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.
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.
- 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.
- They’re derivative, as portals themselves are. Why should your members participate in your Limp Bizkit “board” rather than any of the others?
- 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.
- 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).
- No one has perfected the interface yet; Web-based “boards” are so numerous and complicated that entire guides have sprung up to make sense of the chaos.
- Moderation of Web postings is a slippery slope. If any moderation is justified at all (a questionable premise), we believe the only messages worth acting on are those that personally harass or insult; any degree of ferocity in discussion of an issue should be permitted, as should every conceivable issue, from baking cookies to abortion to Holocaust denial.
- Generally, moderating Web discussions is labour-intensive and contrary to the egalitarianism of the net. Further, if you begin editing postings, you cease to act as a common carrier and could be much more liable to legal action. (National laws vary, of course.)
- The history of the Web is replete with the pitfalls of moderated discussions. AOL is particularly notorious: Everyone mentions the early banning of any forum and deletion of any post that used the word breast, which caught “innocent” breast-cancer discussions in its driftnet, but few are those who remember the service’s determined, knowing anti-gay pogroms in its early years. (Discussion boards should be neither pro- nor anti-anything. They should simply permit discussion, full stop.)
- 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?
- Target intermediate users. You’re wasting your time trying to be “the Internet portal for everybody.” It’s deeply condescending and misguided, and the territory has been picked clean over and over and over again – by AOL, by Microsoft (quick – explain the difference between Internet Explorer and MSN Explorer), by the AltaVista/Excite stratum of failed Yahoo manqués. No one’s paying attention to people who’ve been online a while already and are serious and halfway knowledgeable about the net. Anyone with a high-speed home connection falls into that category, for example. (And the way to serve those people is not to stuff multimedia down the pipe.)
- Accept that people don’t know where to go, and that search engines aren’t solving that problem.
- Accept the seemingly contadictory fact that intermediate users already have a list of favourite sites. (Ever heard of bookmarks?)
We’ve got a simple solution to the problem: Blogger.
- Encourage your members to start their own Weblogs. The old model of Tripod or Geocities free homepages is too limited: It assumes you have a single topic you want to cover. You need to know HTML, or have to put up with the invariably tacky ready-made site templates. Weblogs, though they cluster into list-of-links and daily-journal variations, can actually cover any topic or mix of topics, and are the best format yet devised to encourage people to express the complexity of their actual lives.
- Group those Weblogs together. You’re already doing that by focusing on your service’s users. It’s being done on the national level already – see the list of local Weblogs on the Xenoblogs page.
- Weblogs distribute the task of digging up links over hundreds or thousands of minds and satisfy the need to understand other people’s personalities and tastes. If you think “community” means “grouping together people with similar interests,” you must have a rather monochromatic set of friends. Community emerges from interests that overlap and diverge.
- Market those Webloggers as WebScouts. “Wondering where to go? Trying to find the most interesting nuggets in the vast Internet? Have a look at what your fellow [service name] members are reading these days.” Or: “Our WebScouts find the sites you didn’t know you couldn’t live without.”
- On your homepage, run a meta-Weblog that summarizes and ranks your users’ own blogs. That gives the true neophytes a place to start.
- To distance your Weblog service from the low-rent Tripod/Geocities stigma, hire real Web designers to produce dozens of truly impressive templates to which your members have exclusive access. (Pay the designers per-download royalties.) A good-looking ready-made design coupled with easy-to-use blogging software is a recipe for success.
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