Once upon a time “community” meant a group of people living or working or playing together, bound by ties of mutual responsibility, interdependence and care. These days it often means something very different. As San Francisco technology commentator Paulina Borsook puts it, in the new Internet age “’community‘ is coming to mean a narrow-cast bunch of suckers you can market to.”

The promise of community has long been a key aspect of the Internet’s appeal. Almost since its inception people have looked to the Net as a “place” where new communities could be founded — groups drawn together not by physical proximity but by mutual interests. In his seminal book The Virtual Community (1993), Internet commentator Howard Rheingold summed up this appeal: “You can‘t simply pick up the phone and ask to be connected with someone who wants to talk about Islamic art or California wine, or someone with a 3-year-old daughter or a 40-year-old Hudson; you can, however, join a computer conference on any of these topics,” Rheingold wrote. Online, he continued, “Your chances of making friends are magnified by orders of magnitude over the old methods of finding a peer group.”

And surely one of the Net’s great successes has been the opportunities it‘s provided for the establishment of new communities — from high-octane intellectual online enclaves such as the Edge Forum, where leading scientists and commentators gather to discuss new scientific ideas, to the myriad online fantasy worlds (or MUDS), where people get to play at being starship crews and talking animals. Looking on, the corporate world suddenly began to realize it was missing a gargantuan boat. Enter the marketing teams, which have now boosted the concept of community to a central role in the selling of new Internet sites. In a high-rotation television commercial for an online stock-trading company, a group of women working in a beauty salon share girl talk about their Internet trades and chat about belonging to this friendly online community.

Web sites are using ever more clever ways to involve their customers in ongoing relationships and to make them feel they are part of a thriving virtual community. No longer is it sufficient to simply sell your product online. Take Amazon.com, the powerhouse online bookseller. Amazon isn’t just a place to buy books; it‘s a place where readers and authors interact. Readers are invited to write reviews of books, authors are invited to add their own commentaries and any additional information in which they feel readers may be interested. Sometimes literary skirmishes erupt as one group of readers trashes a book while another defends it. Most authors I know check in regularly to see how they are faring on Amazon. Amazon even provides a service where authors can link in from their own sites and receive a percentage from the sales of their books bought by customers who come through that link.

The appropriation of the concept of community by Internet marketers is not an isolated phenomenon. A new book by politico-activist Jeremy Rifkin reveals that the whole commercial sphere is undergoing a transformation in which we are increasingly being drawn into webs of commercial relationships in nearly every aspect of our lives. Called The Age of Access: The New Culture of Hypercapitalism, Where All of Life Is a Paid-For Experience, Rifkin’s book notes that in the new environment that is evolving, the primary commercial function is not selling products but selling service. What sellers are increasingly interested in are not one-time sales, but long-term relationships with customers.

Here a key idea is what is known as a customer‘s “lifetime value,” or LTV. Rifkin uses the example of a Cadillac dealership. Automobile dealers estimate that each new customer who comes through the door has a potential LTV of more than $320,000. This is the projected amount they will spend on Cadillacs during their lifetimes — provided they become committed Caddy buyers. The aim of the game is to make them so, and there are more and more sophisticated techniques being developed to keep them in a seller’s loop.

Keeping customers in your loop — preferably for life — is what the new marketing is all about, and here the Internet provides an invaluable service. With sophisticated tracking and computer modeling technologies it is now possible to amass vast amounts of customer data over the Internet, data that can be used to develop both general marketing strategies and strategies tailored to each individual. Rifkin notes that these technologies are increasingly being thought of as “relationship technologies,” or R-technologies. Here again the concept of community comes into play. “Already, in marketing circles,” Rifkin says, “the talk runs to ways of using R-technologies to create new kinds of communities made up of like-minded people who come together because of a shared interest in a particular commercial endeavor, activity or pursuit.” Indeed, “There‘s a growing awareness among management and marketing experts alike that establishing so-called communities of interest is the most effective way to capture and hold customer attention and create lifetime relationships.”

To the new marketers, the key to creating effective commercial communities, Rifkin explains, is “to plan events, gatherings and other activities that bring customers together to share their common interest in your company’s brand.” Thus Hyatt Hotels & Resorts features Camp Hyatt and a newsletter aimed at its youngest customers. (Hooking in the customer as early as possible maximizes their LTV.) Communal events or gatherings need not take place physically; increasingly they happen online — music sites organize online chats with pop stars, sites devoted to TV shows organize chats with their leading actors, Amazon hosts chats with authors.

But if the concept of community becomes basically a commercial concept then what is left for relationships of a noncommercial nature? In this new era, where marketers wax lyrical about “customer bonding” and “customer intimacy,” what happens to real intimacy? Will traditional communities — held together by physical proximity, ethnic identity, religious affiliation and so on — survive the onslaught of this marketing mania? If the concept of community becomes a brand, ought we be worried about its shelf life?

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