, but they’re layered in with humor like this moment, from “Muppets from Space.” Gonzo wakes up from a nightmare (in which he’s left behind by Noah on the Ark, because neither he nor Noah doesn’t know what animal he is), and tells his roommate, Rizzo the Rat, that he was having a crazy dream. Rizzo giggles a little and says, “It’s not the one with the goat and the peanut butter and the midget, is it?”

A little kid watches that and thinks, “Goats and peanut butter! That’s so silly and funny!” And then wonders why her parents are falling over themselves laughing. It wasn’t THAT funny. (But it was. There are tons of examples of “adult” humor layered into the Muppets– especially in the Muppet Show.)

They got something that’s desperately missing from our cultural vocabulary right now: nuance. They understood that people, in general, are complicated creatures, and they didn’t try to dumb things down for them. They handed nuanced, complicated things right back and said, “Here, deal with this. It’s funny, it’ll make your kid laugh, and we snarfed our coffee while we were writing it.”

Trust that your community gets nuance. Not even that they get it, but that they crave it. Listen to them– not just what they’re saying, but find the threads that they’re not saying and weave them up into something amazing for them.

Social media has got us thinking now that community is about brevity and staying connected to what’s happening right here, right now. But that doesn’t mean we have to lose all context or give up good writing / communication … If you really care about engagement, you want to provide your community with background and humor and insight and hugs, dammit. And yes, it’s hard, sometimes, and it takes time to do it right. But those Muppet writers got it and look at the payoff.

You know who’s doing this well and in a really interesting way? A new startup out of LA called Small Demons. The service is really new — I just got an alpha invite on Tuesday, it’s that new. But what they’re doing is kind of amazing: they are indexing books and creating spaces for people to explore the favorite things from the books they love: people, places, you name it. They aren’t crying about books being dead (newsflash: they aren’t)–they are counting on ultimate nerdery and the marriage of nuance and thirst. They aren’t shying away from the fact that books are big, lopey things that mainstream culture might have you believe are just Too Much for this world. They are capitalizing on the bigness, the nuance we find there, and the immersiveness that makes us fall in love with stories.

Time to go back inside the Muppet universe. Come along, now.


This is key! Kermit knew he couldn’t be the only one out there with dreams of Hollywood, but do you think he really planned on picking up a bear, a Gonzo, a chicken, a pig, and dog and a rock band? But hey, his dream was all the better for it! How interesting would it have been to have a bunch of banjo-playing frogs out there trying to make a go of it? Instead, this rag-tag crew gets together and creates a whole movement where no idea is too silly, no goal too high.

If you’re going to rock the world with your service, it’s key that you don’t just surround yourselves completely with people that look like you, or come from the same ideological background. Sure, birds of a feather flock together (that’s called “homophily” for you smartypants out there), but idea generation is a lot like DNA. When you get a bunch of the same DNA mixing around together, the species mutates poorly and dies off. NO GOOD. But if you get a bunch of different DNA mixing around, the species strengthens itself as it evolves! If you look at any system in the natural world, there’s always a high degree of heterogeneous content, each little part doing its job to make the whole system thrive. Thriving is the key word. Sustaining the status quo is just not good enough. You will be left behind.

We’ve got to infuse new voices into our spheres of development before things get stale. That’s going to require intentional cross-pollination of ideas across social boundaries. Who’s going to be your Gonzo? In “Muppets Take Manhattan,” know what Kermit decides his failing Broadway script needs?

More “frogs and dogs and bears and chickens and whatever.” MOAR.

If you don’t, you end up with gigantic piles of fail like Google Buzz. Who remembers their privacy debacles? One of the features, without a lot of explanation or user consent, shared content via Google Reader with a user’s most contacted person in Gmail. A woman posting at a blog called Fugitivus put together a well known rant on how unbelievably messed up this was—one being that one of her most contacted people was her abusive ex-husband.

Anyone ever see their launch team? Obviously no one thinks that the Buzz launch team intentionally designed a system that would do this. And I also don’t think that when they were coming up with use cases for this suite of tools, they thought about abusers and stalkers and said, “Y’know, I think that’s a negligible use case.” I don’t. But what I do think happened is that they had a largely homogeneous team working on the product, for whom the idea of something Incredibly, Very Bad, Like Death, might happen to someone who inadvertently used the new integration didn’t ever occur to them.

Diversity isn’t just a Nice Word that makes everyone feel warm and fuzzy and like they’re making the world a better place. Having a heterogeneous ecosystem within which you’re creating will ensure a higher level of success by bringing in perspectives and experiences at the ground level.


On paper, it doesn’t seem like a great idea to get into a Studebaker with a bear that has a questionable stand-up routine. But Kermit knows better than to just look on paper– he knew Fozzie was a good guy in a rough spot at the El Sleazo Cafe. And he kept trusting more and more folks along his journey. Why? How?

A big part of it was because they were authentic AND transparent with one another right from the get-go. Every time Kermit met a new character, they shared their story with one another.

Gonzo wanted to go to Bombay to become a movie star, Piggy was already on her track to modeling and acting stardom, Dr Teeth & the Electric Mayhem were opening up a coffee shop in a church. That kind of sharing and storytelling builds trust. Kermit didn’t worry if it sounded silly that he wanted to go to Hollywood to audition for Orson Welles.

Making trust an integral experience to your service, and your organizational culture, is key. It’s your foundation. It’s what you’ll build everything else from the final two lessons on. Without trust — you trusting your community, them trusting you AND each other — you’ll just have little barely connected or unconnected nodes in your network.

You know what project is doing this really well right now? Have you seen the tumblr blog for We Are the 99%?

Who knows what that is? Alright, so you’ve got the whole Occupy Wall Street and the other associated occupations happening. Part of the movement is illustrating what life is like for the majority of Americans. You could do this in a lot of ways. You could send out an investigative reporter and pick a family, and tell their story. You could ask people to write out their stories and send them in somewhere. Or, you could ask people to hold up a sign that has your “brand” — We Are the 99% — and tell their story however they see fit.

There are hundreds of photos on this blog, more each day — what is it about this? People see each other in these stories. They see the authentic experience of life represented in the photograph, and they feel compelled to share their own. It becomes this — what’s the opposite of a vicious cycle? — where trust breeds sharing personal stories, which breeds more trust. The people participating ultimately have a more emotional relationship to the content, and thus the movement itself.


Kermit meets Fozzie at a club. They crash into Gonzo’s truck. They decide to stop at a country fair, where they meet Miss Piggy. Yes, they’re all major plot points of the film, but they’re more than just coincidence. They’re serendipitous. They connected each of the Muppets with flow. Flow is what you feel when you hit the sweet spot of any activity that you’re passionate about. It can be fleeting or extended, but serendipity (whether causal or accidental) brings us into it.

The search for serendipity is a key driver in human behavior. It reminds me a little bit of dog training with classical conditioning. After a dog’s kind of gotten the hang of how a trick is supposed to go, you don’t give them a treat every single time. You start randomizing when the dog gets a treat. You’d think this would make them mad and they’d go away, but no! It actually makes them work harder at doing exactly what you want. They don’t know when exactly they’re going to get the treat, so they want to do whatever they can to control it. You’re thinking, “Ah, but that’s dogs. Humans would walk away.” Nope. Know how I know? GAMBLING, people! Slot machines! Blackjack! Humans LOVE serendipity. And serendipity makes us EFFING HAPPY. Not just “yay, the Giants won” happy. Like, “hey, there might be a place for me in this world” happy.

You can be an absolute dispenser of it, too. Make people crave your app, or your curation on social networks. Serendipity isn’t just about being open to magical things happening, it’s also about setting the circumstances in place. Surprise people. Studies show that for example the hormones that we feel with affection & cuddling (oxytocin) are also released when we’re active on social networks. Hello! Cuddling and affection! What are you doing to dose your communities’ brains?

Someone who’s doing this well, from a pure brain-zap point of view, is the ASPCA on Facebook and Twitter. You know from their TV commercials that they could be all earnest and doom and gloom.
Railing daily to save the animals. But they don’t!

They post pictures of puppies and kittens, frolicking and happy! When you least expect it!

Through serendipity, you can suck people into an emotional, immersive experience. Me, what I love just about more than anything as far as user experience goes is that feeling of “down the rabbit hole.” Where you get completely sucked into an experience. Who’s ever done that on Wikipedia? C’mon, who are my knowledge nerds? You know, all of the sudden it’s three hours later, you’ve eaten the whole bag of fritos, you’ve drank the 2-liter of coke, you’re a little sweaty and you’re reading about equinumerosity (which, in case you’re wondering, is when, in mathematics, two sets have the same cardinality.)


After people start trusting each other, and random cool shit is happening to them on a regular enough basis, the next level in the video game version of social is the empathetic level.

When people share little bits of themselves with one another, over time they start to become what Clive Thompson called “ambiently aware” of one another. Each one of those little bits that we contribute to the ecosystem is like a point in a pointillist painting. It’s not that big of a deal on its own, but all the points together make up this portrait of who we are: as individuals, and as whole communities. And once that happens, people start to empathize with each other. Because they’re passively aware of what’s happening in the community around them, they care more directly about events large and small.

Note that I’m not talking about sympathy. That’s where you feel bad about something bad that’s happened to someone else. Empathy is where you actually share in the emotions that others are experiencing. Kermit’s empathy — rescuing Fozzie from a bad gig, commiserating with Ralph the Dog when Piggy leaves him, what have you — is based on the trust he’s built in his friendships.

We like to think that Darwin is king when it comes to our evolution as species– survival of the fittest, dog eat dog, I got mine. But in reality, neuroscience shows us that we’re actually hardwired to empathize with one another. There’s a really cool TED talk about this—just go to TED.com and look for “mirror neurons.” Mirror neurons are subsets of other more main neurons that fire when we see another person doing a particular action. Part of our brain actually puts itself in the other person’s place and sends signals and messages to the rest of the body based on that empathetic experience. IT’S THE COOLEST THING EVER.

Why is empathy important? It’s the opposite of apathy. It is what will take us out of the isolation and othering that has been plaguing our culture for too long. It will overload us with human experiences, joyous and devastating, but it will make us human again. Will you do that? Can you commit to joining the empathy revolution?

As much as we all love to hate on Facebook, you know what they’re winning at? Showing humanity in all of its messy, complicated glory. Maybe they fail miserably at the privacy stuff sometimes (okay, a lot of times), but they get that we are not tidy, package-able creatures whose lives can be expressed with algorithms. We are interconnected and spontaneous and emotional, and celebrating that fact is what has them winning the social wars for now. x


To pull it all together here, here are our five points:

Bringing it all home, what I want you to remember is that you are human. As much we in this crowd get our rocks off on the 1s and 0s, we’re still big irrational piles guts and brains who don’t want to be alone in the world. The last thing I want you doing is going into social because you want to be rich and famous. Do you think Kermit counts his followers? No. You’re in this to make millions of people happy. Thank you!

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