Lessons of Community for Web 2.0

What can we learn from the drivers that compelled people to create community over the generations? As I’ve been deeper in to community building over the past few months — and been thinking about how past bulletin board, forum and now social Web software are attempts to connect people regardless of geography and build true communities of people who share affinities — I’m discovering lessons that have been learned many times before and mentally applying them to today’s internet.

Let’s take the Old West as an example since I love the desert and often have wondered what compelled people to scratch out a living in rocks and dirt while simultaneously successfully building communities. When people discovered an area that made them decide to put down roots (even temporary ones), they needed a support infrastructure. When enough people in the surrounding area could support them, churches, stores, brothels, saloons, a blacksmith, a newspaper, a sheriff and many other businesses sprung up to take advantage of the needs and opportunity that now existed.

So what is compelling people to cluster on the internet? Part of the answer is obvious (because we now can), but what is the secret sauce that gets people in a frame of mind to invest energy, effort and resources in online communities?

Did you know there are over 1,717 message boards and countless community sites on the ‘net today and many of them have been around for years? What is driving people, for example, to spend time at Beepworld, Jolt or Lay It Low? Wonder how many of them are the ghost towns of tomorrow?

Over the weekend I came across Big-Boards. “BigBoards tracks the most active message boards and forums on the web. We currently have
1,717 message boards in our database!

Hmmm….makes you stop and think about the relative handful of Web 2.0 offerings and how many people are actually using them, doesn’t it? I have become enamored with one Web 2.0 offering, CollectiveX, whose intent seems to replace message boards/forums with a Web offering that allows groups created to interconnect. To me, the functionality is only fractionally as powerful as forum software and is expensive in comparison.

So what is it about boards that is so compelling?

There are popup menus on Big Boards that allow you to slice-n-dice the data so you can get a sense of the types of communities built on forum software. Take just the top ‘number of members’ ranked board on Big Boards, deviantART, who enjoys over 5 million of them and 5M posts (that’s their main site link…their board is  here). It’s not what the name seems to indicate (criminals or art hackers), but rather it’s really more about the spirit of art and the community surrounding it and what they might need: art is a reflection of a different view, perspective and attitude and deviantART seems to be nourishing it and providing the community with what it needs. (Note: according to this article on Wikipedia, the number of members is 2 million).

Damn…5 2 million members. Not quite a 68M MySpace, but not bad (though I ‘belong’ to a number of communities which I never go to anymore and bet I’m still counted as a member). Another top ranked board, Gaia Online (people who love anime) boasts 3.6M members and has nearly 600M posts…which makes deviantArt’s 5M members suspect or their members don’t engage in the forum to the same extent as do fans of anime.

Forums like this exist since they’re meeting the needs of the community. I don’t know the answer, but I’ll bet deviantArt started

As I live within and embrace the social software, forum and network-effect-driven internet, I think about how we all can apply many of the lessons learned by traditional (i.e., meatspace) community building. Understanding the motivations that brought people to a place — and why others followed to support them and grab the ensuing opportunity — can help guide us as we build the next generation internet. For example,

  • Would a town exist with just a town hall for meetings? No…so why should a true online community only have a forum like vBulletin, phpBB or SMF? A community will look to meet its needs within the community or outside of it…but they WILL get their needs met. If you’re providing a hub for community, look at what people might need and anticipate it.
  • Doesn’t the community need news? Yes…and the capability now exists to aggregate community-relevant news *and* engage the community to both unconsciously (through promoting articles through reading them ala Digg). I’ve grown to love the Newsvine model which incents people to “seed Newsvine” with a link in their browser bar so they can seed articles from all over the ‘net. Also, the incentives are in place for people to embrace being a ‘columnist’ and seed, create abstracts and add value to the point their star rises on Newsvine and they become a “top columnist”
  • Don’t natural leaders emerge in a community? There seems to be a number of leading edge people in social software that seem to believe that blogging, social offerings and other peer to peer methods of interaction don’t need categorization, editing, structure or governance of any kind….but rather believe that “the community will self-govern”. I beg to differ. Not everyone is as informed, educated about a topic or even interested in leading. Some just want to go to the mine, come home, and have essential services taken care of for them
  • Isn’t the whole point of community being one that all work for the common good? Even if their participation is limited to paying taxes, people still care about cleanliness, infrastructure, beauty, safety, security and all the other things that give existing in a community meaning.

People within any community need nourishment, meaning and fulfillment and more people are searching for it than ever before. It’s easy to just focus on delivering technical functionality to give people so they’ll figure out what to do with it themselves (much of the thrust of alot of Web 2.0 startups it seems), or toss stuff in to an electronic catalog to buy, or work to get a sense who is in the community (or quantitatively measuring their online habits) and then bombard them with ads instead of doing so with thought, elegance and personalized value. There has to be something more.

Those who flocked to mining towns in the West abandoned them when the silver or other ore ran out. If the railroad was built and bypassed a community people left. If opportunity was greater somewhere else than their old towns waned and others exploded. Towns survived only when a core group would remain, invest, and commit to keeping the town vibrant, alive and growing.

What will compel people to come to your community, put down roots and become a participatory member of the community? What will it take to find that core group, give them incentives and ensure that you survive and thrive? Finding that something more — the essence of the meaning of your community — is a challenge that all of us in technology share and will be THE competitive differentiator that dictates whether you’ll grow or be a ghost town.

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About Steve Borsch

Strategist. Learner. Idea Guy. Salesman. Connector of Dots. Friend. Husband & Dad. CEO. Janitor. More here.

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