Thursday, February 16, 2012

W(h)ither The Bicycle Club?

Is this the future of the bicycle club ride?
Social media is changing the world and if you are not engaged with it then you will be at a serious disadvantage in nearly every aspect of society in the 21st Century.

How’s that for a sweeping statement?  Well, get used to the idea.  Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and the like have revolutionized the way we interact with each other.  In years to come we may know these things by other names and access them by other means, but there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle.  Everyone will have the tools to create content, and everyone will be judged on the merits of that content.

And the phenomenon of social media is not just for the individual; its potential already has been recognized by governments, religious and civic organizations, social causes, corporations … every imaginable group.  If you are absent from the Internet, then you are absent from the mainstream of public discourse.  You are invisible.  The people who want or need your services expect easy access to information about you.  Without it, they will obtain those services elsewhere.

Listen up, bicycle clubs.

Some clubs are doing a good job with social media, staying in control of their own message and presenting themselves to the public in positive ways.  That’s the way it should be, but that might not be enough.  I think they’ve got a problem no matter what they do, because at their core bike clubs are really just the organizers of group rides.  Some clubs raise money for charities, but charities would be just as happy to take a contribution from you as an individual.  Some clubs furnish maps and cuesheets, but almost no matter where you live you can find route recommendations online through MapMyRide, Strava and other sites.  (You can download all of the Washington County Bicycle Club’s cuesheets since 2008!)  Some clubs arrange for discounts with local bike shops and other businesses, but increasingly these businesses offer similar discounts for online “friends” who “like” them.  Some clubs provide insurance for members who are injured while participating in a club event, but when someone joins a bike club the last thing on his mind is the prospect of injury—crashing is something that happens to other people—so this benefit is no enticement.

It really is all about finding other people who want to ride in the same place, at the same time, in the same manner that you do.  Social media is far more adept at meeting those criteria.  It gives you what you want in a very focused way without shaking you down for dues, charitable contributions or volunteer hours.  Don’t get me wrong: dues, charitable contributions and volunteer hours all can be put to excellent use and provide a real sense of community and purpose for club members.  But let’s be honest: for a lot of people, such commitments are barriers to membership.

I like to browse the websites of bike clubs from all over the country, and I see some of the same problems again and again.  Chief among them is our aging population.  Demographic trends are destiny … to a large extent, anyway, and the average age of club members can’t go up forever.  Clubs are doing a lousy job reaching younger riders.  Social media offers clubs a way to speak to younger riders in a way they understand.  But if social media is just a portal to a club that retains a traditional structure and mission, I suspect the initiative will fail anyway.  It isn’t that younger people aren’t riding; they just aren’t motivated to join a club.

So, what is the future—perhaps the very near future—of the bike club?  I believe most traditional clubs will die of old age, having clung too long to an outdated model.  Some will morph into social networks, and new “clubs” will be social networks from their inception.  The survivors will be those whose members are:
  • bound only by a common interest in the activity itself
  • organized but have no central leadership
  • governed by the best ideas, freely debated
If this sounds a little too much like “Occupy Wall Street,” there’s one big difference: the specificity of the activity to be pursued.  There won’t be a one-size-fits-all club; you might be a member of the Sunday Brunch Bunch and the Tuesday Hill Climbers and the Thursday Gravel Grinders.  Vague promises to promote cycling in general will fade from our memories as we indulge our particular desires.  We’re not all in this together and we never were.

Each cyclist already is an expert on the subject of what he enjoys.  Social media is the tool that will allow us to find those who are most like ourselves and to collaborate with them in very narrowly-defined ways that give us just the experience we want.  It’s happening now.  The Washington County Bicycle Club retains its traditional club structure and offers 14-16 official rides each season.  But the club is also a Group on Facebook, one whose unofficial rides are a growing part of its appeal.  These ad hoc gatherings don’t conform to normal club standards for scheduling, start/finish locations, distance or other parameters, and still they find an enthusiastic audience.  Maybe that’s the future of the WCBC: simply to be a forum in which area cyclists can organize themselves organically and democratically, and not to mandate when, where, how and with whom group rides must take place.

Wouldn’t it be ironic for a such a small club, ordinarily so resistant to change, to find itself among the early adopters of the new world into which social media is leading?

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