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Online Communities Endure as Platforms Come and Go
By Andrew Goodman, April 28, 2001

"There is something agreeable even in the weakness of friendship and humanity. The too tender mother, the too indulgent father, the too generous and affectionate friend, may sometimes, perhaps, on account of the softness of their natures, be looked upon with a species of pity, in which, however, there is a mixture of love, but can never be regarded with hatred and aversion, nor even with contempt, unless by the most brutal and worthless of mankind. It is always with concern, with sympathy and kindness, that we blame them for the extravagance of their attachment."

- Adam Smith, The Theory of the Moral Sentiments (1759)


What exactly is online community? Is it dying?

Much has been written about the general decline of community in modern life. Yet we are bombarded with commercial messages that suggest that everything is hunky-dory.

Years after AT&T launched its famous "reach out and touch someone" campaign, critics pointed to the irony: at the same time as families became more dispersed and distant, images of togetherness were promoted in unrealistic TV shows (The Brady Bunch, which seemed to prove that divorce actually led to togetherness) and in the advertising for a large phone company, which sought to make a virtue out of the very distance that seemed to be undermining our personal relationships.

A quick look (http://www.drarndt.com/slogan.htm) at slogans for major products and major corporations confirms that nearly all of them attempt to convey the fact that there is either (a) something "real," physical, or substantial in the product or service, and/or (b) that "real" people are providing the good or service. It's a nearly universal strategy: you're in "good hands" with Allstate; reach out and touch someone (through a phone line); an airline calming your fear of flying by reassuring you that these are "friendly" skies; a major motel chain promises to "leave the light on for you"; American Express reminds you that you shouldn't be "leaving home" without traveller's cheques, and so on and so on. With all of this effort put into convincing us that the personal touch is still intact in a world of rapidly advancing technology dominated by huge multinational corporations, the only logical response is to suspect that it can't possibly be true.

In recent decades, cultural critics like Robert D. Putnam [author of an influential academic essay "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital," later turned into a book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon & Schuster, 2000, with updated statistics - http://www.bowlingalone.com)] trotted out statistics to prove that people are now less inclined to be involved in local community organizations, volunteer groups, and even bowling leagues.

In spite of it all, however, community always seems to endure. Just as one form of community seems to dry up or succumbs to the unrelenting forces of progress, social dislocation, war, or technological change, other manifestations of community emerge.

Given our apparent thirst for community, and the challenges facing it as we attempt to maintain connections in an urbanized, commercialized, globalized world, online forms of community have borne a huge burden to replace what critics like Putnam feel has been lost. For every story about Internet addiction leading victims to ignore their families and become withdrawn, anti-social, and depressed, there is a countervailing example of a person who has found a support group, employment prospects, or a community of like-minded topical enthusiasts through the 'net.

Because of the potential for some forms of online community to replace, supplement, or even reinvigorate some of those clubs, bowling leagues, causes, and families we don't connect with as often as we (supposedly) once did, is there cause for concern as so many platforms for the development of online community are going belly up? If there is nothing to replace them, then maybe so. If broadcast, run by large entertainment companies, takes back some of the mindshare that had been gained by interactive media, we risk a tilting of our focus back towards the mindless television watching that threatens to turn our brains to sauerkraut.

Watching trends, and trying to make sense of them all, is almost impossible - although this never stopped pop sociologists like Faith Popcorn, or pop political scientists like Robert Putnam. Take Yahoo, for instance, and try to read its tea leaves. Yahoo is a major starting point for millions of Internet users. The Yahoo experience contains a healthy dose of interactivity. At its worst, there are the stock chat boards on Yahoo finance, where "shorts" and "longs" trade insults in a feeble attempt to influence the direction of the stocks in which they hold positions. Yahoo! Geocities is another supposed manifestation of community, but is mainly just a platform for people without design skills to put up a personal web site quickly. The citizenship aspect of Geocities was always exaggerated, and since the Yahoo acquisition there has seemed to be little "there there." Yahoo! Clubs, on the other hand, seem to be more like hives of intimate activity: anyone can set up a Club, which is like a private (or public) intranet for people who want to take advantage of a variety of interactive capabilities including message boards, photo posting, member profiles, etc. Yahoo! has also recently acquired eGroups, a full-featured email list management service which has been renamed Yahoo Groups. Word has it that Clubs will be merged with Groups. For anyone wanting a free "listserv" with many added bells and whistles, Yahoo Groups is as good as it gets.

Of course, not everyone wants to go into Yahoo's house to run their topical club, vertical portal, or online support group. Not everyone searching for serious topical information likes the atmosphere at Yahoo! Experts or Yahoo! Finance chat boards. And so there is unsurprisingly a considerable demand for alternatives. Users have flocked in droves to "networks of topical sites" such as About.com, or off-the-beaten track "edited topical communities by real people for real people" such as that at Suite101.com. Budding authors have joined with self-publishing venues such as Themestream. Volunteer editors have signed up with the Open Directory Project and Zeal.com to maintain directories of topical resources.

A surprisingly common theme in all of this, especially when talking with those who create and maintain these types of venues for community, is the perceived importance of creating a good "platform" to allow community to flourish. Depending on the type of community it is, a good platform might mean interactive features (message boards, chat, email groups); resource creation facilities (a way of posting links or creating one's own directory of important resources); content; collaboration facilities (the ability to run a project or publish a web site using a content management system allowing for different levels of access for a geographically-dispersed team of employees or enthusiasts); and so forth.

While it may be true that a great platform is vital to the flourishing of human connections and the management of knowledge in an online environment, however, a good many "online community platforms" are being crushed by market forces these days.

As reported in a recent edition of Cashel and Shafer's Online Community Report (http://www.onlinecommunityreport.com/), a shocking number of topical-community platform builders have gone the way of the dodo in the first quarter of 2001. Most recently, we have witnessed the demise of Themestream, eCircles, Rivals.com, SourceXchange, Clip2, and numerous others.

Community members are getting pretty good at recovering from such minor displacements. They pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and quickly reassert their presence in another location. [See "Where Have All the Go Guides Gone?," Traffick, Feb. 28, 2001,http://www.traffick.com/story/2001-02/go_guides.asp; LookSmart Plays Community Trump Card with Zeal Acquisition,http://www.traffick.com/story/10-2000/zeal.asp.]

At the same time as a lot of community-fostering platforms are being put on the shelf, many are just ramping up, and a few pioneers are bravely soldiering on. Let's take a glimpse at a couple of case studies that emphasize the peril and promise facing those who build the nuts and bolts underlying online communities of interest.


Suite 101: Real People Helping Real People

Suite 101 (http://www.suite101.com) was a true 'net pioneer - a topical community founded on the premise that the Internet could provide the ultimate venue for "self-expression," particularly for budding authors and topical enthusiasts. Its founders began with a simple vision: a place where ordinary people could go to learn about a topic from like-minded, well-educated volunteer editors. The end result, a roster of human-edited online subject areas, looks quite a bit like the better-known About.com (formerly, The Mining Company, and now, "About - The Human Internet). Suite 101 has run on more modest (but still substantial) funding, and operates in unassuming fashion from its HQ in Vancouver, British Columbia. (About.com, recently acquired by offline publisher Primedia, is based in New York.)

Suite 101's co-founder and current Managing Director, Julie Bradshaw, is passionate about what online communities can do for the "real people" who frequent Suite 101. Who are these people? Suite 101's demographic profile is interesting in itself. The service's users are over 60% female, with a high proportion of university-educated users. The average age is 35, and over half are married with children. Many users have connected with people in similar situations as themselves, supporting one another on a huge range of real life issues.

Bradshaw's topical examples tend to convey the unique flavor of this site - far from the techie-dominated discussions that seem to dominate the net. She frequently mentions French Literature, which was her university major.

Stumbling into Suite 101 is, at first blush, a bit like stumbling into an elementary school library: its subjects are organized using the Dewey Decimal system. This is actually a pretty decent way to go about it. Bradshaw points out that most online directories - most notably Yahoo - were started by people with technical backgrounds in software and engineering. The Yahoo classification system was developed on the fly by Yang and Filo, who knew little about library science or linguistics. "Why would they?," Bradshaw wonders aloud. At least systems like Dewey and the Library of Congress classification system inject some notion of standardization into the task of classifying online resources; too often, as with the ambitious but unwieldy Open Directory Project, this can be a game of taxonomy-by-amateurs.

Still, those of us who secretly suspect that some cutting-edge techies may have something over those librarians can't help but wonder if the Dewey Decimal approach is the right one, especially as the developers of XML and related "semantic web" specifications work on advanced technologies to classify every possible type of resource or object that could be accessible online.

The main purpose of Suite 101 was to inject a human element into the online search for information. Search engines, as we know, are often too good at digging up mountains of information. Expert guides and editors add a needed layer of filtering ("it's like making a good cup of java," says Bradshaw); they can recommend resources, produce content, and structure information so that users can access the vital material without having to slog through irrelevant junk.

In building a team of contributing editors, Suite 101 wound up with a large "publishing community." Over time, the process became more routinized and professional; today, managing editors vet the work of contributing editors to ensure that it is of high quality, and volunteer copy editors keep things neat and grammatical.

Bradshaw points to the importance of a strong "back end" platform to facilitate collaboration and administration of such a large site. The task of managing close to 1,400 contributors and volunteer copy editors is no small one. While proudly extolling the virtues of Suite's some 80,000 pages of unique content, at one point she seemed to suggest that the Suite's business model in future could revolve around developing its content management and collaboration platform to offer its robust features to large enterprises.

Given the value of the community itself, one hopes that both sides of the equation can prove economically viable and sustainable. Suite 101 has time to make up its mind on this one; unlike many companies facing a tight timeline to profitability, it has the luxury, according to Bradshaw, of having "a couple years' worth of cash left in the bank."

Suite could easily be written off as a quaint place where people come to talk about their pets (
http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/242/64259). Maybe so; but it's worth pointing out that quaint places are in demand,
and facing shortages of supply. Suite 101 may be unassuming, but like a small Welsh village, it has an enduring and picturesque quality to it.

The EZBoard Caper: Sometimes a Message Board is Just a Message Board
The quintessential interactive online app is the message board or bulletin board. There must be a hundred companies that make message board software. One of the most popular is Ultimate Bulletin Board, made by a company called Infopop. Infopop has increased the power of its software over the years and has apparently taken advantage of the strong demand for its products by increasing prices and courting a business clientele. The least expensive option for "lite" users is a hosted message board solution for $28 per month (and up, depending on usage).

A company called EZBoard (
http://www.ezboard.com) entered this market in the heady days of advertising-supported online services. Its message boards are high quality and software upgrades are frequent. Best of all for many users, the software was free. Then they hit the wall as the advertising market collapsed. So EZBoard dithered over new revenue models. Given that many UBB users (see above) pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars a year for similar software, it looks as if EZBoard dithered a bit too carefully. They came up with the idea that users (not publishers) of the message boards could turn off the advertising by
paying a $15 annual fee. And they clung to the advertising model for those site owners who refused to pay for a no-ad option. This latter was announced later: a further $30 year would be charged to give "Gold" subscribers a higher service level which would include no ads.

In the process of evolving its pricing model, EZBoard unnecessarily antagonized many message board administrators. Until they got around to paying for an upgrade, message board owners were treated to forums with four kinds of advertising: a text link reminding them to upgrade; multiple banner ads; Sprinks (sponsored links tacked onto the bottom of discussion threads); and to really rub it in, popups.

All rather unnecessary. Given their competition's pricing for comparable products, EZBoard could have introduced a $50 or $100 per year Gold option some time ago.

So in frustration over this dithering and in a fit of excessive interest in the logic of someone else's business model, yours truly had a short tiff with the President and COO of EZBoard, Steve Demello. One point made by the EZBoard brass in response to member concerns over the new fee structure is that without subscription fees, "these communities will simply go away." Demello and Goodman agreed to disagree over the small points, and the brouhaha passed.

One thing that sticks in my mind from the incident is the notion that communities will go away if their platforms shut down. But very often this is not the case. Communities often roam in nomadic fashion until they find a suitable landing spot. I participate in several online communities whose main feature is message boards. Some of the messaging is built in-house; other sites use software from providers like Infopop, EZBoard, Boardhost, etc. None of those communities will disband if the software maker folds or institutes an unreasonable balance between price and service. The community will simply pick up its marbles and move.

They'll move to any place that can keep the community intact while they search for a better option: to an email distribution list based on someone's Outlook Express address book and a lot of cc:'d messages, to a private web site with in-house software development, or even to Yahoo Groups, if necessary.

It seems as if some makers of community-facilitating products get so caught up in the idea of community that they begin to see their work as if it were in fact community development. In other words ("reach out and touch someone"), they start believing their own advertising. But isn't software best conceived as software? While Nortel Networks, which specializes in networking technology that powers global telecommunications, cunningly used the Beatles' "come together" in its television advertising campaign, one assumes that Nortel is not literally in the "hug" business.

At the end of the day, we kept our EZBoard instead of switching to Infopop. The main reason was that the software is a very good deal for the price. Had EZBoard continued annoying us with popups and Sprinks, we would have been forced to change providers.

The point: we didn't send money to EZBoard in order to "support" communities or community in general. We just wanted some decent software. When we mulled it over, we realized that EZBoard's new price structure was very fair.

So You Want to Build a Vortal?

It gets dizzying trying to keep up with the many available platforms and packages for people wanting to build topical community web sites with various bells and whistles. Some cover the whole gamut of needs, while others specialize and offer only a couple of very specific pieces of the puzzle. (For a discussion list about this topic, join our Portal Builders Discussion List: http://www.topica.com/lists/portalbuilders/ ).

Bill Fisher, co-founder of one new vortal infrastructure provider, Bellevue, WA-based Spoke.net (
http://www.spoke.net), walked me through his company's unique offering recently. The service addresses many of the key needs facing the builders of online communities. Its greatest strength appears to be administration and content management. Different team members can be assigned different access levels so that advanced site management functions can be performed by administrators, while writers can post articles without needing any HTML or programming knowledge, and have the site's navigation automatically build in logically-organized links to those articles. Forum moderators can also be given access to manage interactive areas of the site.

Spoke.net has also taken the trouble to build its own email newsletter feature for site owners wanting a robust solution in this area.

Some of Spoke.net's functionality piggybacks on a sophisticated open source content management platform called Zope, which is becoming better known to serious hackers and tinkerers.

Perhaps what was most impressive to me about the demo of Spoke.net was that it staked out that middle ground between entry-level free or nearly free services, and prohibitively expensive corporate portal platforms. For a few hundred or a few thousand dollars depending on the needed functionality, a site administrator has a powerful content management, team collaboration, and vertical portal/ online- community-oriented platform at his or her disposal. Many competing vendors only really do one thing well, leaving the site owner to shop around for other needed functionality; Spoke.net offers a broad range of features without compromising on quality or customization options.

Leaving aside everything else, sophisticated content management systems aren't cheap. One of the leaders in this field, Allaire, charges $75,000 and up. If more modestly-priced solutions like Spoke.net can get the word out, a lot of online community builders can say goodbye to their days of labor-intensive site management and awkward handling of content.

An Oversupply of Technology?
There are good reasons for us all to be vocal proponents of the continued fostering of online community. The drawbacks of the online phenomenon, it would seem, are clearly outweighed by the social and economic benefits of group forming. Those who succesfully build open, interactive networks stand to benefit economically (Reed's Law, http://www.reed.com/Papers/GFN/reedslaw.html; see also The Cluetrain Manifesto at http://www.cluetrain.com; and also Seth Godin, Unleashing the Ideavirus, http://www.ideavirus.com); those who unnecessarily restrict the flow of communication are limiting the potential benefit to their own enterprises and to society (as argued by Jakob Nielsen, "Metcalfe's Law in Reverse," http://www.useit.com/alertbox/990725.html).

It may well be that the huge benefit to society promised by online group formation, and the vast global thirst for a continued rapid buildout of forms of online collaboration and community, are what attracted so many community platform builders to enter the fray so hastily. In spirited discussions about discussions and the platforms that make them possible (see
http://www.hyperorg.com/backissues/joho-jan19-01.html#email), it looks like there could be more of this "community interaction technology" than we might ever want or need. The market is currently dealing with the oversupply.

Online Community is Like a Haunted 1958 Plymouth

The death of a few entrants into the field of online-community-empowering software and services should be seen as a normal adjustment to overinvestment in particular technologies and services. We've observed many communities being displaced as corporate strategies change or as the service providers go out of business. But like Christine, the haunted 1958 Plymouth Fury in Stephen King's novel, the pieces of displaced online groups seem to knit themselves back together quite readily. Before long, the engine is revving again, the radio playing the same song as it was before she was thrown on the scrapheap. And these signals travel in all directions.

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