Web Communities and the Art of Making Money

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1. Introduction: Sulekha and Communities

By Robert Nagle, June 2002
Summary: Part 1 looks at a curious job posting on Sulekha. Is this job description impossible?

Sulekha and the Impossible Job

Yesterday I started a cover letter for an interesting job at Suhelka, the job of Director of Content and Community Development. Sulekha is an amazing Indian content site located in Austin, the city where I live, and the job is interesting and challenging. The person filling this position would not only create online interactions for site visitors, he would be responsible for setting membership goals and creating ways for the site to make a profit.

That's the challenge. Isn't everyone else trying to do the same thing? The great thing Sulekha has done is to create a global brand (Indian culture) and then create local versions of this brand. Underneath the main sulekha.com site, individuals can visit their own cities and see local content, including quite a few articles created by local people. It includes personals, discounts on cultural events (albeit expensive ones!) listings of ethnic restaurants and grocery stores.

Out of all the web community sites I've seen, this ranks as one of the best. It combines fascinating articles with localization. But what is the revenue model here? I'm not talking only about Sulekha, but web communities in general. And what makes a web community succeed?

Web Communities v. Media

First, it's necessary to differentiate between "web community sites" and "media sites." A media site provides original content (and perhaps syndication), while a web community site provides a virtual place for people to discuss, congregate and exchange ideas. A good site probably incorporates both elements, but it's important to make the point that a web community site does not necessarily offer original content from staff writers or the site's owners. That's because site visitors will contribute their own content and comment on the posts of others. Slashdot, a famous geek site, is inundated with over a hundred articles daily, and readers have the opportunity to respond. The comments are the content. Without this ability to add comments, Slashdot would not be able to attract so many visitors (Slashdot currently attracts over 40 million page views a month ).

Traditional media have resisted the "community weblog" format for several reasons. First, it blurs the distinction between original content commissioned by the media site and original content added by viewers. If a discussion board reader decides that poster John Q. Public makes just as many cogent remarks about international diplomacy as New York Times reporter Thomas Friedman, then why does he need to read the Times? Second, traditional media's biggest draw is its credibility. One trusts the New York Times because it is the New York Times. A reader of an article on that site can feel relatively confident that the reporting is correct and verifiable and that the New York Times would defend a story in court. To use a "community weblog" format waters down this credibility by showing that one reporter's account of a story may be open to interpretation.

It's not necessary to have a philosophic debate on the nature of truth and web journalism. But I have started to notice the ways that web communities and media sites have already started to resemble one another. Slashdot does in fact feature original columns occasionally (John Katz seems to be the most highly regarded), and the New York Times allows limited discussion of the day's topics in their forums. When we talk about "web community" sites, we may or may not be talking about sites with original content. But both "genres" of websites face similar challenges and business strategies.

NEXT: 2. Business Models for Web Communities

Robert Nagle is an available Texas writer who has written essays about Kafka and Eastern Europe. He maintains a technology weblog and an Asian Culture Weblog.


Additional Resources
  • Derek Powazek's book, Design for Community gives a great introduction to building web communities. It includes interviews with several notable founders of web communities. You can find generous excerpts of the book at the site of the same name.
  • Matt Haughey, founder of Metafilter, has also written an excellent piece about how he built a web community at Metafilter. The one thing that neither Powazek or Haughey has addressed is the money question, perhaps because of their idealistic tendencies.