Technology

The Challenge of Keeping Online Communities Standing

By / May 21, 2013 (iStockphoto/Thinkstock)

Tech giant Yahoo is tempting fate by acquiring the social network Tumblr, a community that could, well, tumble, if handled the wrong way. Your own online community could learn something from this episode.

You could hear the cries of disappointment from miles away over the weekend.

They were coming from one of the more prominent social communities on the internet, Tumblr—an image-heavy blogging platform that’s home to audiences as diverse as news junkies, art addicts, Dr. Who-heads, fashionistas and Knicks fans.

The truth is, you can’t make “Fetch” happen. But you can find underserved communities, offer them a space to grow, be proactive with community interaction, and ensure your staff is willing to both interact and listen to user concerns.

One audience that isn’t catered to so heavily? Business professionals. But there’s a reason for that: Tumblr, like many budding social networks, skews young.

That’s exactly why Yahoo, an early online portal that’s struggled to keep its mojo into its second decade, agreed to buy the service this week. Tumblr users, who are known to voice frustration about even small changes to the site’s interface, reacted accordingly—just check out this raw tag feed of posts labeled “Yahoo!”, which I’ll warn you right now may contain profanity.

(Speaking of profanities, Tumblr founder and CEO David Karp’s message on the acquisition includes one, along with this statement on the product’s future: “So what’s new? Simply, Tumblr gets better faster. The work ahead of us remains the same—and we still have a long way to go!—but with more resources to draw from.”)

The thing is, as much as these people may or may not have anything to worry about regarding Yahoo’s Tumblr buyout in the long run, they have a good reason to be concerned now. Community is difficult to build, especially from scratch, as any association can tell you. And if people start leaving Tumblr, that community will lose its glue.

Yahoo, being a large company, needs that glue. It has created and owned platforms very similar to Tumblr in the past—including Yahoo Meme, back in 2009—only to see these platforms fade. That’s because building a community is far harder than building a product. And that’s why Yahoo was willing to pay $1.1 billion for Tumblr, promising in a  press release “not to screw it up.”

But this whole situation has me thinking about the structural integrity of online communities. What makes one shrivel and another blossom, like Tumblr has?

Bells and Whistles ≠ Community

The secret here is that you can’t build a social community on good intentions. Google is evidence of this.

Last week at the Google I/O conference, the company launched some products that look extremely impressive, most notably the Google+ redesign. But even with all of the design perks of the new site (seriously, check it out), the real eye-opener was the one element of the social network that’s an unqualified success: the video-chat platform Hangouts, which has found an audience in the education community in particular and has tapped into the strength of Google’s other popular social network, YouTube.

And while freemium Twitter competitor App.net offers many things its much larger competitor does not, including a developer-friendly environment, one thing it does not have is a large number of users outside of the tech sector. It has potential, and it has community. But the hard part is expanding reach while keeping its insular appeal.

The truth is, you can’t make “Fetch” happen. But you can find underserved communities, offer them a space to grow, be proactive with community interaction, and ensure your staff is willing to both interact and listen to user concerns.

Even the best communities wobble after a while, though.

One Community’s Fade

Back in 2004, when I first got into the newspaper industry, my approach to raising my voice in the field was through a forum I found called Visual Editors, a site that offered something the industry group for my section of the newsroom, the Society for News Design (SND), did not at the time.

And it had one killer feature that gave the industry something it had never had before—a way to instantly communicate.

See, many newspaper designers work the same kind of schedule: At the end of the night, designers generally had a one-hour gap where they waited for the copy desk to go through their pages—and this forum had the perfect outlet for those designers to talk shop via web chat while they were waiting. Many friendships were made through this site, and when SND’s annual meetings came up, the relationships were already solid long before anyone met in person.

But when the site eventually moved to the social-network-in-a-box Ning platform, something changed about the dynamic. The bells and whistles got in the way of the real reason everyone showed up—to talk about newspaper design. (And worse, the web chat was de-emphasized, removing one of the main reasons many people used the site.) And slowly, the original community dispersed, eventually moving to other platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter.

The community is still online (and it produced one bona fide industry star in American Copy Editors Society blogger Charles Apple), but it’s not nearly as influential as it was.

Shaken, Not Stirred

In its own way, that’s what Tumblr users are freaking out about.

Many of the older users came from other communities, like LiveJournal and MySpace, where bad corporate decisions and acquisitions undermined the original goals of the community and eventually compelled users to leave.

Should we give Yahoo a chance, however? Yes, because while Yahoo’s track record is spotty, Google (with YouTube) and Facebook (with Instagram) have each bought a product just as it was growing and managed not to lose its community going forward. And with change agent Marissa Mayer at the helm, the chances of Yahoo not screwing things up might be better than ever before.

All of this is to say one thing: Do what you can to protect your community’s integrity, no matter where it is, whether it’s behind closed doors or out in the public space.

It only takes one wrong move to cause all of the Jenga blocks to tumble over, and you could be left picking up the pieces.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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