Why Media Gets Community Wrong

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. 
  • Always good to get a rant off your chest!

    I read a quote last week somewhere that the opposite of talking isn’t really listening, its waiting. Sadly, I believe that in large part this is true. It will be interesting to see whether or not this will change, as I hope it will – needing some of the measures you discuss.

    Chris Bogan asked the question on Twitter yesterday “What will the the experts do once everyone ‘gets it'”. Assuming this ever happens, and that its even relevant to everyone, its these sorts of issues that the so-called experts need to move onto.

  • You look to have got it about right, in terms of what journalists think about content (the NEWS is PARAMOUNT) vs blogging (blogging is NOT Journalism). I think that the Journalists view of the world is based partly on fear. Part of this is precisely because the users often find the stuff that they generate as useful/interesting as the stuff that journalists create on the site. We have to help them understand that this is not a bad thing. That the Journalists provide the seed bed for other ideas to grow in.
    If we persist with this in 10 years time, no one will ever have doubted that forums and blogs were the right idea. As we’re still at the start of the process no one (apart from a few swivelley eyed lunatics such as ourselves) think that. Organisations are not designed to embrace change, they are designed to produce whatever they produce uniformly for ever. What we are asking people to do is a big change. It will take time, but it will happen.

  • What fun!

    I’m involved tangentially in the same matters trying to get the wine business to take bloggers more seriously, so regularly send contacts to read your posts.

    My latest efforts have transferred this particular discussion to wine journalism (check out the comments):


  • “And perhaps some of the failure of the latter blogs is my fault.”

    Just revisiting this post and what’s next in line but: http://discussionleader.hbsp.com/hbreditors/2008/06/the_competitive_advantage_of_f.html

    In something as innovative as you and your organisation’s endeavours failures are inevitable and desirable…

  • Great post, Adam! and I have to agree with Anthony above–when endeavors are highly innovative, there will be inevitable and desirable failures. We learn from those failures. (and believe me, in the social marketing world, there are more failures than there are successes. That’s why everyone goes berserk when someone gets it right.)

  • Martin

    Totally agree with your thinking, Adam.

    Editorial teams need to work out the role of their forums, blogs, web sites, magazines etc and how as individuals journalists interact with their community through them.

    I would look at offline community interaction to get a sense of why journalists don’t get online interaction.

    One example is Thirst Thursday, a networking (drinks) event we held on Computer Weekly during the dot com boom. Each month I used to host a drinks session for programmers – it was in a pub so had the feel of an after work drink, which worked well for those that attended.

    Each time we had an event I had a problem getting journalists to attend. Why? Because they did not see the value ie they did not think they would get a story. What?! A group of well oiled readers and you wouldn’t get the story – what a ridiculous idea.

    But seriously, the value in attending was to meet people and find out what was going on for them. The output of attending was not neccessarily a news story – or any story for that matter.

    The problem was that attending involved really getting involved with the group as one of them – being able to chat, input ideas and take away ideas WITHOUT doing a smash and grab raid of finding a ‘story’ and then leaving.

    This is very different to attending a conference (which journos are much happier doing), which in many ways is about news gathering ie their purpose of attending is to ‘get news’.

    And so it is that journos find it difficult to interact with their communities online. They need to shed the smash and grab mentality and learn to chat. They need to give more of themselves, be more transparent but most importantly learn to stay at the bar and talk.

    I thought that was what journalists were traditionally very good at doing.

    Or maybe it is just that journalists don’t like their readers, which makes you wonder why they do it in the first place.

  • Well, I’m a journalist writing for national UK newspapers and magazines…plus I blog, but as “Doktor Snake” author of the cult classic “Doktor Snake’s Voodoo Spellbook”.

    So I’m in both worlds. As a journalist, I write in “left brain” consciousness; as the good Doc I typically write in “right brain” consciousness.

    That means I’ll talk about a web page being “cursed” with a demonic entity trailing up and down the HTML code, or I’ll talk about making pacts with the Devil.

    That kind of “right brain” writing is diametrically opposed to media writing, which is logical, news-driven and rational.

    But there is another story out there…the story of the subconscious. The strange subways of consciousness that lie behind the news stories.

    When you blog you can cover this aspect – the hidden part of the news. There’s a vaster reality out there. Politicians, celebrities and others in the news are driven by primal forces, like all of us are…but newspapers can’t touch on this.

    Bloggers can…they can say what the hell they like.

    “As If” can become reality…indeed our words can shape reality. And this is why the global media is changing, shifting…

  • The Top 10 ranking blogs on the web are blogs about blogging.

    Is that what you mean by community?

    While a lot of blogging is done by invidiuals wanting to preach their own particular point of view (myself included) surely this is only slightly less insular than a community of bloggers blogging about blogging.

    I’m starting to doubt the relevance of blogging beyond its own sphere.

  • Alistair>The Top 10 ranking blogs on the web are blogs about blogging

    Huh? I don’t see it. For the Technorati top 10 it looks like 1 out of 10 if we stretch the definition of “blogging” to include “web development”.

    Community is not a place. Community is an approach to publishing.

    I think you’re still thinking in terms of process and system, and that community is something that you can create. You can’t – period.

    You can provide a meeting place and be the host; you can be affable and friendly and make people feel at home; you can attempt to guide the agenda by providing expertise, advice and services; you can attempt to identify the values and focus of the group of people; you can be the “warden” and the “janitor”.

    If those are all online, that then becomes an approach to publishing (except that “publishing” sounds desperately one-way).

    Community is a set of human relationships between a set of people. Community will happen when a number of people come to your “hearth” (to borrow a Viking concept) and begin to build relationships with each other. The most important point is that it belongs to “them” not to you – even on your server.

    I wonder if the appropriate concept for dealing with blogs is “network” rather than “community”. They can become communities over time, but the flow of posts tends to make them too unstable as forms of “sideways” communication. Politicalbetting.com have done it – but they have had a rigid flow of one or two posts a day for 4 or 5 years.

    I’d tentatively suggest taking a stroll down to your local “community centre” or a newly started church in search of analogies. Really. “Community building ” is a black art.

    Two web references: A thread from Daily Blog Tips about forums (recommending 5000 uniques a day before you even try):


    and you need kid gloves. It is theirs, not yours.

    All sorts of things happen when a community grows – not least it gets it’s own “natural” dynamics that control what you can do with it.

    That all sounds a bit blunt, but I hope it helps.

    Matt Wardman
    Consultant (various!) and poliblogger
    Wardman Wire, mattwardman.com

  • Let me add one further note. In managing a set of related blogs “community of practice” among your bloggers may be a useful concept.

  • Chuck Peters

    Thanks Adam. I have recently seen references to your concepts in this post, and wish that I had seen it last year, as we were trying to formalize the concepts behind C3 – Complete Community Connection.

    We are trying to transform a traditional media company into a local network based on micro-communities defined by individuals according to whatever specific geography, affinity or relationship defines them.

    We track our progress at http://cpetersia.wordpress.com

    We plan on making great progress this year. Your comments will help!


  • Glad to have been of service. 🙂

  • Its so true, people do not want to join a community so you can continue to market to them. Large companies do not seem to get that. Even smaller business owners dont get that hence stuff like magpie and twitads are around. …. Well thanks for II for swooping in and informing everyone how wrong we all are 😉 Most people don’t want to be marketed TO via social media. They want to use social media to connect with and talk to other people.