Community Chest

As an engine for sweeping social and economic change, the Internet has brought us cybersex, cyberstalkers, e-commerce, and a renewable crop of paper billionaires.

After years of political rhetoric about the “Global Village,” it’s the Internet that finally turned us into the “Global Village People.” And if you possess a credit card, it’s a safe bet that the world’s brightest, and not-so-bright, minds are diligently discovering every conceivable way of slurping its number through a web site.

“You’ve got your affiliate program in my chat room!”

As the 1970s TV commercials for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups taught us, two great things can be combined into one, potentially greater, thing. The social and economic revolutions inspired by the Internet, so the theory goes, could be harnessed into a common business model: Building an online community to create a ready customer base for marketing, sales, and/or advertising.

In other words: “You’re posted to the message boards, now buy the T-shirt.” Simply replace the T-shirt with futon cover, stealth bomber, or whatever else you might happen to be selling online, and start planning your early retirement.

There’s no shortage of pundits supporting this formula for online success. Books like Net Gain: Expanding Markets Through Virtual Communities have achieved heavy rotation on business class flights everywhere. Talkaloti Hall-of-Famer Howard Rheingold went out of his Electric Mind and founded a highly-publicized online communities business venture based on his experiences at The Well.

And for all the shuffling zombies uttering the “stickiness” mantra at industry conferences these days, online communities are arguably the online flypaper of choice.

The page traffic and market capitalizations of high-profile sites like GeoCities and have certainly benefited from this business model. But should all business web sites drink the same spiked Kool-Aid as the many proponents of online communities suggest?

“Hey, baby. What’s your avatar?”

Not every online user swoons at the prospect of exchanging streams of text-based chatter with anonymous individuals. Yet since the advent of computer BBSes in the early 1980s, virtual communities have been something of an online main-stay. A primary reason for their popularity is simply a matter of personality.

Passive lurkers make up 80 percent at the bottom of any online community food chain. But at the very top are the few, truly talented online talk radio hosts who set the tone for the community and keep the masses coming back for more. Unfortunately, as thousands of business web sites proliferate their own online communities, there just isn’t enough of this talent to go around.

Increased competition (or digital Darwinism to those who think they invented the concept) also dilutes more than just the talent pool. Nearly all successful online communities share a central focus or theme — such as computers or Teletubbies. To achieve viability, new communities often must steal mindshare from established communities with a similar subject focus.

“So how about that Tinky Winky?”

Like beer can empties after a Merle Haggard concert, thousands of abandoned splinter groups litter Usenet as a testament to the difficulty of creating new topics. Some groups define themselves narrowly enough to survive the challenge of established groups. Yet, they frequently lack the critical mass needed to sustain themselves after the subject matter is quickly exhausted.

Furthermore, to the rude awakening of many wide-eyed online businesses, few visitors will gravitate to your site’s message boards to simply discuss your products as its central theme. If you’re lucky enough to have a product like Spam or Mentos, you can pass such unabashed self-promotion as an online community. The rest of us must at least pretend to show interest in less commercial pursuits before the masses fawn over our tubes of denture cream.

It’s Open Mike Night on the Internet

Perhaps there’s something we can learn from the successes of high-profile community sites like GeoCities. While their focus on user-generated content may be no more community than a public restroom, they avoid the significant costs associated with content creation. (Or at least until someone finds a way to farm it out to Haitian sweat shops that pay laborers $2 per week.)

However, without editorial standards, the content on these community sites is typically very weak and inconsistent. Who among us goes out of our way to click on a GeoCities page listed in our search results?

It’s the same reason why we don’t call the neighborhood plumber to make us dinner. We visit restaurants because we suspect — given their professional devotion — that they might be half-way good at it.

Everyone’s a Director

Similarly, if you thought the fodder coming out of Hollywood studios was lame (just look at the growth in Anthony Hopkins’ career since his Oscar), imagine all the home videos that armchair directors could produce. Give a chimp a handi-cam, and suddenly Keanu Reeves is a premier Shakespearean actor.

Ironically, Internet movers and shakers seem to be banking on this concept as the future of online communities. Case and point: Yahoo recently blew the equivalent of Israel’s annual military budget to purchase GeoCities and

Yahoo’s take was that they wanted to get into the personal publishing game with broadband media — or, as Inter@ctive Week put it, “Personal Broadcast Services.” Consequently, GeoCities rolled out its GeoMedia package, enabling homesteaders to host streaming media.

It wasn’t enough to simply visit Binky’s Favorite Childhood Memories web site. Now you have to watch the home movie and listen to the soundtrack.

Chalking up another vote for cashing in on online communities, Yahoo also pointed to how broadband media can help buffer Yahoo Store — offering rich media capabilities to online storefronts that, at least currently, resemble the indistinguishable concrete blocks of a massive Soviet apartment complex.

Combining e-commerce with user-generated broadband content, we can only assume that GeoCities wants to be the concession stand for the Internet’s Funniest Home Videos. We can already envision the puberty-scarred, paper-hatted junk food dealer — hammering down a few gobs of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Toxic butter substitute on your $4 popcorn, just before you catch a few laughs over Uncle Cletus splitting his pants dancing at a wedding reception.

Talk Is Still Cheap

As a nearly 20-year-old concept, we already know what it takes to make a successful online community: The right personalities, freedom, care and feeding, and especially time to grow. But with a renewed commercial emphasis for the web, online communities aren’t an easy, sure-fire way to make a living.

Even if you manage a successful community, loitering is not commerce. Look no further than a recent Forbes article on Deja News’ recent commerce makeover for more evidence of that.

As with all things, the Internet is a commercial experiment in progress. For now, you could make a legitimate argument that a community site’s best business proposition is advertising to its own subscriber base — by getting them to view their own home pages on the service.

For that matter, when it comes to commerce and online communities, we’re still holding out for the big money to be made on web karaoke.

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