Web Communities and the Art of Making Money

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4. Corporate Bulletin Boards: Soulless or Fiesty?

By Robert Nagle
Summary: Part 4 looks at corporate bulletin boards. Do they really offer opportunities for a web community to form?

So far I've neglected to mention another kind of web community frequently overlooked: the web community for a specific product or service. This kind of community serves the purpose of reducing customers' need for tech support and documenting ongoing issues. They are relatively easy to set up and many attract a core group of users. For a while, I was researching information about an asus motherboard and found the discussions fascinating. It's hard to imagine a community growing around a motherboard newsgroup or a car bulletin board, but that is what ends up happening. The company doesn't make money off these bulletin boards, but the cost savings from fewer support calls can be significant (See Derek Powazek's article "User to User Support" ) . More importantly, bulletin board captures discontent from consumers about a product and workarounds for problems. Indeed, many small software projects use bulletin boards as the primary means of documenting use and gathering feedback.

Amazon's posting system is the most brilliant example of a corporate board. Posters can have "home pages" "wish lists" "favorite people" and the ability to post reviews, recommended reading lists and even articles. One almost forgets while submitting a comment that one is fact contributing free content to a company that will use it to sell products. Amazon's liberal policy about posting might potentially jeopardize sales on poorly reviewed products, but it also brings more traffic. Because negative posts tend to include recommendations for other books, Amazon has adopted a hands-off policy. Other corporate sites may police their virtual space more vigorously. They can prescreen comments, make posts invisible to other people or retire comments after a certain time. Because companies are running these community boards out of self-interest, individuals don't expect complete freedom of expression. On the other hand, individuals expect to be told the truth, and if it appears that the company is withholding information or avoiding something, the community can easily move to an unofficial site.

Just as citizenx awards the status of citizenship to good citizens, Amazon has a list of Top 1000 posters and yahoo bulletin boards have volunteer "experts" to help the clueless. It's tempting to dismiss these corporate web communities as marketing entities built solely to reduce the cost of supporting customers, but that is missing the point. In a consumerist world, people shape and even validate their identities through the products they choose. Coke or Dr. Pepper. Toyota or Lexus. Britney Spears or P.J. Harvey. Linux or Microsoft. Perhaps people who patronize these products are merely buying into the subjective qualities associated with the ads they see on television. But when they gather online to rave or whine or complain or obsess over these same consumer products, it is clear that they have transcended corporate ad campaigns and found in these corporate communities a way to express their sense of identity. If consumers could demonstrate the degree of passion for leaders and political ideas as they do for their music groups and car brands, our political system might never be the same.

NEXT: 5. Where are the 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
  • Posting on corporate bulletin boards offers some advantages. Amazingly enough, my Amazon About You page shows up more prominently on google than my personal stuff. While I suppose I should be lamenting the dominance of corporate interests in the web, actually I'm happy to take advantage of Amazon's search optimizations. Just be sure to back up those book reviews!