October 28, 2005

Tools for communities, communities as media, and communities as means not ends

Posted in Community, Media at 11:04 pm by mj

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about communities / social networks as a means rather than an end, and what kinds of tools different communities will find useful. Of course, part of my job is to think about these things every day, but one tends to get bogged down in the mundane details of immense scalability and office politics, and needs a jerk back to see the bigger picture occasionally.

Like a lot of people (I’m betting), I was intrigued by the Mark Zuckerberg interview blogged by Jeff Clavier. Mark is the founder and CEO of the Facebook. During the interview, Mark asserted–correctly, I think–that one of the (primary?) reasons the “first generation” of social networking sites failed is that they didn’t provide a set of quality utilities. The network was the end, not the means. As Greg of Geeking with Greg writes:

Social networking sites like Orkut or Friendster have no purpose. Sure, it’s fun. You go there and, in a flurry of activity, set up your profile and list all your friends. It’s always good for a little ego pump.

But, then what is there to do with your social network? There’s no purpose, no reason to come back, nothing to do.

Think about this from an implementor’s standpoint. You spend your months (or years) creating a community with an awesome search and people finder. You have top-notch content, and maybe a great editorial team. Your members contribute their own outstanding material. So people find each other and are entertained by each other. And then…….? Hmm.

Then this morning on the Webshots blog (yes, Webshots has a blog now! I’d say “it’s not much yet,” but they already have more comments than I will in the next year), a member suggested a follow-up to our Hurricane Katrina/Rita/Wilma collection that features the devastated areas in better times. What an awesome suggestion.

Although the collection started with Katrina as a way of funneling donations to the Red Cross, Humane Society, and so on, it has become much more than that, and it only includes a handful of the public photos that can be easily found.

One can imagine follow-ups that track these areas during their rebuilding efforts, and promoting before-during-after photos a couple of years hence. The possibilities wouldn’t end even there.

But as good as Webshots’ editorial team is, and as much weight their collections carry, I can’t help but think that what members really want are tools to produce their own collections, and a means of promoting them (and maybe connecting them to external organizations).

It’s certainly more scalable, but, like television, it could create information overload, and with it, the risk that people will think there’s not much of anything good out there. Hence, the need for even better tools: tools not just to share and find–what we might call “first generation” social networking tools–but to promote, augment, incentivize, and (again with my silly ideas) connect with other communities outside of the walled garden.

What this spells to me is not just community, but also media: a platform for and a marketplace of mini-media outlets.

So how do you make that leap, make it meaningfully, and transition your existing communities to a better world without scaring them off?