About the same time the portal model was all the rage – following the twilight of “push” – was an obsession with online community building. Having tried, and failed, to launch a company based on niche communities, but having put in a full decade of community development with Reel-Time, I wonder where the passion has gone.
If one accepts the definition of Web 2.0 as one of personal syndication and aggregation – using feeds to construct connections and building one’s own network of content and contacts – then where is the model for communities?
Communities are defined by their technology – for the most part threaded discussions built on top of PHP systems such as vBulletin and UltimateBB. The community developer creates a taxonomy of subjects and the users register and post in a thread, response structure. Moderators keep the flamers and spammers at bay, power users are promoted to exalted status where they can also moderate, and the page views begin to flow. Push and notification can occur in most systems via email notification, but for the most part, in my experience, that facility is ignored. Private message systems within the walls of the community are available, and used, again to a limited extent. Anonymity is permitted to the degree that users can post under a handle (with authentication of their identity usually occurring via emailed passwords and IP lookup) and the registered member-to-lurker ratio generally remains at 1 to 4.
Real-time interaction via chat is limited and doesn’t seem to hold much potential as communities work best when they time-shift. A quick ping and instant message – such as that permitted on the WELL of old – is convenient but not necessary.
Blogs have exploded the central model of a hosted community by spinning off the more prolific posters into their own domain, with the host moderating comments and constraining the give and take. A blog visitor cannot – usually – post their own comment, but must wait for approval before their remarks can be footnoted to the blogger’s main post. Blogs are very “egotistical” communities at best. The Blogger dominates, the audience is comprised of spectators raising their hands in the audience. Reel-Time has initiated a community of blogs, extending WordPress installations to a few beta testers. Mark Cahill, our editor, has built a central facility to aggregate recent postings and present them on R-T’s homepage, obviating the need for an RSS newsreader.
As we roll out the network of blogs a few concerns arise – one is the potential damage it will do to the traditional vBulletin system, which is very robust with over 8,000 registered users and as many as 800 concurrent registered users and lurkers. Our fear is that by opening a second medium for the “better” posters and giving them their own space to play with, we’ll remove the most valuable asset of the general community. Making them coexist will be a challenge.
One path we may follow is to restrict the granting of blogs (we’re calling them Flogs – for “Fishing Logs, R-T is about saltwater fly fishing) to “celebrity” bloggers – authors and experts within the niche who can bring some pre-existing credibility and gravitas to their writing. Other issues — such as moderating the blogs should someone decide to do something truly heinous — is a concern that will raise its head over time. We have developed a terms of service agreement that tries to distance ourselves from the Blogger content – we don’t want to be held liable for any libel – and which gives us the right to shut them off if we so please.
As we try to create a meta-community around the concept of blogs linked by a common passion, I can’t help but feel we’re missing something, that the fluidity of the conversation we’ve seen over the last decade in the traditional community will be lost as it fragments into islands of ego.