We’re kind of anti-portal, as described in a laparoscopic-surgery level of detail earlier. We still talk to portal managers who are in a big rush to develop community. “Community development,” they call it, unsurprisingly.

Big surprise, kids: You cannot “develop” community. It isn’t like planting tomatoes. At best it is like tilling the soil and hoping tomato seeds will happen along and germinate. This may be a rather stronger stance than Derek Powazek’s experience would support, but we are not Derek Powazek.

Idées fixes

Portalistas, mired as they are in yesterday’s thinking, see community as an inevitable outcome of providing “message boards” and “listserves” (sic). Install those services and “community” will follow. Well, gee. You’ve got dozens of people living around you in your apartment building. Are they all your friends?

(Some portalistas are foolish enough to add “instant messaging” to that list, though instant messaging is nearly always person-to-person, like a phone call.)

“Message boards” don’t cut the mustard for a few reasons that will be obvious to seasoned netters and completely invisible to portalistas and marketers who name-check that catchphrase but have never actually used them.

  1. They dilute discussion. If there are already five mailing lists on Limp Bizkit, adding another forum will not add to the number of voices. It will merely increase the chance that there won’t be a critical mass of readers to actually respond.
  2. They’re derivative, as portals themselves are. Why should your members participate in your Limp Bizkit “board” rather than any of the others?
  3. They’re undifferentiated, a corollary of the first two points. We can’t emphasize this enough: Feature parity does absolutely nothing for you anymore. Every third site on the net offers free E-mail, but how many people choose tiny sites’ free mail over Microsoft Hatemail or Yahoo? Feature parity is merely expected, but you cannot expect people to actually use the parity features.
  4. They’re technically complex. Keeping a particular discussion threaded and on-topic requires good software (for the threading) and some kind of moderation (for topicality).
  5. They’re passé, harkening back to Usenet days of yore, when everyone online had Usenet access (no longer true, as described here before). Early, widespread Usenet use established the idée fixe of “discussion fora.”

The Web is now too big to support the everyone-talking-at-once model of “message boards.” And ironically, the Web’s encouragement of topic specificity militates against widespread deployment of “boards.”

As for mailing lists: We love them to death, but consumer-level software of the eGroups/Topica variety is technically inferior to the king of the hill, Listserv. The ease of setting up a mailing list is more than outweighed by the fact that the people who set them up – it is unfair to stereotype them as AOL-calibre twits, but we’ll do it anyway – know nothing about mailing-list etiquette, let alone how to handle the crises that inevitably develop on lists.

And besides, Microsoft has single-handedly destroyed mailing lists by two defaults in its Outlook mailer software: HTML and append-entire-preceding-message, both of which royally gum up the works. (AOL ranks a close second, now that version 6.0 cannot send a plain-text message at all.)

A possible answer

Let’s run a hypothetical test case. Say you’re starting up a new portal site. You have a few thousand users already – from, say, your existing ISP business. If you’re determined to “develop community,” why not try something different – something that acknowledges present-day reality rather than rehashing a 1995-era Web?

Buy Bonds Blonds Blogger

We’ve got a simple solution to the problem: Blogger.

What happens under this scenario? Your users get to know each other’s likes and dislikes. Rather like communication through the now-outdated medium of the compilation music cassette, readers come to understand fellow members’ personalities through their daily-journal entries and the sites they link to.

It’s Blogging 101, this. Not rocket science. The rocket-science part is grouping everyone together under the big tent of your own “portal” service. (Another word to the wise: Hold parties and soirées in cities with major or even minor groups of members, but ixnay the loud music. People require f2f, RL interaction.)

For this to work properly, you need exclusive access. Under this scenario, a smart operator either buys Blogger outright, or buys a big chunk that guarantees them exclusivity – exclusive general-interest portal, exclusive Australian portal, exclusive German-language portal.

The kids down at Pyra, fresh off their star turn in the 2000.11.13 issue of the New Yorker (samizdat version), can start a new product line: CommuniBlogger™.

There. We’ve just given away a million-dollar idea, or at least a C$65,000-a-year idea. Go nuts with it.

Posted on 2000-11-13