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Building Community One Byte at a Time
By Janet Perry
janetp@napanet.net

For many who have looked at the Internet as a vital part of our future, the notion of building communities in cyberspace is a keystone. Beginning with books like Reingold's Virtual Community and continuing to the recent best-seller net.gain, the power and virtue of these online communities have been trumpeted loud and clear. But if we examine community building to date, we do not see the clear successes of that notion.

The idea of commonality is at the basis of all communities, whether they are real or virtual. Thus, the members of a community might live in the same area, work in the same profession, or practice the same religion. In all of those cases, what is shared becomes the basis for that community's existence. And from that basis, the group grows if it is interesting, fulfilling, and broad enough to sustain the continued interest of the members.

As any businessperson will tell you, having repeat customers is crucial to the success of a business. Communities, by their very definition, create repeat business. So as companies look for ways to market on the Internet, developing or tapping into virtual communities seems to be the ideal solution. However, if we look at the record to date of communities as part of a commercial Internet, the record is dismal. Some successful companies, like the WELL or America Online, were successful before they became part of the Internet. Some companies have had little success so far. At a recent Seybold Seminar, the idea of communities and what it takes to nurture them was examined. The panel discussion looked at approaches taken by four companies to create viable end-user communities on the Internet.

Two of the companies--Inclusion and Alexa--are just bringing their community-building tools to market. John Duhring, CEO of Inclusion, wants to turn readers into contributors by providing back-end software that creates an editorial context for this content. In looking at the continuing popularity of e-mail, newsgroups, and lists, Inclusion hopes to tap that vast resource of creativity. By making an environment in which content providers can encourage submissions from many people while still exercising editorial control, Inclusion enables providers to create trusted sites where community members can enjoy timely and focused participation without much overhead.

Brewster Kahle, inventor of WAIS, sees the Web not as communities in themselves but as backdrops to the Internet, which is a "community of communities." Successful services on the Internet leverage the members of those communities and enable them to use these resources. At his new company, Alexa, Kahle is creating a kind of referral tool that lets each person find the communities that are the most interesting. In this way, the pages that do the best job of supporting the community become the trusted sources for that group and are constantly referenced. If your Web site is pointed to by many other sites, then it is a successful part of that community. Alexa automates the classification of such sites and helps individuals find other sites the community has discovered.

Scott Kurnit of the Mining Company and David Bohnett of Geocities both spoke about their existing community efforts. The two companies have created umbrella sites where many communities live and grow. But they have taken very different approaches.

At Geocities, 38 thematic neighborhoods form the basis of the site. Individuals stake out a place in a neighborhood of their choice and create a site. Although each individual is responsible for personal content, Geocities creates the infrastructure and encourages traffic to the individual sites. However, as Geocities has grown, certain flaws in the structure have appeared. Many of the neighborhoods seem too nebulous, so the initial home page of Geocities has gone to a more traditional subject organization, thereby hiding the themes. In addition, navigation tools seem to be missing, so it is difficult to find the sites related to a particular subject. However, for all its faults, Geocities has created a popular site, one visited at least once a month by 20 percent of Web households.

The Mining Company, which opened in April 1997, is using individual guides to organize and humanize the Internet. The company creates highly structured and organized Web sites that draw deeply on the individual expertise of the guides. Kurnit sees each of the best communities as having a leader--someone to spark ideas, point the way, and be a human face for the Net. This makes the links at the Mining Company more than just the results of a search engine: they become the basis for a community.

With the Internet, it is notoriously difficult to predict success or failure. But it seems clear that as the Internet has grown, more and more effort is put forth to humanize it and make it welcoming and friendly. Just as stand-alone programs have evolved to the point where preschoolers can run them better than adults, communities on the Net are moving to the point where anyone can join the conversation.

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