My Very Own Community Superfans


Here’s a post of mine for Lithium from 2012 on the subject of superfans.

It’s 1927. Meet three brothers from Southeastern Kansas. Lynn is away at medical school, Glen has just gone off to college. He’s pledged a fraternity and plans to major in business. Raymond is still in high school in their home town, Fredonia.

Suddenly, their father dies.

Together, the brothers decide the two key family objectives are to keep Lynn in medical school and Raymond in high school. It’s Glen who must sacrifice his education to return to Fredonia and become the sole breadwinner for the three boys and their mother. Glen secures a job as a janitor at the local bank.

Glen has a lot of good ideas (valuable content) about how to make the bank work better and offers them up to the current owner in exchange for shares (rewards). The owner agrees.

Fast forward 18 months. The market crashes, banks are failing left and right. For weeks, Glen and the current bank owner meet clandestinely at night in back alleys to strategize about how to get through the next 24 hours. They don’t want to alert the townspeople to the fact that this 20-something whippersnapper, Glen (Community Superfan #1), is really the one at the helm of their tiny flailing ship in an epic storm.

Somehow, The State Bank of Fredonia makes it through without dashing against the rocks. Lynn finishes medical school and returns to become Fredonia’s first dedicated primary care physician (Community Superfan #2). The brothers then send Raymond off to both medical school and surgical residency. Raymond returns to become Fredonia’s first surgeon (Community Superfan #3).

Throughout the 1930s, 40s and 50s, every Fredonian who had a child, an illness, an injury, a checking account, a mortgage, a farm loan, or a death in the family (read: everyone) did business with the Beals. In these years, Glen owned the bank outright and spent his afternoons on the farms of his customers. A crop duster would fly overhead and Glen would say, “Mr. Green, we need to get you one of those!”

In 1952, our little janitor spoke to the US Congress and helped pass a farm bill that impacted three states. Dr. Lynn’s obituary, written in 1974 by a patient, recounted the many, many times he delivered babies for a basket of eggs or a cherry pie.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that you really can find folks in the world who are willing to contribute—even sacrifice—so enormously to benefit their community, but they are out there. At Lithium, we call them Superfans. They are the tireless, passionate, motivated brand fans who spend thousands of hours online helping others. This very small percentage of the population can drive enormous growth and real business change. Lynn, Glen and Raymond Beal were 3 passionate, committed men who affected great change in a town of about 4,500. That’s .07% (point-o-seven-percent) of the population.

Dr. Lynn was my maternal Grandfather, Glen and Raymond my great uncles. I’ll never forget the legacy they left of driving great positive change for so many, motivated simply by a culture of service—of giving back.

Yes, Virginia, there really are Superfans. They are nothing new. Humanity has been relying upon them since the dawn of time. Social software like Lithium just gives them greater reach—a chance to do more good for more people every day.

Crowdsourcing: Proof that Ayn Rand Got (at least some of) It Wrong?

ayn-rand-660_0When Paul Ryan appeared on the Republican ticket last fall, two familiar words burst onto the scene like popcorn: Ayn Rand.

Like for many others, Ayn Rand burst into my life at 19, and I lapped up her entire cannon like a plate of cream. Twice. But the world has changed a lot since I fell for the ideal of hyper-individualism.

It’s not that the Internet Age proves she got it wrong. In fact, it shows that Ayn Rand got a whole lot right. She said the human will is amazing and that freedom and opportunity make it flourish.

Working in social technology, I see how right she was. There’s a deep passion for human ingenuity in this business. Where the stakes are high, the talent is top notch and the work product is fantastic.

Yet there’s another group that plays just as important a role in the Information Age: The crowd.

I can’t help but wonder what Ayn Rand would have to say about the phenomenon of crowdsourcing where the work product comes from an undefined group of mostly (pardon my language, Ayn) volunteers?

Crowdsourcing is the process of tapping the collective for ideas. Turns out, the collective gives them up like gumballs, asks little or nothing in return, and before you know it we have wonderful things like Apache Software and Wikipedia.

The Internet Age shows us what Ayn Rand would call an irrational force—the desire to serve—rocks! I can get Wikipedia on my iPhone instantly for free. The Encyclopedia Britannica, before it went out of print, was cumbersome, expensive, and made the book shelves sag.

When Ayn Rand asks who should benefit from our output, she offers two choices: You or me. Today’s answer is both. The power of the crowd is proof. Sometimes providing value for others is personal gain.

I’d like to think a John Galt of this century would have been among the first to spot the power of the crowd. He dedicated his life, after all, to the pursuit of an inexhaustible supply of cheap energy.

This article was originally aired as a KQED listener perspective.