http://www.flickr.com/photos/kk/11821879/

Have you noticed over the last few years how many more communities you belong to online, and how isolated they are from each other?

Last century, I could count on one hand how many active communities I belonged to: there was the town I lived in, but I hardly knew anyone. There was a couple of newsgroups I followed, until the crumbled under the weight of trolls, flame wars and above all else spam. There was the “developer community” – but it was never more than a convenient label for large company marketing purposes, developer conferences and the like.

This century, I can hardly keep track of how many communities – almost all online – I’m actively a part of. Whether it’s online forums, Web 2.0 applications, social networking sites or blogs I frequent often or write; whether it’s venerable online communities like Flickr or the newest kid on the block, Twitter, communities are what the online world is fast becoming about.

And that’s causing a number of problems, with #1 being a productivity problem.

Because in the rush to joyously connect with other people across the net who have the same interests, in the excitement of finding others who value what you value, look at the world as you do, have the same obstacles, concerns and small triumphs as you do, it’s easy to spend more and more of your time connecting and discussing, and less and less time working.

Remember work? That’s the stuff that puts food on the table and that you bring to the table called life. It’s the value you create for others, not the value you consume. Being totally connected nowadays means being totally unproductive.

Managing your online community involvement wasn’t and isn’t a class you took in high school like Home Economics where you learned all the basic stuff of everyday life – but it should be. It is part of a new curriculum absolutely necessary for life now – call it the Digital Lifestyle, the Third Wave, or what have you – it’s another Brave New Problem for people living in the Brave New World online.

So here are four questions you should ask yourself next time jump back into one of your online communities:

Am I giving value? Lurking is fine for starters in an online community – and we’ve all done it. But there comes a time when you should step out of the digital shadows and start contributing. Not contributing little agreement comments, but adding to the conversation in a meaningful way by applying your perspective, your experience, your passion, your knowledge to the issues others have. What’s in it for you? Read on.

Am I getting value? Value comes in many forms – there’s information (too much), there’s other perspectives (can range from irrelevant to life changing), there’s connecting with people you would never have meet in the offline world. If all you are doing is soaking up information, images, video, what have you, you’re leaving most of the value of an online community on the table.

Am I following up? Following up what you say you will do online is just as important – possibly more important – than following up what you do offline. If you say for example you saw just the info someone what looking for, make the effort to find it. If you meet someone online, make the effort to follow up. Above all else, build a process into how you work online so that when you find something of value to you, you take action on it, not just add another open loop to your life.

Am I procrastinating? There’s nothing wrong at all with just hanging out with people you know and like online or off. But whether you’re hanging around the dorm lounge, the water cooler, the mall or the online community, it’s up to you to be honest with yourself – are you there because you want to be and should be or are you there because there’s something else you don’t want to do and should?

Finally, just about everyone whose online – especially me – need to get better at controlling when we are connecting and when we are disconnecting and working. Online communities are great, but it pays to take a closer look at yours and spend some time deciding what value you bring to each table and how much of your very finite time that community experience be.

Bob Walsh sells MasterList Professional, a Windows task management application and writes, codes,
podcasts and blogs about different aspects of the digital lifestyle at ToDoOrElse, MyMicroISV and Clear Blogging. His second book, Clear Blogging, is now available at Amazon and elsewhere.

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