Isabel MAXWELL <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Spencer HOROWITZ <email@example.com>
The tide of globalization that is sweeping the planet is producing an equally powerful countercurrent of social fragmentation. The Internet is both a cause and a tool of this social fragmentation. By demolishing the cost structure of media distribution, every community, no matter how transient, irrelevant, or microscopic, is afforded the ability to broadcast its unedited message around the globe and to attract adherents. And as knowledge workers are called upon to respond to the ever-spiraling pace of globalized business -- accelerated by the Internet and information technologies -- their desire for more efficient social interactions drives these workers to increasingly utilize the Web as a primary tool for social intercourse.
In America, a nation long noted for the devotion of its populace to community groups, fraternal organizations, and clubs of every kind, attendance and participation at group meetings is being diminished by the time demands of modern economic life. For community groups to thrive in the information age, they must adopt (and many are adopting) the tools of new media. The organizational work that local parent-teacher associations, bowling clubs, chambers of commerce, and little leagues used to achieve during after-work meetings will now be conducted by e-mail and other mechanisms enabled by the Internet. Online e-mail providers are developing new service programs to meet the requirements of these micro-organizations, programs that also enable group members to project their most strongly held affiliations as a fundamental part of their online identity -- the e-mail address.
The Internet initially arose as a communication tool to digitally link together and, through enhanced interaction, foster the development of networks of researchers and academics. These early informal networks of collegial collaborators, corresponding through e-mail, were the seminal groupings of what were to become labeled virtual communities. The development of graphically intensive Web browsers were widely seen as a means to introduce the wider public to the Internet and, in doing so, initiate the spontaneous growth of nonacademic virtual communities on a mass scale. A world of highly de-fragmented and dynamically metamorphosing online interest groups and informal communities was a common expectation among Internet prognosticators in the early 1990s.
The explosive commercialization of the Internet since the early 1990s has actually produced a landscape that is apparently at odds with that early de-fragmented vision. Portals, highly branded and strongly promoted aggregators of content and services, have captured the public imagination and a commanding share of Internet traffic. Offering free information, Internet search capabilities, free e-mail accounts, commerce offers, and other services, they present themselves as a one-stop entry point and "community" for the millions of users joining the Internet each month.
Given their financial and market success, some question if the rising dominance of generic portals has eclipsed the decentralized, and fundamentally egalitarian, promise of the early Internet. Websites that focus on the unique needs of narrowly defined communities appear to be at a significant economic disadvantage in developing content and services that can effectively compete with the major commercial portals, even within the narrow communities that these niche Websites were developed to serve. Major generic portals are even hosting special Website locations for a variety of interest groups in order to "capture" the Web traffic associated with small virtual communities within the overall portal structure.
It is our contention that organically developed virtual communities show no anecdotal evidence of being overwhelmed and subsumed by the concentration of Internet traffic flowing through the major generic portals. The relentless deconstruction of information distribution costs has been the fundamental feature of the Internet since its first transmission. Consistent with this trend, new Internet service companies are now providing low-cost and no-cost service alternatives for Websites that seek to compete -- within a narrowly targeted community -- with the major portals for viewer interest and community loyalty.
It is now economically possible for any Website to become the host of free e-mail accounts for its visitors, a highly attractive feature offered by all major generic portals. By analyzing 1,000 Websites that offer free e-mail through a zero-cost e-mail provider, we can determine the health, breadth, and vigor -- if only anecdotally -- of a diverse group of community networks on the Internet.
Free e-mail services have become a principal service of many highly trafficked Websites, including all Websites that compete within the generic portal category. Free e-mail has proved immensely popular, with tens of millions of individual accounts created within the last 24 months. Until recently, the ability to offer free online e-mail to the public required either a significant investment in software development, or a significant fee-based or revenue-sharing commitment with an outsource e-mail service provider.
The economic hurdle imposed by this cost structure effectively eliminated any possibility of small, narrowly focused community Websites from offering free e-mail accounts to their visitors, putting these small Websites at a significant disadvantage when competing in the Internet marketplace for visitors. A lack of visitors inevitably limited revenue opportunities from sponsorships and advertising that might help small Web communities defray operating costs or further develop their content and services.
Since October of 1998, an online service has been available that provides a free e-mail hosting capability to any Website, without any initiation or on-going cost -- the first quantum reduction in the economic cost of such services since the introduction of Web-based e-mail. Registration for this service is accomplished through an entirely online process, which permits Websites to begin hosting their own e-mail service -- with unique e-mail sub-domain address -- within minutes. While this e-mail service is not as fully customized for hosting Websites as the services provided through major generic portals (the e-mail user interface at a major portal Website is far more comprehensively branded, for instance), this zero-cost e-mail service does enable small, narrowly targeted community Websites to offer their own e-mail service for the first time.
Widely discussed and advocated within the active and interconnected community of Webmasters, more than 25,000 individual Websites had registered to become e-mail hosts by 1 February 1999. These 25,000 Websites represent a population of community-oriented Websites that are earnestly pursuing an Internet presence with community portal capabilities; community portal being defined as a Website that aggregates content and services designed to uniquely appeal to a tiny sub-segment of the Internet user population as a whole. The desire of Websites within this survey population to be e-mail hosts is reasonable evidence of their intention to be a community portal.
This population of Websites in this survey group, while clearly nonrandom and self-selected, presents an opportunity to evaluate a cross section of community-focused Websites on an anecdotal basis. With the cooperation of the e-mail service provider, 1,000 of the most active Websites in this population were analyzed to determine the type of community they target. Of the Websites surveyed, 85% were based in North America and used English; seven other languages (Spanish, Portuguese, German, Dutch, French, Swedish, and Finnish) were represented among the remaining Websites.
The content of e-mail messages was not examined. Overall e-mail use statistics and Website content were the only subjects of analysis in this survey.
For all Websites surveyed, the distinction between commercial and amateur Websites was difficult to determine. Almost all of the Websites, even those that were clearly an amateur "labor of love" by any subjective standard, offered some ad banners, sponsorships, or commerce offers. The effort invested in maintaining a community-oriented Website, no matter how diminutive the potential audience, has driven nearly every Website in the survey to seek some element of commercial recompense.
After a general review of the type of content provided by the community portal Websites that offered free e-mail service, 10 types of communities were defined for categorization of the surveyed Websites. The distinction between these categories is as subjective as the distinction between amateur and commercial sites. The distinctions do enable a broad view of the kinds of communities that are effectively projecting themselves and attracting viewership and participation on the Internet, and those communities that are absent from this group.
The 10 categories are described below, with some examples of typical site content. In parentheses after each category title is the percentage of e-mail users of the total number of e-mail end users in our survey.
In addition to determining the types of Websites that aspire to serve their communities as niche portals, we can make some other general observations about community-oriented Websites based on this survey:
The existence and proliferation of community-oriented Websites on the Internet is highly dynamic and not easily subject to conventional surveys or census. The existence of an e-mail service syndicator specially targeted at community Websites offers an opportunity to examine the community Website phenomenon on an anecdotal basis. Traditional organizations do not yet appear to be exploiting Internet tools as effectively as transient or non-mainstream communities. The exploitation of innovative zero-cost services, like free e-mail, by the Websites of traditional organizations will enable these groups to extend their success and presence more effectively into the Internet medium.