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Hypergene MediaBlog » Are you a gardener or architect?

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Thursday, 10 Oct 2002

Are you a gardener or architect?

News organizations salivate when you talk about “online community.” They all want it, but they seem terribly inept at fostering it.

The problem, according this Clay Shirky piece, is that communities are fundamentally different from audiences. Communities are highly focused, small and homogeneous in their interests. But they are also continual works-in-progress. What they produce is incomplete. They are happy to refine later. News institutions, on the other hand, are geared to capture large audiences. They value accuracy, timeliness and consistency on a daily basis. In an email to us, Shirky added:

"It is that discipline, however, that makes broadcast institutions weak supporters of community, because community is sloppy, inconsistent, and only produces rough drafts. Community conversation fails almost every criterion for quality a broadcast institution is set up to support."

But that has not stopped media organizations from thinking they can build community. Ambitious, expensive partnerships with companies such as the Koz Community Publishing System failed, straining budgets and patience while the ad dollars simply never showed. As a result, many news sites have limited their communal effort to the only quick and build-able thing they know: the forum. Sadly, only a few news media sites do forums well, and even then, they sit secluded from their news content. (Update 10.11.02: According to Derek Powazek, CNN shut down their community/discussion section in early 2002.)

If these institutions are so bent on building community and willing to devote significant resources to build them, what’s gone wrong? The problem, Shirky says, is that online communities must be grown - not built. The difference is not one of semantics. Members of audience are simply added, whereas members of community must integrated in an environment conducive to community formation.

If media organizations are serious about growing community, then they need to have thinking that’s fundamentally different from the way they approach audience. In other words, Shirky says, they need to act more like a gardener and less like an architect.

To start, Shirky provides five things big media should think about if they want to grow a community:

  • Audiences are built. Communities grow.
  • Communities face a tradeoff between size and focus.
  • Participation matters more than quality.
  • You may own the software, but the community owns itself.
  • The community will want to build. Help it, or at least let it.

Shirky provides some sound advice. But it remains to be seen if the diametrically opposed approaches of community and news are too great an obstacle to overcome. Regardless, media organizations could do a better job of feeding online communities and fostering conversation around their stories on the net:

  • Provide RSS feeds: News stories are fodder for conversations online or off. Don’t make people hunt through your site. Provide innovative feeds that get your stories out there. Don’t just feed top headlines, provide sectional or regional feeds, be specfic and be generous. Trust us you’ll get traffic.
  • Remove deep-linking policies: Stop the insanity and let people read your stuff. If registration or subscriptions are in effect, please provide detailed abstracts. See Chris Sherman’s suggestions on abstracts toward the end of this Steve Outing article.
  • News API: Consider offering web services that enterprising sites can incorporate and share. Create a developers network and solicit ideas for new services.
  • Open up the archives: Many newspaper archives are online but their might as well be in the vault. Let Google spider detailed abstracts of your past stories. Providing such a wealth of links can only be beneficial for community as well as bring new revenues to you.

What more do you think can be done by media organizations to feed online communities and the social network of the web? Do you think it’s possible for organizations steeped in traditions of audience and the role as gatekeepers of information to become proponents of a two-way, bottom-up environment?

Posted on Oct 10, 2002 | 3:40 pm EST
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