Field NotesOld Wine in New Bottles

Romi Mahajan

One can find the central logical principle behind the enormous rise of Internet-mediated communities by invoking a 600-year-old heuristic: Occam's Razor. "Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitate," or, translated in English, "Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity." In other words, let's not overcomplicate our theories about why the Internet has changed the creation of community in the world of IT. Instead, just go back to the basics to understand specifically how the Internet has not radically altered core conceptions of community but has amplified and scaled them to heretofore unknown dimensions.

Communities form and grow to satisfy three central needs and desires: first is our need to connect, communicate, and commune with others of similar bent; second is our need to learn from those with similar experiences; and last is our desire to be part of something larger than ourselves.

This was true before technology found application in our daily lives, clearly before the Internet, and will remain true even if one day we revert to Luddism. So where does the Internet appear in this equation? Or does it appear at all?

In the area of amplification, the Internet has a game-changing impact. By harnessing the power of the Internet, we can connect and communicate with stunning speed, with vast geographical footprint, and against an incredibly nuanced set of parameters.

In this way, we can exchange both simple and complex information (in a variety of forms) and quickly solve problems, find others like us, and create complex models of dissemination and diffusion (of knowledge, ideas, even digital commodities). We can even spend countless hours using the Internet, building to a social crescendo of sorts, without having to leave our own zones of enormous comfort.

In each area, we amplify speed, scale, nuance, and the ability to do so under terms that each of us determines. The amazing success of Facebook, ­MySpace, and hundreds of other communities on the Internet is testament to this process of amplification.

Another such area, ironically, is the use of the Internet to facilitate physical community gatherings. In the world of IT, the importance of everything from pub crawls to user group meetings to large industry-wide events cannot be overstated. The process of amplification helps communities nourish themselves and grow in the interstitial times between physical meetings.

Ultimately, however, it is this very fact of physicality that brings the limitations of the Internet into bold relief. Relationships that are based primarily on the Ether cannot go the full distance. And in many cases, these relationships cannot provide the feedstock for epoch-making innovation and inspiration.

Thus, I draw incredible energy from the IT events I attend in person, and particularly from visiting user group meetings where the passion and bene­ficence are indelible. The three fundamental needs I mentioned align with fantastic strength in these meetings. IT companies still launch products at trade shows. People still line up to hear IT luminaries speak and relish time with their peers.

IT communities, like general communities, are fundamental to the well-being of IT practitioners (and, therefore, of the industry as a whole). So we all need to redouble our efforts to nurture them, participate in them, and to use them to create the virtuous loops that have worked to inspire greatness and heroics from each of you reading this column.

To do so, we have to be clear where, in this process, the Internet plays a role and where physical and emotional connections are the lifeblood. Given the need to discontinue the enormous tax on the environment, the challenge is how to use the Internet for as much as we can while not forgetting to punctuate the digital packets with an occasional handshake.

Romi Mahajan is Chief Marketing Officer of Ascentium Corporation. Before joining Ascentium, he spent more than seven years at Microsoft where his last role was as Director of Technical Audience and Platform Marketing. Romi is widely published in the areas of technology, politics, economics, and sociology.