Web Communities and the Art of Making Money

Get monthly email update!

5. Where are All the Web Communities?

By Robert Nagle
Summary: Part 5 asks whether web communities are thriving. Why or why not?

Up to now, we have looked at the various ways in which web communities can make money or at least break even. But where are these web communities, and do they even exist at the local level? I live in Austin, probably one of the most wired cities in America, and I am sorry to report that I find little in the way of viable web communities. I can find pages with links to local groups (and those are certainly more important than anything virtual). Also, I can find a variety of mailing lists related to clubs, singers, organizations. And I have found city-specific chat rooms with msn, aol and yahoo. But mailing lists are (usually) ways to keep in touch with 20 or so people, and chats allow you to meet strangers and have illiterate conversations with them. Would anyone really call this a community?

A city has sufficient numbers of web communities if it easy to find someone with similar interests or hobbies online. But how would one find people with similar interests in Austin? The most widely read site is run by the city newspaper , and although I don't object to judicious amounts of ads, the site seems less like a community than a well-organized yellow pages with search capabilities. The reader would never be tempted to contribute input or to communicate with other Austin people. One goes to that site to be told what is the news, what is important and what is happening.

The other Austin site is digital city , a localized website run by AOL. Although it links to chat rooms and personals for AOL members, the site is curiously devoid of any personality. Indeed, one cannot help thinking that the sole purpose of the site is not to promote community but shopping. Many of the paragraph articles read more than ads than anything else.

On the other end we have the spam-infested newsgroups, easily searchable on googlegroups. I am a big fan of newsgroups, but the only time I tried to post something on an Austin newsgroup, several people responded with rude, even insulting language. So we have two extremes: the anarchy of newsgroups, and sites that seem more like disguised advertising than anything else.

The Sulekha model seems to be a hybrid on all the models presented here and the one most likely to succeed. When I look at Sulekha, I realize two things immediately: First, the Austin version of this site actually contains things about Austin by Austin people. It contains discussions, articles, schedules and classifieds. Second, looking at the home page, I realize immediately that submitting to this site would be easy. And it is encouraged! Sulekha balances advertising with content and community chat so one doesn't overshadow the other. While it's unlikely that Sulekha will ever take over America, it's clearly represents the future: open submission policies, promiscuous syndication of content, localized bulletin boards, event sponsorship and advertising closely aligned to the interest of readers.

With the rise of inexpensive content management systems and hosting services, more sites may emerge with fresh content and web communities. But until now I have seen only a handful, mainly for geeks and people with exotic interests. Web communities are still not popular and may never be. There are several reasons for this.

First, only a small percentage of people are comfortable with writing and posting their comments in a public place. There are technical and privacy issues involved, but I think it basically boils down to lack of motivation. People like to read things on the web, but publishing isn't that big a priority.

Second, size affects motivation. Larger sites usually have a great number of user contributions, but if it seems impersonal, it seems pointless to add one more post to the thousands. One could write dozens of post, and people would rarely respond, much less know who you are. On the flip side, if a community site lacks enough participation, a visitor is afraid to make the first post on the subject (the "first on the dance floor" effect). A web community depends on the reasonable certainty that another's contribution will be acknowledged without being singled out for ridicule.

Third, when presented with a choice, individuals will prefer dialogue with one or two strangers than a faceless crowd. Two people who chat feel relatively confident that whatever one says or writes will receive a response. With a public community, this is less clear. Pecking orders and favoritism will inevitably cause certain people to be overlooked or ignored.

Fourth, communities are likely to form on the basis of niche interests rather than general interests. That means that a person won't actively seek a literary web community. Instead, a person might find a good literary magazine site or a Shakespeare site, discover that he enjoys the mailing list or online postings, and then decide to follow it over time. Niche sites frequently transform into general interest sites as it gains a broader readership. Even Slashdot publishes cyberculture essays and movie reviews once in a while.

Two not-for-profit sites, metafilter and fray, have managed to attract a general following and even sponsor "parties" or fray days in various cities. These kinds of groups may be more the successful exceptions than the rule, but they indicate the devotion that members may have to a community. It also reflects a trend towards virtual contact turning into face-to-face contact. In this urban era where more people are bowling alone, attendance at arts events is steadily dropping and people are reluctant to speak to strangers on the sidewalk, this can only be an encouraging development. I have tried to sketch the ways in which web community sites can appease a company's customers or bring in advertising revenue or even a profit. Some believe that virtual communities have eroded today's communities and that they serve as poor substitutes for PTA's, bridge clubs and church groups. Perhaps there is some truth to this, but I see the problem as just the reverse. We have two few web communities out there, and individuals have been too willing to let major national media portals decide what a web community is capable of.

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
  • I lamented the lack of local web communities at my local linux group meeting only to hear this reply. One person remarked that communities form along special interests, not regional interests. And people in the same city would have no need to construct a virtual community if they could actually meet for real. This points to the idea that web communities are surrogates for real communities and not replacements. If that is true, then perhaps the dearth of thriving web communities might simply imply that humans are too busy with face-to-face clubs and socializing to have time to form "virtual communities."
  • The Internet may not be particularly good at forming regional or local web communities, but it provides invaluable assistance to organizers of nonvirtual communities. Suddenly it has become easier to send newsletters, announcements, calendars and maps. Also, as long as you know the name of a group, finding it is a mere google search away. For those interested in Austin groups, you can find information at Networker and M.A.I.N..