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the death of online community as we knew it & i feel fine

By on Jul 31, 2006 in online community, social software | 5 comments

Not so long ago, just about everyone in the internet industry was talking about the value of purpose built online communities for online brands. Just in time for the dot-com crash, books like Cluetrain Manifesto taught us (and our venture capitalists) that "markets are conversations" and enthused about the importance of building communities around brands. Cliff Figallo and Amy Jo Kim, whose Community Building on the Web remains, IMHO, the best how-to book for online community builders, introduced us to the tools and techniques we’d need to create compelling propositions using various online discussion platforms. We thought that if we built it, and built it right, they would come. Of course, they often did – in droves. And that’s when the headaches of building and supporting expensive registration systems, content management systems, discussion platforms, exponentially growing bandwidth needs, the cost of moderation and hands on discussion hosting, etc etc all began to cause people to question the validity of the theory that all good web businesses – all business everywhere if you were a follower of the ClueTrain – needed a healthy community of users. So did it work? I’ve been thinking about this for some time and I actually have a difficult time thinking of any large online community that functions as a single, identifiable community. The "other users who bought that also bought this…" recommendation features on Amazon or the iTunes store isn’t community. It’s data on user preferences being used to make it easier for other users to navigate the online store. Reviews about products aren’t community either, they’re reviews. There are, of course, dozens and dozens of successful "social networking" sites: myspace, bebo, blogger, classmates.com, friendsreunited, match.com, etc etc.  A few years ago, the big buzz was around other social networking sites, like Orkut, Ryze, linked-in and meet-up. Remember them? Those of us who work in what was the online community industry used to talk about the need for empowering the user communities to take on some of the important decisions and management issues. But, when we did, it often led to the community taking on a life of it’s own and this often times made the existence of the community worth less, or nothing at all, to the company behind setting it up. Users visiting became parasites, sucking up bandwidth, moderation costs, technical time and potentially even legal resources – and gave little, if anything, back. Part of that, of course, was down to the industry not being clear enough about what the purpose of these communities was. If we wanted users to help us improve products and services we should have told them this up-front, and made it easy for them to provide feedback on products on services. If we simply wanted them to visit more often so we could sell them more stuff, then we should have, and some sites did, build in powerful features that used the community to help it’s members find the products they want. [I think Last.fm is an interesting current model for this – songs a user is listening to automatically appear in their profile, other users can visit, they can become friends, and in the meantime they might end up suggesting music for the other user to buy.] Part of the problem was also that, in trying to build up big communities, we were trying to be something for everyone which we all know isn’t a very successful formula for just about anything other than Walmart. In trying to attract anyone and everyone, we failed to create a strong editorial proposition and ignored the small niche communities that developed in the shadows to focus upon the masses. It sort of reminds me of one of these chain bars like Wetherspoons or Yate’s which appeal to the masses but often fail to gain a group of regular customers (don’t just take my word on this). Little neighbourhood pubs tend to have the opposite problem where they have a small core of often ageing customers and have a difficult time getting new visitors. But they do build a strong community, even if it is one that’s limited in size, and although they aren’t likely to bring in hundreds of thousands of pounds a year, the owner and/or landlord can carve out a decent living from their takings. I’ve spent a lot of time in bars and pubs of both types over the years. In that time, I’ve often seen scuffles or even full-on brawls in chain bars but have yet to see one in a neighbourhood pub. Part of that is down to sheer numbers, but it’s undeniable that, by appealing to a wide cross section of society yet failing to create any sense of community or group or regulars, chain bars give their visitors little incentive to behave themselves after a few too many drinks. Most people don’t, however, mis-behave in their neighbourhood local because they know they’ll have to face the landlord, barstaff and other pub-goers again and that they’re antics could be the talk of the pub community for some time. So what does all this have to do with social networking sites? Neighbourhood pubs have a strong sense of community because they are rooted at the heart of the community, both physically and socially. Vast chain bars, most often found in anonymous cookie cutter city centres, often find that after a short period in...

walk the walk

By on Jul 31, 2006 in BBC, conferences/events | 2 comments

At the end of last week, I found myself running another half day editorial workshop for people who are or will soon be writing or managing a BBC blog as part of our currently trial. This time I was helped out by Chris Valance from BBC 5Live’s Pods and Blogs who, like the BBC World Service’s Kevin Anderson, gave a presentation on how to find good blogs and podcasts (why? remember the three c’s?). Anyway, the main message of the session was that blogging is more than just the use of a blogging platform as a content management system. It’s also a technique – the main aspect of which is linking out and engaging with "the conversation". I’m not at liberty to go into any more detail than that about the actual session but standing up in front of an audience demonstrating some of the techniques used by bloggers, I suddenly realised that I too could make much better use of some of the tools available to me. So here are a few things I intend to do, all of which I think will benefit me as a blogger and you as a reader: try to add more links within my posts so that readers who want to find out more can find what they’re looking for – I think this post on noodlepie is a great example of what I’m hoping to do more of try to make better use of del.icio.us and maybe embed my tag cloud here so that I can share those links make better use of RSS – I’ve always used Safari’s built in reader at home and have now signed up for bloglines and I hope to share my feeds once I’ve added them all So over to you – is there anything else you’d like to see me change or improve here at...

almost free international calls (and other tips)

By on Jul 28, 2006 in Uncategorized |

I’ve recently been looking into how to cut the costs of the various services I subscribe to: 4 megabyte broadband, hotbird satellite with channel package, mobile phone with data add-on, international calls from said mobile and landline (yes, I know about skype but it’s just really inconvenient sometimes!) as well as utilities that I can shop around for like gas and electric. So what have I found? Well, most of the goodies come from Martin Lewis, the guy who has a column on the back page of the Guardian Money supplement on Saturdays. The best find is cheap, I mean really really cheap (half a pence in some cases) international phone calls courtesy of the International Call Finder I know it sounds a bit like an ad but I haven’t been paid or in any way asked to blog this, nor have I been given any free services – it’s just a good...

social bookmarking sites compared

By on Jul 26, 2006 in social software | 1 comment

Del.icio.us, diggtailrank, furl, reddit, shoutwire and other “link aggregators” and “social bookmarking” services have been compared by Lycos Webmonkey. Never heard of any of them? It’s time to try. The results? Lycos reckons that shoutwire, which I’d never heard of, has the “highest quality” of links and wins kudos for having “mixed” content rather than the usual web, social software, and design focus of similar services. I had a quick look and although it looks very similar to digg, it does indeed seem to be a lot less geek heavy. For comparison, to the left I’ve provided a screenshot of the front page of BBC News Online, taken at the same time as I was writing this post. Digg’s current top stories are Would You Volunteer to Be Implanted with a Microchip? and The Origin of Ctrl-Alt -Delete Shoutwire’s top stories, at the time of writing, are Fascism, American Style and Protecting Torture: The Red Cross’ Deadly Silence. Third is Israeli Cluster Munitions Hit Civilians in Lebanon. Different links for different folks, of...

us military wants you as it’s myspace friend

By on Jul 26, 2006 in online community, social software |

MTV news (yes, there is such a thing) reports that having a myspace profile is the latest recruitment method deployed by the US Marines in a bid to counter the declining numbers of new recruits. Five months after its launch, the Marines have begun to see some solid results from their MySpace profile page, which, unlike the thousands of ones set up by bands that blast you with their music, opens with a video of Marine drill sergeants shouting orders at boot-camp recruits, who recite their credo while running through obstacle courses, shooting guns and practicing hand-to-hand combat amid images of waving American flags… since it’s launch, the Marines profile has gotten 500 responses (meaning someone clicked over to the Marines.com page), with 200 panning out as "leads", or someone who is the right age and physically, mentally and educationally qualified for the service. And you thought myspace was dangerous before!...