Creating communities that matter

12 Nov 2012

Author: Brad Howarth

Photography: Pierre Toussaint


Laurel Papworth’s experience with online communities actually predates the Web, going all the way back to the bulletin boards she used in her job at an Apple dealer in Adelaide in the 1980s.
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Even then she had a predilection for effecting change, as demonstrated by an email she and a co-worker sent to (then) Apple Chief Executive Officer John Sculley berating him for ignoring Australia.

“We got into a lot of trouble for it, but the democratisation of the channel really hit me, because here was this ability to contact the top CEO of the top company in the world,” she says.

The experience also awakened in her a sense of what the technology might enable. A subsequent job at the University of Adelaide in 1989 saw her involved in the implementation of the AARNet research network, a high-speed data network linking many of Australia’s universities and research organisations, and she would often stay back at the university until late at night, downloading software, trialling things and trying to understand what was happening. She soon began to sense the Internet’s possibilities as a tool for collaboration.

Since then Papworth has built online collaboration communities for clients including Cisco, Westpac, Sony, and local, state and federal governments, helping to recruit and train members to share ideas and interact online.

Her proudest achievement, however, is her involvement with iMatter, a project of Saudi Arabia-based Middle East Broadcasting (MBC) to support the women of Islam, which sought to bring women together into an online community. Papworth says its purpose was to connect Islamic women across the world by giving them blogs, forums and instant messaging, and included education and competitions in arts, community, new media and entrepreneurship. Papworth supported the project from its inception with 80,000 women signing up in its first week, leading up to her presentations to hundreds of women, including academics and press, at the women's university in Jeddah, Effat College for Women. The project also changed the culture at MBC, which donated resources to the community, including TV ads, and aligned key influencers such as Queen Rania of Jordan.

It helped to reinforce her views on social media and the role it plays in society. “I believe social media is about empowering and changing the world, not selling more stuff,” Papworth says.

Today Papworth’s business, The Community Crew, manages online communities and provides mentoring on social media to clients including a world-leading financial services company, a premium fashion brand, an exclusive jeweller, a health education forum and an Asian airline. It’s a skill which she has also been lecturing on at the University of Sydney and other institutes since the middle of the last decade.

She has delivered countless speeches and training courses around the world, written a number of books including Social Networks and Crisis Communication and Social Media Revenue, and featured in many others.

Her influence is widespread, including the 44,000 people who follow her SilkCharm account on Twitter, while US marketing magazine AdAge has named her in the Power 150 list of the most powerful bloggers globally, and Forbes magazine this year named her one of the Top 50 Social Media Power Influencers.

While she once made the mistake of dismissing the mobile phone for being too large to fit in her handbag, she is very much keeping an eye to the future, and is excited by many of the technologies and concepts which are unfolding today.

“Augmented reality frees us from our desktops, gamification changes our concept of work and play as work becomes play, and the social economy and peer-to-peer funding challenges banks the same way social media challenges traditional media,” she says.

Papworth is also a keen online gamer, and currently ranks as a level 85 Fire Mage in World of Warcraft.