The Microsoft.com Fraternities and Sororities

Along with CodePlex, our team builds community applications for Microsoft.com.  Included are the Forums, Chats, Blogs, etc.  One of the interesting things that has happened over the years is that our applications have managed to stay somewhat siloed.  In a service-oriented world where we talk about architectures of loosely-coupled applications, there has been little coupling of our applications.  So in the spring, that was our goal--let's make the applications work better together.  But as we proceeded down that path, I started to get a little nervous.  After all, integrating applications for the sake of integration was a faux pas along the lines of using technology for technology's sake. We were just continuing to build applications without thinking about the overall experience.  In the past, the idea was "let's just create applications where customers can interact".  However, this seemed to be a way of supporting a bunch of ships passing in the night.   Two people interact and then never connect again.  That's when Bob, our Group Product Manager, started to shed light on how we should be thinking about things.  Instead of our previous approach of segmenting how people use community ("search content, interact with one another, and collaborate on projects"), it's was an opportunity to think about the evolution about how people belong to communities.  Why?  Because in the end, it was more important that people felt like they belonged rather than used the community because it's easier to be loyal to something you belong to.  I believe that's what inspires the zealotry of the open source community--they have this sense of belonging.  We realized our goals should be focused on connecting customers (and employees) to one another in "high-fidelity relationships.  I love that because, more than Q&A or finding content, the true power of communities are about connecting people (that's even true for this blog--my favorite part of blogging are the customers that have commented/e-mailed over the years and evolved into trusted friends).  In reviewing the behavior of successful communities, we broke it down into four primary stages.  First off, we need to identify the individuals to get to know them better.  What are they interested in?  What motivates them?  What do they think of themselves?  Next, we need to connect individuals with other "like-minded" individuals to share interests, knowledge, etc.  Who else shares the interests of that individuals?  Yes, those folks at match.com are on to something there. Then, we need to host on-line venues for these people to interact (such as posting to Forums or commenting on Blogs).  Finally, we need to reward them for their participation.  Bob and I spent a lot of time brainstorming this phenomenon and trying to understand how this manifests itself in the non-tech world.  But last week, I think I finally got it:  college Greek life!

I never pledged a fraternity.  While Cornell had a pretty strong Greek system, it just wasn't my thing.  But having several friends who did pledge, I know the power of those relationships.  Recently, I was on a night-time run through the University of Washington and went by some of the fraternities and sororities.  With  the beginning of the school year, it is an especially entertaining place to be around.  I witnessed some weird pledging ritual where a bunch of women were at the door of their sorority house singing at the top of their lungs.  It was quite a sight: thirty attractive coeds in shorts and T-shirts making complete and total fools of themselves.  As I turned down the Audioslave to listen these women (who obviously were NOT music majors) as I ran by, it occurred to me that a fraternity/sorority is a small community that follows the evolution I described above.  At the very beginning, the men and women declare they want to be in the Greek system and learn about the different houses where they can pledge.  When a prospective student decides to pledge with a specific house, he/she is identifying themselves as being aligned with that specific house (the football frat or the rich girl sorority)  The house, in turn, approves the pledge and establishes an official connection of this like-minded individual to the others.  Obviously, the frat house or sorority house becomes the venue for the many shenanigans which these like-minded individuals interact.  And, as I recall, the reward usually involved alcohol and/or connections to the opposite sex (and as I recall, those were the only rewards that most 18-year olds really cared about back then).  The bonds created by those rich relationships are often lifelong and I've heard more than one fraternity member describe his fellow fraternity member as a brother and mean it with the same sincerity as a blood relationship.  While I don't think fellow Forums users will have that sort of bond (though I am sure that some developers may feel that way when a huge bug is solved thanks to a key response from an MVP), I do think this proves out the mechanics of the relationships we are trying to achieve.  Bringing people together in one place and giving them a reason to stick around--it's a powerful proposition.  We've got a lot of work to do, but I think we're going to start seeing several releases in the next few months that will play out this commuity building.  Consider it our fraternity row, only without the hazing rituals (I think we can do without the singing). 

 

{Red Hot Chili Peppers - Stadium Arcadium Disc 2}