Nationals Park, Washington DC
About a year ago, I had the opportunity to talk with an HIV educator working in rural Malawi. We were discussing the challenges he faces in his work, and he told me that when they built the clinic where he works a few years ago, they assumed people would immediately start showing up for treatment. Many members of the community were living with HIV, and here was a place for them to receive care. “We thought,” he laughed, “if we build it, they will come.”Turns out it’s more complicated than that. Stigma, education, gender politics, community dynamics, economics, and so much more kept people at bay; prevented people from seeking treatments that could dramatically improve their lives.If you build it, they will come.This is my least favorite phrase about the Internet.It’s so pervasive, you’d be forgiven for thinking its origins were biblical, and not say, a late 80s baseball flick. Maybe it worked for Kevin Costner, but it’s not going to work for you.If you build it, they will come.I should pause here and confess that I may be a little biased. I do, after all, work in community management—my professional success depends on people believing that “building it” is not enough. Still, I’d like to think my distaste for this phrase has more to do with the underlying assumptions it perpetuates than any particular interest in self-preservation.If you build it, they will come.To my mind, it’s one of the biggest, most pernicious myths of the internet. It plays on a number of fallacies our industry has clung to aggressively over the years: that the facts speak for themselves, that we are a meritocracy, and that the web is a great, global equalizer.“If you build it, they will come” separates us from the people we are trying to serve. We are the builders. They? They are the masses. We do not need to ask them, understand them, build with them, because if we build it, they will come, like sheep to a greener pasture.“If you build it, they will come” perpetuates the notion that building something is enough. That creating your website, or your app, or your online community platform, is all you need to do. If it’s good enough, if it’s better than your competitors’, if it meets an unmet need, and disrupts the right industry, users and profits will flow your way.It is sorely tempting to believe this idea. It’s the 21st century American Dream—we’re all starring in our own Horatio Alger novel, pulling ourselves up with Bootstrap and the answers we find in StackExchange.If you build it, they will come.If this is all it takes, if the only qualification is how well something’s been built, then whatever is left standing must be what was built best, right?I think few of us actually believe that (given that this, can happen at the same time as this, for instance), yet it still permeates our notion of what it takes to succeed, and who is capable of succeeding. When we buy in to “if you build it, they will come,” it becomes easier to believe that Mark Zuckerberg is the only portrait of success for our work.If you build it, they will come.Our work, our responsibility, does not end when building is complete. Perhaps because the building is never really complete. The universe of our work is constantly evolving, and if we want what we’ve built to survive, we must evolve with it. That means doing the hard work of maintaining our products, our projects and our content.It also means we can’t sit around looking pretty, hoping our users will finally call. We have to remind them that we’re here, and show them—by building with them, incorporating their feedback, supporting them while they use our sites—that we’ve built something worth coming back to.