A disturbing new phenomenon is emerging online. The phenomenon is the creation of new “miniature” instant communities. Large Web portals are encouraging individuals to create these instant communities at an astounding rate. They carry various monikers, such as “clubs,” “my forums,” “communities,” etc. They are run by big names like Yahoo!, Excite, Delphi, the new Go network, among others. Go onto any large portal today and you will likely find a link encouraging you to create your own instant community.
Online communities are inherently not a bad thing. In fact, they are great! Online communities have been in existence long before the Web, in the form of Usenet newsgroups and mailing lists (or “listservs”). These virtual communities have not only survived, but thrived on the influx of new Internet users which came online in the mid-1990’s.
The End’s Beginning
Unlike these established, well-maintained, and larger virtual communities, instant communities are created on a moment’s whim. Very little effort or thought is needed to create an instant communities. Indeed, usually you can create such a club or group in Yahoo! or some other portal simply by filling out a short form and voila! Community!
I’ve seen this going on for years on the Web, in other guises and names — Web-based discussion forums. Many sites now add these forums as a matter of basic site design, with very little thought given as to whether they will be viable forums or D.O.A. For years I’ve been browsing thousands of Web sites and have found hundreds of these kinds of forums, most of which have little to no traffic on them. The Web site designer thought, “Hey, I’ll keep people on my site with a discussion forum… What a great idea!” What they didn’t think through is the incentive for people to re-visit the site if there’s no discussion happening. Since most sites don’t generate enough raw traffic to support such forums, they often die an indignant death through attrition and neglect. Certainly there are some sites which support vibrant, lively, and thoughtful Web-based discussion forums. But in my extensive travels online, these sites have been the exception, not the rule.
Web portals don’t have traffic level problems, though. Web portals (which are simply your repositioned and renamed favorite search engine with some customization features tacked on as an after-thought) have, in fact, enormous traffic levels. Now Web surfers are being asked to join a club or portal-based instant community, often on the very same themes and topics covered on dozens (if not hundreds) of other, established online forums.
Why is this a bad thing? Let’s look at one possible scenario. Ms. Smith sets up a community for people who suffer from panic attacks. A few people happen upon the community who might post a comment or two. Mr. Green doesn’t like something someone said to him on Ms. Smith’s panic attack community, so he sets up his own panic attack community on the same portal. Before you know it, you might have 4 dozen “communities” all on the same topic offered by one portal. The difference is that each community will not be able to remain viable. If you, as a contributor to Ms. Smith’s hypothetical community, chose the “wrong” community, weeks or months of contributions and time devoted to that community might be lost when it folds.
With more choices on which online community to join, consumers will have to pick and choose among them. Will they join their friend’s panic attack community on Yahoo!, or the alt.support.anxiety-panic newsgroup or the anxiety mailing list or all of them? While an individual might be a member of multiple online communities on the same topic for a time, eventually the time and effort it takes for that person to check in with every community on a regular basis may become too much. They will cut out the communities they don’t have time for any longer. Are they then more likely to cut out their online friend’s instant communities, or one of the older, established communities? I would argue that the latter is more likely to lose their participation, since the emotional connection may not be as strong.
And that is the catch. After you create one of these portal-based instant communities, you are given the tools to immediately notify your friends online that you started a new club or community. This is a seedy marketing scheme along the lines of the infamous CutCo knives (via Vector Marketing Corporation’s high-pressure sales pitch — “High Quality! Sell first to your friends and family, then get them to give you the names of 5 additional people to contact about buying them!”). Leveraging people’s friendships online to support these new instant communities is disingenuous at best. At worst, it is a pretty transparent attempt to maintain and possible increase the portal’s traffic levels.
The Balkanization of online communities is coming, and it’s coming on fast and strong. Large, commercial portal sites are not dumb. They realize that if they can give people an opportunity to setup their own little part of the world on their site, they can increase page views and hence, advertising revenues. The portals don’t and won’t care that they are contributing to the increasing isolation of people online, by creating dozens of repetitive, instant communities, which are as bland and without life as their own homepages. They only care that such “communities” increase page views, which increase revenues. There appears to be no comprehension or acknowledgement of the social consequences their decisions may wreak on the very social fabric of the Internet.
Web surfers such as yourself need to take matters into your own hands and refuse to join such instant communities. Content-oriented, topic-specific Web sites which have built-up traffic over the years on the value of what they have to offer deserve your continued support. Portals, with their mish-mash of offerings catering to everyone and specializing in nothing, are trying to lure you with their promises of instant fellowship, instant communication, instant companionship, and instant relationships on any topic you’d desire.
Don’t listen to that siren song, because ultimately, it is an empty and bland tune.