The seismic shift coming to online communities & how to get a jump on it

At this year’s Digital Summit, Mobilize CEO David Hersh gave a talk about where technology and data privacy are headed in online communities. Within his presentation, he also talked about how the internet itself is changing, what that means for community engagement, and how to set the stage for success in your own organization.

While the audio portion of David’s talk may not have come through as expected (🤦🏽‍♀️), the essence of his message was crisp, clear, and definitive: The future of technology is about utilizing data in order to deepen relationships and create more meaningful online communities.

Let’s repeat that. The future of technology is humanization—it’s about deepening relationships and creating more meaningful online communities.

Pair this with the new iOS 14.5 app tracking transparency rollout, and you have yourself a deal. A better, more human-centered one, at least, than we have now.

A basic evolution of networks

As with most things in life, change is inevitable. It’s also (generally speaking) a really good thing.

In terms of networks, we’ve thankfully seen shifts and evolutions and growth over time. We’ve also seen things break down which, in and of itself, is a natural process ripe with opportunity for growth.

After starting out with centralized network models—which embody a focal point and central hub of data, and work seemingly well in the beginning—we eventually evolved into decentralized (but not distributed) networks. Now, we’re slowly morphing into decentralized (and distributed) networks.


This evolutionary breakdown and growth of networks looks something like the following:

Centralized networks – These are controlled by one entity and are currently the most widely used (think: mainframes). As Gemini puts it, centralized networks are

“dependent on a central network owner to connect all the other satellite users and devices—which means there is a single point of failure that can be deliberately exploited by malicious actors.”

While simple, affordable, and consistent, centralized network models also come with increased downtime and security risks, as well limited scalability.

Decentralized but not distributed networks – These are not controlled by one entity, but each node exists in one location (think: client-server networks). Referencing Gemini again, “decentralized networks distribute information-processing workloads across multiple devices instead of relying on a single central server.” While decentralized networks offer more scalability, faster performance, and enhanced security, they also come with higher maintenance costs and increased coordination issues.

Distributed & decentralized – These share control through many equal nodes across the world (think: the internet, blockchain). As Gemini states, a distributed network

“…is similar to a decentralized network in the sense that it forgoes a single centralized master server in favor of multiple network owners. However, distributed networks are composed of equal, interconnected nodes, meaning that data ownership and computational resources are shared evenly across the entire network.”

Remember distributed leadership? Well, that same distributed leadership concept exists here, only it’s applied to digital network structure. Here, “the burden of data processing is crowdsourced across the network, with all users granted equal access to data.”

While distributed and decentralized networks can carry higher maintenance costs and coordination issues, the advantages they offer are huge and include extreme fault tolerance, excellent speed and scalability, and enhanced transparency.

This evolution of networks mirrors the natural way that things evolve into more intelligent entities, including mycelium (fungus!). As a living, breathing, decentralized organism, mycelium is kind of like the overlord of decentralized distributed networks. As this Medium article about mycelial networks states,

“If one part of the [mycelial] network is compromised, the mass will continue to thrive. There is no reliance, nor is there any dependency on centralization in the mycelium. It learns, feeds, and operates collectively as one neural network through its microscopic nodes and highly-sophisticated natural engineering.”

Ah-Mazing. And seriously parallel to what the world’s digital networks are continually evolving towards.

Where we’re at in the evolution of the internet & what the future holds for online communities

Right now, we (mostly) exist in the era of centralized networks, all of which are controlled by big tech (think: Facebook, Netflix, Google). What this means is that big tech owns and controls the majority of our information and data. No, this isn’t breaking news. But it still feels like 😳, and, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Looking towards the future, we see the above-mentioned evolution of networks playing out. We see a shift from centralized networks controlled by the big, wealthy few, to decentralized and distributed networks controlled by everyone.

Technologies like blockchain—“a system of recording information in a way that makes it difficult or impossible to change, hack, or cheat the system”—are the first wave of backlash against today’s big-tech controlled and centralized internet.

Currently, we are slowly but surely moving into a much more open network structure. One where developers can work off of these open platforms without having to worry about whether or not they’re going to get shut down by the big tech in the room.

Introducing: the (very real) growing pains of building online community engagement

How do we learn more about people in a healthy way and, in turn, grow our communities in authentic, human-first ways? While there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this twofold question, the solution does involve a few key elements: control, transparency, consent, and community software.

Additionally, in order to even head in this new online community direction, the exchange will need to look and feel much more egalitarian. Something along the lines of: “I’ll tell you everything about me, if you help my career and protect my privacy.” An equal exchange of value is a must.

While Mobilize is not quite there yet (sorry, we are not in the actual future), this kind of egalitarian, equal-exchange mindset is in our bones. It’s who we are, what we’re all about, and where we’re headed.

User owned data: moving forward into more meaningful exchange and community

As the future of online communities continues to take its new shape, we start to be able to see how imperative it is to adopt a more enlightened relationship between users/community members and organizations. That is, a more nuanced relationship based on a pure exchange of value.

How do we achieve this more enlightened relationship where, like those mycelial networks we touched upon earlier, the exchanges within foster an equal exchange of value that makes sense for all? Three words: USER. OWNED. DATA.

And by user owned data, we mean the user has access to ALL of their data—they OWN their data. And they can carry that data with them wherever they go, and choose with whom and which platforms and communities they want to share it (based on how valuable the exchange is for them personally).

How’s that for choice, consent, and agency!

And we’re not just talking PII (personally identifiable information) here, we’re talking data that involves personal and professional goals and aspirations. Data regarding the kind of career you want. Data about your intentions, values, and who you specifically want to connect with. Data that will give your organization good insight, and the user something of value when they choose to share it.

Like trading snacks in the grade-school lunchroom—it’s all about subjective value

Why will people want to share such personal data? Well, what makes a third grader want to trade her apple slices for a pack of fruit snacks? She applies a subjective value to the fruit snacks, whatever it may be, that is equal to or greater than the value of her apple slices. The fruit-snack friend does the same and applies a value to the tradable snacks on the table, and the exchange ends up being one of (perceived and subjective) value to both parties. A win-win.

As mentioned earlier, and this is key when laying the future foundation for your community, people will be much more inclined to share their data if they know that doing so will benefit them in meaningful ways. That is, if there is an equal exchange of value—apple slices for fruit snacks.

People will share their data because they will in turn receive useful, bespoke, real experiences—including authentic engagement and smart connections across and within professional networks.

All of these exchanges lead to massive amounts of value for both sides. Through this system of high-value exchange—the future of enlightened organizations everywhere—both sides are given what they need, and members become part of a community that is much more difficult to leave.

The power & value of true intent in online communities

As community builders, how do we understand what a user’s intent is? Well, let’s first take a look at where we started and where we’re at now in regards to how we assess and gauge user intent.

Implied intent – Way back when, we started with implied intent (think: face-to-face, reading body language, interacting over phone calls, engaging at in-person events—in other words, some kind of direct connection where you could pick up on the objective signs of what a buyer was considering).

Signaled intent – Then we transitioned to where we are now: signaled intent. This is the hacking phase, where we infer user intent based on what someone is doing online (think: website visits, downloads, posted reviews). 

This era of signaled intent is all about receiving online signals from tracked users that indicate individual needs and levels of urgency. All without consent from the individual. As a whole, this kind of approach offers a rather poor translation of user intent. It also infringes greatly upon data privacy.

Expressed intent – Looking into the crystal ball of online community building, we see the near-future shift from signalled intent to expressed intent (think about trading those snacks in grade school again: I have this and want that, and vice versa; let’s trade and both feel good about the transaction).

Expressed intent is explicit and direct (and much more full of personal agency and empowerment). It’s where we say, look, I will share what I want to share with you in exchange for you treating me, and my personal information/data, with care and respect. 

And if you give users a lot of value in exchange? You’ll receive direct communication from them regarding their needs, wants, career goals, and plans, as well as the kind of advice they are specifically looking for. You’ll also end up with useful data surrounding each user’s unique set of skills, experiences, certifications, intentions, and connections.

Ultimately, this exchange puts the user in the situation of owning their data and becoming the business, not the product (remember Apple’s iOS 14.5 trailer, wherein we are reminded of how we, indeed, have become the product? Yeah, expressed intent is all about not turning us, or our community members, into products).

Preparing for the new frontier of the internet

With an eye towards user-owned data—and building centers of excellence around smart data—it’s important to start thinking about (and implementing) strong policies for online communities around data ownership, sharing, and usage rights. As we start to shift into more enlightened relationships with our community members, here are some things we can not only think about, but be proactive with.

Solidify loyalty through the network effect

“The network effect is a phenomenon whereby increased numbers of people or participants improve the value of a good or service. The Internet is an example of the network effect. Initially, there were few users on the Internet since it was of little value to anyone outside of the military and some research scientists… However, as more users gained access to the Internet, they produced more content, information, and services. The development and improvement of websites attracted more users to connect and do business with each other. As the Internet experienced increases in traffic, it offered more value, leading to a network effect.”


Powerful and organic, the network effect is how communities bring people in and keep them there. By controlling (owning?) the conversation around your industry, you in turn become the locus of power for that industry—the place people want to visit in order to exchange information and ideas. 

Once people know that your community is where all the important conversations and exchanges occur, they’re far less likely to part ways. That is, if they find something of value in your community and they stay for the long haul.

What we’ve learned from Silicon Valley about the network effect

  • Bring people in with one great product or piece of content
  • Elegantly move them into network
  • Start with smaller segments, then branch out
  • Consider UGC (user generated content) options for growth
  • Use new data for smarter connections to and with people

Through the network effect, users have the opportunity to move into more active, engaged, and integrated roles—community members can even establish their own roles, become known as leaders and go-to figures within their communities, and connect within and across communities in more impactful ways.

When we support our communities with smart, targeted data (as a result of expressed intent), we get to foster connections among members based on where each individual is on his or her own journey. Which leads us to…

The yellow brick road of career journey maps!

Through useful data (skills, experiences, certifications, career paths, goals, intentions, connections), you can create career journey maps that help align members with their place and path.

As organizations dedicated to building better communities, it’s our responsibility to use data to align members with their place/role in the now, as well as support enlightened career maps/paths for each person. When we do this, all sides benefit. Promise.

Reconsider your social media strategy

When it comes to social media strategy for your organization, there are two main options. You can recruit. Or you can help turn members into leaders, facilitate onboarding by designing a home/space where people feel welcome from day one, and mobilize your community through a flow of relevant and useful content (based on the data they share with you).

The second model allows you to bring people into your community fold in a much more elegant, nuanced, and lasting way. It allows you to give free value and work people into your organization organically, all in a way that’s actually useful to them and to you.

Stay connected with your community year round

When you build the infrastructure for evergreen engagement, you simultaneously ensure you’re making the most out of your events. As opposed to the constant highs and lows of other organization models, data-led evergreen organizations see much more of a steady line of engagement across time.

When you bring community members into the fold—give them agency and make them feel as though they are a part of something throughout the course of a year—chances are those members are going to want to stay connected (and tell others about you). 

With this in mind, remember to build content around your events. This helps keep conversations going long after the event is over, and contributes to creating a much more human-centric organization down the road.

Make data governance a strength

Before we start to wrap things up here, let’s touch on some important rules (or rather the golden rule) for building community, as well as a few goals surrounding how we can treat data right now in order to be prepared for the new frontier of data, community, and the internet itself. 

If you don’t remember anything else from this long Digital Summit recap, remember the following. Always.

The golden rule for building community: ONLY use data in ways that SERVE THE USER, not the organization.

Central goal: SERVE and DELIGHT the user, always!

You can both adhere to this golden rule and achieve this central goal by embracing and implementing:

  1. Collection
  • Collect only what’s necessary to serve user intent (minimalist mindset)
  • Centralize user data, on an individual level. 
  • Be transparent about collection
  1. Sharing
  • Avoid third-party sharing and unnecessary targeting
  • Avoid disparity with infrastructure and keep user data connected to systems of engagement
  • Provide transparency and access to the user
  1. Hygiene 
  • Define processes for compliance and opt-outs (and educate the entire organization about them)
  • Cleanse bad data regularly
  • Remove unnecessary or old systems
  1. Interaction
  • Analyze data to uncover real (and expressed) intent
  • Deliver data-driven interactions in service to expressed user intent
  • Give value for free
  • Avoid the ZERO value bucket
  1. Discipline
  • Always ask: is this useful and in service to the user? (golden rule and central goal in one!)
  1. People & Tech
  • Hire a data analyst or contract part time
  • Deploy technology that helps you understand user intent
  • Avoid old technology or platforms that put you at risk

Building your own network & more about what you can do now

As we move into this new data frontier over the next 3-5 years (though, we’ll most likely see the first wave of changes within the year)—and GDPR principles are replicated and used across the U.S.—we want you to be as informed and prepared as possible. 

Two things you can do, if you’re not doing them already, are to bring data governance in house and put human-first data at the center of your organization’s overall strategy. 

In our ever-shifting digital landscape, these are two essential actions you can move on right away.

Yes, users have been the product. But the internet is becoming much more distributed, which in turn is changing the overall power structure, privacy rules, and approach to engagement. 

In order to get out in front of these sea changes, and use them to your advantage (without having to make massive shifts when data privacy comes into play more universally), it’s imperative to start:

  • Building network effects into your model 
  • Aligning with career growth
  • Providing enough reasons for people to stay connected year round
  • Becoming a responsible partner to members through data governance
  • Investing in Business Intelligence as a core strength

Because no, online communities are not products, they’re a process

Once again, online communities are not products. They’re a process. Ones that takes a lot of hard work and strategy and communication and coordinated effort. 

And the point is for us to create more human-centered organizations by way of consent, enlightened relationships, mutual respect and care for one another, and useful (expressed intent) data. 

And so, onward and upward we say—into the new frontier! Sure, it will be bumpy along the way. But we promise, we’re moving towards the kind of data collection and community that benefits all, not just some. Care to join us?

Work with experts who build successful communities

Mobilize is made up of community experts who have launched communities for the likes of the National Restaurant Association, United Nations’ SDSN, Dermalogica, and more. We work with you to align your business goals with a tailored community strategy to ensure its success.

Whether you’re just getting started or are looking to improve outcomes with your existing community — we have strategies and industry-tailored programs to help you get things done. Schedule a demo for a personalized walk-through of our technology and learn about our expert-led strategy services.