What is it with big social giants tumbling down these days? Is this a sign we’re in for another dot com bubble burst or is it just really poor management and a lack of vision? I’d go with the latter…
What is a community?
Let’s get this very clear… because this is the sole reason why online communities fail… the best definition of the word ‘community’ i can find in relation to online stuff is this;
A virtual community is a social network of individuals who interact through specific media, potentially crossing geographical and political boundaries in order to pursue mutual interests or goals.
That clears that up. What happens with online communities is that you have two sets of ‘owners’, each with different interests and goals…
- The directors / founders / businessmen
- The users
Who is more important?
The users are the most important people in a community… just like students are the most important people in a school or fans are the most important people in a football club. Take students away from schools or fans away from stadiums and ultimately, both schools and clubs will starve to death and become unprofitable, eventually run at a loss and throats will have to be cut one by one.
That’s why the customer is always right – they keep you in business. Fail to listen to them or respect them and it’s curtains. Online communities are not like traditional businesses. You can’t just invest and expect them to become profitable because there’s x million active users or because the site is gaining momentum.
A strong community run at a heavy loss is more valuable than a dying community that’s profitable. Don’t believe me? Look at bebo, myspace, digg… they grew aggressively and collapsed because investors wanted to see a return. Once upon a time they were all ‘hot’ property with really strong, vibrant communities… almost ‘fanatical’ support at their peak.
Lack of vision
What happens if Roman Abramovich decides he wants to run Chelsea as a business and refuses to invest until it becomes profitable? They’re screwed, that’s what happens… wages have to be cut which means big players leave… the club wouldn’t be able to afford new players and so it basically strangles itself to death. Fans get angry, attendance drops, trophies aren’t won.
Is that a smart long term move? No, but if you’re a business person you don’t see it like that. There lies the problem. Without business expertise, you hemorrhage money and can’t see business opportunities, but without technical expertise and understanding of the community, minor changes can kill it.
Google could have saved it
Google pulled the plug on a $200m deal to buy digg back in summer 2008. I said at the time it made sense for google to buy digg and couldn’t see why they’d back out. It did make sense to buy digg at that time. They didn’t buy it though and ended up creating google buzz which in my opinion is a complete flop, just like wave. We’ll never know what it could have been like for both google & digg, but speaking after that failed offer / buy out (and i’m ripping this from wikipedia);
BusinessWeek reported “Digg Chief Executive Officer Jay Adelson says the popular news aggregation Web site is no longer for sale, and the focus of the company is to build an independent business that reaches profitability as quickly as possible. That means the four-year-old startup will dial back some of its expansion plans, instead prioritizing projects that generate revenue and profit.”
See any problems with that statement? Do you get a ‘community’ vibe from it? I sure don’t. Again using wikipedia as my one and only resource, here’s what rival site reddit.com’s founder had to say about the latest version of digg;
this new version of digg reeks of VC meddling. It’s cobbling together features from more popular sites and departing from the core of digg, which was to “give the power back to the people.”
A man that talks sense, finally. None of this ‘profit at all costs’ vibe you get from that earlier digg quote (ok, it’s not a direct quote but it’s close enough). Giving power to people – now THAT’S what online communities are all about. That’s why they grow in the first place… and continue to grow.
Live fast, die young
I don’t think users even need ‘power’ to continue using the site, they just need to know they’re being heard. The problem with digg is that they ask for feedback and then roll out changes nobody seems to want. They’ve done that on several occasions over the past few years and that frustrates users.
As they’re gonna find out, winning people back is more difficult than winning them first time around. In my mind digg is dead, or at the very least on life support. It’s all gone wrong very fast and i can’t see it improving… as the saying goes, “live fast, die young”… it can be applied to a lot of social networks. reddit.com is the new king of social news.