The more I branch out my interests (or skill sets), the more I find myself joining communities. I am a part of Yelp (food/restaurants), StackOverflow (programming questions), Codaset (social coding), Facebook, LinkedIn (professional networking), Disqus (blog comment system), and the list goes on and on for many of my interests. There are lots of communities for almost all imaginable interests. The key thing here is not just that I am a part of these networks or communities that I am interested in, but that I am a contributor.
Being a contributor is important because without people adding something, the communities are roughly useless. What would StackOverflow be without people answering the questions? Where would Yelp be if people didn’t write reviews? Where would Allrecipes be if people didn’t contribute recipes or make suggestions on existing recipes? The short answer is that they would be in the same place as a book store with no books, nice to look at and a great idea, but not much to do once you go in.
This may all seem rather obvious, but it actually isn’t to most people. In fact, most sites offer incentive just to participate. And if you think that audience participation is always easy, try talking to most high school teachers who try to engage students. Yelp has the Yelp Elite for those who write many reviews and are constant contributors. These folks get asked to Yelp functions and invited to events by local businesses to get good write-ups. StackOverflow offers badges and a point system for “street cred” and sitewide abilities or even the possibility of a job if your potential employer wants to see your knowledge base about a particular topic. PerlMonks offers a point system in which you can level up as well. Just as with StackOverflow, the more points you accrue, the more capabilities you have on the site.
In fact, I believe so much in contribution that I even wrote a site just for skydivers to help out other skydivers (since skydiving is one of my many hobbies/passions). Now this isn’t to say that everyone needs to be a contributor everywhere. This isn’t in everyone’s nature. But if you can be a contributor or have something to say (even if you aren’t a regular contributor), then jump in. This is what builds networks, sparks discussions, and generally makes sites more useful. So if you’ve always had that inkling that you wanted to say something, give it a shot and make yourself heard. You never know where just giving your opinion could take you…