Building Internet Communities

In my last regular post, "Entrepreneurship (Part II) - Please Help!", I feigned indignation regarding the lack of comments my posts were receiving.  Without comments, it's very difficult to determine whether you're providing useful content to your target audience, but now something worse has happened ... Sympathy Comments (thanks Keith and Gavin).  This post is going to discuss a couple reasons why forming an Internet community is hard as well as a couple ways an Internet "host" can satisfy his or her visitors.

I believe there are three factors that make building an effective Internet community difficult;  RSS feeds with the associated readers, the sheer volume of informational garbage available on the Internet and getting enough of your target audience in one place.

RSS feeds and readers have introduced an interesting problem into my daily browsing experience.  I find that I'm reading a lot more headlines than I did before but, as a side effect of only having the headlines displayed, I'm reading a lesser number of complete articles.  If the entirety of what the author is trying to convey will fit in the headline, then I suppose I'm fully informed, but I suspect that there might be more useful information in the body of the article ... the type of information I'd actually use.  The other problem with RSS feeds is that there are usually more steps to view and submit comments than if you were reading the same content in your Internet browser.

The second problem can be broken down into multiple parts.  There is so much raw content on the Internet.  It's not the author's fault that their target audience is so small (though, if only one person on this planet is interested, there's no community at all).  For a niche topic, there may only be a few other people interested in reading it.  On the other hand, as a new article, that content is equally likely to be listed in search engine results as a page destined for millions of readers.  Another facet to this problem is the number of SPAM sites, that serve up machine generated drivel just to get page rank and/or ad views.  I'm hoping that the major Internet ad vendors have a better plan for defeating these sites than the e-mail community does.  Garbage content is not just limited to the articles themselves ... off-topic and SPAM comments can drive your visitors away from otherwise good content.  Does anyone else think it's a problem that the first comment typically found on Slashdot after a new article has been posted is something like "First post ... woo hoo".  There's no possible way for that poster to create a meaningful comment since they didn't have time to read the article and be the first poster.

Getting a large enough audience to reach critical mass is the most difficult problem.  You can have great content and still be "invisible" on the Internet.  Sometimes, you can achieve critical mass, but not form a community at all.  This happens when your content satisfies the needs of multiple user groups.  Each user group could conceivably form a community, but because their comments are intermingled, the discussion that follows becomes a garbled mess instead of a single coherent thread.

Here are a few ideas I have for raising the odds of forming a solid Internet community.  To some degree, this analysis was driven by the excellent community that has formed at the "Business of Software" forum over on the Joel on Software site.  Joel himself has stated that he does not know
why this community grew so large, so I won't pretend this is a complete list.  As an aside, this article was somewhat inspired by this thread I accidentally started on that forum ... it made me realize that I'd actually formed an emotional connection to the people who populate that forum and would call many of them "friends" if I were to ever meet them in person.  I also find it interesting that the other two forums at that site don't have the same sort of community that the BoS forum does.  Without further ado, here's the list:

  • Create compelling headlines for your articles ... otherwise they may be the only content your visitors read.
  • Enhance the RSS specification, the server side implementations and the RSS clients to create a standard way to submit comments.
  • Regardless of the size of your target audience, make sure that your content provides the reading they require.
  • If your community can be segmented, consider segmenting your site or making several smaller communities that are more targeted to each subgroup.
  • Provide forums or threaded comments.  This allows different discussions to independently occur without impeding each other.  A List Apart has great articles, but I rarely read the comments since they're all "in-line".
  • Be merciless to troll posts, SPAM and off-topic posts ... delete them as soon as possible
  • Require civility ... being polite is often set aside on the Internet, but people should interact as if they're sitting across the table from each other.