June 24, 2008
Why Media Gets Community Wrong
I've been thinking (and talking) about community a lot recently, and it was while speaking to about 50 people at a seminar held by Sift last Friday that I had an epiphany: most media people don't realise that blogging is a community strategy. They think of it as a publishing process and, perhaps, as articles published with a particular tone of voice. They certainly don't think of it as a conversation.
This is clear from our traffic figures. Those blogs that do really well are those that are aware of there being a wider web world outside our sites' confines and which talk directly to the readers. Those whose traffic is abysmal are those who show no awareness of a wider conversation around their topics and who adopt a "wisdom from on high" tone of voice.
And perhaps some of the failure of the latter blogs is my fault. I've been so embedded in online community activity for well over a decade that I instinctively think of the internet as a social place. Thus, I fail to articulate that clearly to people for whom this is a much more recent idea. But, to me, there's no doubt that blogging is all about personal voices interacting with one another, not about personal voices lecturing. And that's something that the media usually misses.
Now the big upgrade to Movable Type 4 is done, I'm pulling together a strategy to develop our blogs. At the heart of that is slowing down the expansion of them, and upping the quality (or humanely putting down) those we have. And for those of you who are familiar with blogging, it should be no surprise that I want to inject a greater sense of community into both our blogs and our blogging. It is, after all, at the heart of what blogging is about.
And the response I get can roughly be summed up as "But why do you want to make blogs a community thing? That's what the forums are for". This response makes me want to either bash my head repeatedly against my desk, or write a long, passionate blog post giving my response. And given my liking for blogging and my dislike of brain damage, you can probably work out which I chose to do.
Here's what I believe:
Community is not a place. Community is an approach to publishing.
You either care about your readers, or you don't. Creating forums, and then making that your only point of community interaction with your readers is roughly like inviting some guests round - and then not letting them out of the guest bedroom. It shows that you've heard of the idea of hospitality, but aren't really all that keen on the idea of, y'know, socialising.
Now, don't get me wrong here. I think forums are tremendously valuable. I think peer-to-peer social interaction without the need for the creation of something for them to interact around is a valuable part of what niche sites like the ones we publish can offer readers. Indeed, having sites without forums is roughly like inviting guests round to stay, but not giving them anywhere to rest or sleep. And I think Andrew is doing a great job in supporting our community editors in really making forums work for our readers.
But to really, genuinely engage with your readers you have to embed it in everything you publish to some degree.
Think about Flickr, the photo-sharing site owned by Yahoo. Imagine that, rather than building a community-integrated site, they'd just built forums on the side of photo sharing functionality. It wouldn't have worked. Instead of the social interaction you get about a created object (the image), you would just have had images and a lack-lustre forum off to one side. The approach that the Flickr team took - by building community features in from the start, and then allowing users to create their own forums through the groups functionality - was what made the site so compelling, and which allows it to continue to thrive. In short: Flickr is primarily a community site, with photo-sharing as the objects people interact around. But too often we in the media miss that and just see that photo-sharing is really successful, and so we'd better have our own gallery site.
It's all too easy for people from a traditional media background to see community as a place - something off to the side where the readers go, while the journalists sit over here in the real part of the site. They are content-focused, not people-focused. After all, that's what the job's been all about for the last century or so. Sure, they may occasionally deign to join in a few threads. Or include a letters page in the print title. But, usually, it's very much "them and us". You can see shades of this in everything from the early days of both The Guardian's Comment is Free and The Telegraph's My Telegraph, to the URL choice for our Farmers Weekly forums: http://www.fwi.co.uk/community/
While each of these sites are good in their own way, they do create a touch of "that's for you over there, but the real stuff is over here". But the traffic figures tend to show that the community stuff is just as much the real stuff to the readers as the journalist-created content. In a sense, holding community apart from professional content only harms the professional content creators. It bars them from seeing and exploring the reaction from their customers to their work. It stops them developing relationships - friendships even - with those they ultimatly work for.
And, given the traffic volumes that community strategies give us, that's just plain dumb.
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