I recently wrote that the argument over the viability of Web 2.0 applications misses the point -- most of the applications on any new computing platform die. What matters are the innovations and new business models that we learn from them.
One of the things we're clearly learning about from Web 2.0 is how to organize an online community.
There have been obsessive communities in society for thousands of years: dog breeders, fraternal societies, Amiga users, and so on. What the Web has done is make it much easier for those people to find each other and hang out together. Although most people will tell you that a good online community is motivated by passion or enthusiasm, I think it runs a little deeper than that. The best Web communities are about shared obsession. They're run by people who share the community's obsessions and celebrate them together.
Ted Rheingold, founder of dogster.com and catster.com, is one of the best explainers of the whole online community phenomenon. If you get a chance to see him talk, don't miss it (you can listen to an MP3 of one of his speeches here). He gives a lot of sensible rules on how to manage an online community, the most important of which (in my opinion) is to let the users lead, but always moderate the community to weed out antisocial people. If you want to see a great example of his philosophy at work, look at the company weblog to see how the obsession with pets permeates everything the company does.
Because community members are self-motivated, it's possible for groups to exist online solely through volunteer effort. The work they can do together is often very impressive. One example I've mentioned before is that a volunteer group called the Pacific Bulb Society is gradually using a wiki to create a very comprehensive reference work on species flower bulbs. (Yes, it's esoteric, but remember what I said about shared obsessions.)
Although volunteers are great, a community can do a lot more if there are full-time people working on it, and that means forming a company and bringing in revenue. Many online communities charge money for special services, but advertising can also play an important role because for almost every community there's usually a company that wants to market to them. This is another area where the Web 2.0 companies are learning a lot. The original assumption was that it'd be easy to advertise on a community site -- just put up a banner offering a product that's relevant to the community. As Rheingold points out, that doesn't work well. People reading a community site aren't there to buy something, they're there to hang out with people who share their interests. The advertising that works best on a community site is subtle brand building tailored to the community's interests, rather than traditional offers. Basically, the advertiser needs to join the community. Because of this, Rheingold strongly urges community sites to develop their own ad sales teams, rather than working through an ad sales syndicate, because a syndicate can't fully represent the community to the advertiser.
Communities don't have to be built around a particular subject, like cars or computers. Any shared enthusiasm, emotion, or identity can be the basis of a community if it bonds people together and gives them something to talk about. For example, one frequently cited community is the photo site Cute Overload (#114 on Technorati). The obsession that ties those people together is their shared love of fuzzy animals that have pudgy faces.
Another popular site that's intended to be a community is Digg. That came as a surprise to me, because I thought of it as a collaborative news filter, a kind of group effort to replace the New York Times. (At least, that's what some folks said online, producing quite an argument at the time.)
But despite the posturing, the New York Times and Digg are doing entirely different things. The Times is hoping to be the dominant online news source in the US, funded by advertising and supplemented by fees for access to the archives, columnists, and whatever other souvenirs they can sell you. The Times says its online revenues have been growing, and publisher Arthur Sulzberger has taken to saying grandiose things about the website totally replacing the print edition: "I really don't know whether we'll be printing the Times in five years, and you know what? I don't care either."
Digg, meanwhile, is a leader in a category called "social media," with an emphasis on the word social. It's really a community site, explains founder Kevin Rose. He says his long-term intent is to use Digg's user ratings of news stories and other web content to assemble communities of people who have similar interests. Digg's system for commenting is also intended to help build the community feel. He says one of his favorite features is the ability for users to rate each-others' comments. That reinforces the community dynamic; and besides, Rose says, it's fun to use. He likes to peek at comments that have been buried by the community, just to see if he agrees.
So the news is just a vehicle for Digg to assemble communities.
True community is almost impossible to fake, because obsessive people can instantly spot anyone who's not also obsessed. If your company is setting up a community website, make sure the people running it are as obsessive as the visitors you're recruiting, or the site won't work. In fact, all it will do is make you look bad.
One area where we still have a lot of learning to do is the role of communities in the mobile world. The mobile industry is very enthusiastic (you might say obsessive) about moving online communities onto mobile devices. I think that's going to be a lot trickier than it sounds. The assumption made by the mobile industry is that since community members are obsessed, they will want to carry their obsession with them at all times. But check out one of the community sites, and look at all the features that make the community work. Let's jump back to Dogster for an example. Here's their home page:
Ladies and gentlemen, that is one of the ugliest home pages on the web, and it's packed with about ten times more links than Web design principles say you should ever put on a single page. That's entirely deliberate; the site is laid out like a giant box of Valentine candies, so you can't resist trying at least one link.
How in the world are you going to deploy that on a mobile device?
You'll redesign the page. You'll remove some features, and most of the pictures. You'll make the type bigger and you'll put the most popular features up front. In other words, you'll display Dogster Lite on the phone. And that changes the user dynamic. Now instead of visiting Dogster, they're visiting a limited subset of the site. The opportunities to disappoint people are enormous.
I'm not saying a mobile version of a web community can't succeed; I'm sure a lot of them will. But it won't be easy, and it won't be straightforward.
I've been at some telecom conferences where speakers said the operators had an opportunity to create and lead new communities on the mobile Web. That's twisted thinking in two ways. The first is that communities are led by people who share obsessions with their visitors. Unless the operators are forming communities on cell tower placement and the details of FCC regulatory compliance, I don't think they are well suited to lead user communities.
Second, there is already a huge supply of vibrant communities online. It's far too late to displace them. I'm sure there will be some new communities created that take special advantage of mobility, but for the most part the challenge for the operators is not creating new communities, it's inviting the current communities in. That means giving them the opportunity to run experiments in how to format their sites for mobile, and letting them lead the resulting communities. In other words, the operators need to establish an open garden for communities, and we all know what an uncomfortable issue that is.
Finally, there's the question of revenue. The whole reason the operators want mobile data is to increase their billings. But most online communities are very low-revenue, if they bring in any money at all. There isn't a big revenue stream for the operators to tap into. They can certainly use online communities to increase the amount of traffic on their networks, but with more and more operators moving to flat pricing for mobile data, increasing traffic isn't necessarily a goal.
Unless the industry is careful, the operators could end up with a situation similar to what happened with cameraphones -- the users like the feature, but it doesn't actually generate a lot of revenue.
Next time: How the Web spawns new forms of media.