Community is the hard part

by Mathew on May 15, 2007 · 5 comments

I know this is kind of a stretch, but stay with me while I try to pull a couple of threads together from things that are going on right now: We’ve got the launch of Truemors, the Digg-style rumour site that Guy Kawasaki set up — which seems to have been over-run with spam and the equivalent of graffiti (what Second Lifers call “griefing”), and may be burying critical posts.

social.jpgThen there’s MySpace News, which some argue is a ghost town, and others say merely needs some work. And there’s Newsvine, which some argue isn’t as successful as it could be (and I would agree). And finally, there is the sad tale of how Derek Powazek and his wife were pushed out of the wonderful photo community/magazine they founded called JPG. What do all of these have in common? Community. I know that’s an overused word, but I think it is the key to the success or failure of virtually every online venture that tries to get “users” involved in some way.

Why isn’t MySpace News taking off? Because as Tony Hung suggests, it either isn’t appealing to the community or it isn’t making it easy for them to use it. Why isn’t Newsvine as successful as it could be? In part because the community isn’t as big a part of the picture as it should be. What is the secret to Digg’s success, and the thing that Truemors needs to find? A community. And what could kill JPG magazine? The loss of a loyal community.

It’s not enough to set up a cool site and say “Hey — look at my cool site! Come on over and form a community!” And it’s not enough to start with a community based around other things, such as MySpace, and then bolt on some other function and expect them to take to it immediately. It doesn’t work that way. And yes, there has to be moderation of some kind, but that path is pretty rocky too, as Digg has found out.

Facebook is (at least so far) a good example of a site that had a community, nurtured that community and may have some success in expanding into other things — but it is not easy. Far from it, as this essay by Cory Doctorow explains. In fact, it just might be the hardest thing of all. And I just came across a great post on how to manage a community by Matt Haughey, who runs one of the best there is: Metafilter (hat tip to Kottke for the link).

  • http://engtech.wordpress.com/ engtech

    I’m excited about avanoo.com

    I got in the beta today, and I like what they’re doing over there. Something different than other social sites.

  • http://drumsnwhistles.com/ Karoli

    I am shocked about JPG mag. I’ve submitted for the last three issues (none accepted, but still fun), and the motivation for doing so was knowing that Heather was involved. This news is most unwelcome.

    I don’t see community as being at the heart of the JPG coup, but certainly the Digg debacle and Newsvine’s lackluster participation level has community at the heart of it.

    I’ve participated in both of these communities. Digg’s community is so far out of control that I doubt it can be reined in at this point. Community is usually a mirror of its leadership and Digg is no exception. Kevin Rose has made a point out of capitalizing on his “power to the people and pirates” hacker image, and the Digg community mirrors that.

    Newsvine, on the other hand, had more of a problem with how the site itself worked than the community as a whole. When Newsvine first launched, it seemed to want submissions of MSM stories and was aiming at aggregating them. Submissions of user-generated content never seemed to climb beyond that user’s page, and the site itself was very difficult to navigate.

    Since part of my “real life” job involves online communities, I tend to try everything and see what sticks. In Digg’s case, the fundamental concept is great, but the community is large and unruly. In Newsvine’s case, there is some great potential for community-building but they need people to do it.

    Communities don’t grow themselves — they need people committed to them to grow. This is what Heather Champ does so well at Flickr, and what she was trying to foster at JPG.

  • http://drumsnwhistles.com/ Karoli

    Ummm, and add a big DUH to my comment above. It always pays to read all links before finishing comment. I get where you were correlating community to the JPG issues now. I’ve posted my response on Flickr and my own blog.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Right, right … an under-told aspect of the Digg story is that Kevin Rose was a minor tech celebrity, and so brought his *audience* – not “community”, *audience* – to the site.

    It can’t be easy by definition – if the audience is one place, it can’t be in another place (to a good approximation). Add in network effect (people being where others are), and the outcome is a very few big winner-take-all results. But hey, maybe the venture capitalists get pleasure from the act of spending money itself, maybe they’re doing it for the joy and happiness of being in business (to be clear, this is riffing off what Z-listers get told when they point out how the blog game is rigged).

  • john

    Some good points in the comments,

    Seth, like Digg, I see both Guy’s and Seth Godin’s recent projects starting off with a built in audience.

    However, there are other communities such as Piczo (and yes facebook) that’s growing by building a community.

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