Who would you describe as your core community? Your family? Your Facebook friends? Your professional network? The members of your Tolkien role-playing group?
Community has become a complex and confusing word over the past few years. Yes, it has been devalued by corporate prat-talk, appropriated by brands that want to suggest that their relationship with customers is more cosy-coffee-in-the-village-hall than one-night-stand-click. But it has also evolved. The old idea of the long-term, geographically-based community just does not fit with the nomadic way most of us now live, and even if we had the time or space for them, those local communities are dying out; research from Manchester Metropolitan University has shown that 50% of community groups in the North West of England face closure within the next three years due to government cuts. So much for Big Society.
In fact, society has become so much bigger than the people on our street, but our interactions have tended to become much more specific, based on shared passions, contexts or crises – think of London's Twitter-organised #riotcleanup in 2011. For Gen Y, increasingly eschewing offices for freelance portfolios, daily life can be lonely and rootless. Nowadays, communities need to be mobile, flexible and multiple: quickly formed, accessible from anywhere in the world, and able to provide us with an instant human 'hit' of sociability before we move on. In 2013, the canniest brands will focus on helping us build these micro-communities.
One good example is Israeli start-up SeatID, a 'social seating app' which allows airline passengers to choose a seatmate based on their social network profiles. Named by TheNextWeb as one of the best travel apps of 2012, SeatID has Ukranian airline AeroSvit signed up, but is attempting to spread its service across multiple airlines and countries. Making our airport downtime work ever harder is Meetattheairport.com, a dating website for travellers that has garnered 20,000 followers since its launch in May 2011. Particularly effective k for frequent flyers, the site asks members to enter their personal interests and an aesthetic profile before adding flight details and departure airport, then matching them up with individuals that have similar interests and travel arrangements.
US company Vail Resorts was inspired to produce an award-winning social case study after realising that it had a ready-made, albeit temporary community in the thousands of people who flood to its ski resorts each year. By creating an app that allowed skiers to log their runs, connect with everyone else at the resort, and even play Foursquare-style games by accruing points for their real-life activities, they enhanced their customers' holidays by reintroducing the sense of camaraderie that most of them were lacking back at home.
All three initiatives represent the new priorities of social media: using online data to maximise our flow of face-to-face interactions. Fed up with digital interactions, we want to find physical ways to meet like-minded others – even if only for a few hours – to share our experiences as they unfold. The fact that trend-spotter Marian Salzman has identified both 'co' and 'native' as themes for 2013 suggests that a combination of collaboration and locality will help brands win.
Our hunger for web-facilitated brief encounters is already being served in a number of ways. The persistent popularity of flashmobs lies in their power to unite total strangers, sometimes in deeply moving ways, for mere minutes. The riots cleanup campaign has now turned into the 'We Will Gather' online/offline movement to connect Londoners via good works and volunteering. In 2007, Sing London placed free street pianos across the capital encouraging strangers' singsongs, to huge acclaim; their latest project, Ping! England, fostered spontaneous gaming by placing 700 table tennis tables in British cities from Bristol to Liverpool, with word-of-mouth and score-keeping spreading through social media. Perhaps the most extraordinary iteration of this trend is the emergence of real-time hook-up tools such as magnetU, a tiny $24 device that alerts you when people with similar social preferences and interests are near you on the street.
The move towards pop-up communities might seem like a Utopian solution to a growing problem or a terrifying landscape of over-sharing. Either way, it provides brands with an opportunity to integrate their digital strategies with the real world; and to begin to foster social connections with, and between, their consumers in a much more meaningful way.