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The future of online communities

First, a shout-out to my friend Noah for putting on the very successful CommunityNext conference on the future of online communities.

You can take a look at the agenda for a general sense for what the conference covered. It was amazing to see the CEOs of Offermatica, Userplane, VideoEgg, Threadless, Hi5, Suicide Girls, HotOrNot, PlentyOfFish, Slide, and Fark all in the same day. Even more amazing is how this adds to the lineup of the Stanford Business School conference I saw last week, which had the CEO/co-founders for YouTube, PayPal, Meebo, Facebook, Pixar, VMWare, and Juniper Networks. I’ve never seen a group like these before, particularly within a week of each other.

I just wanted to highlight a couple random points that were brought up during the conference that I liked:

On engagement, in brand and in metrics
Several folks, particularly in the Founder’s Panel, mentioned the term "engagement" as a catch-all for creating a successful community. Folks defined it in several different ways – one was to have a strong and clear mission for the community. Another was to give the users the ability to do whatever they wanted to do on the site. Yet another was to make sure you had an authentic voice and you engaged your users honestly and with respect. Obviously each of these concepts are valid, but also pretty fuzzy.

One should ask the question: How do you quantify engagement? For any community, different metrics have to be created, based on what the company wants its users to do. Obviously retention, frequency of use, and activity on the site are all good things. You want people to visit often, connect with a lot of "social objects" like other people, blogs, comments, pictures, etc.

And as the DIY measurement panel suggested, you could even open some of the metrics up to be things to incent the user. For example, by browsing you get 1 point. By posting you get 5 points. Etc. And then you reward users that have collected certain numbers of points with extra features, VIP status, etc. This resonates with me since it shows a very game design-esque approach to interacting with users.

Diminishing returns on social communities?
Another common theme was the rapid proliferation of user communities. Ultimately, you’ll start hitting diminishing returns as companies niche-ify their products, into everything from old people to parents to kids to surfers.

I think the way to think of communities is that they are merely one use case for people, but it’s common across lots of disparate groups. So people are very focused on exploiting this use case for now, because it’s easy (just web forms and DB) and you get content out of it. Let’s keep in mind, though, that there are millions of other things that people care about – matching their socks, finding a girlfriend, wearing the "right" clothes, learning to draw, etc., etc. After this gold-rush is over, I think we’ll go back to solving a wider set of needs that users have, not just connecting people.

As with all media, the scarcity lies in the "attention" of the user – with the number of websites, TV shows, radio, billboards, and other ways to reach people, it’s hard to fight for time in front of any given person. So because social networks are so sticky and engaging, you can only be active on a couple. Once most of the world is on a social network of one kind to another (similar to how everyone has an e-mail, even a disposable one), there will be a saturation point. I have to imagine we’re years, not decades, to this point.

Increasing competition leads to deeper functionality
In fact, I’ll argue that the products and technologies involved will have to grow far more sophisticated. On TechCrunch, one often sees the very simple sites that are just web forms that take in information then spit it out later on a different page. This "store-and-retrieve" model will only take you so far.

I think competition will lead sites to several avenues of increasing technical complexity:

  • Take in more external/proprietary data
  • Apply smart transformations/condensations of the data
  • Or, combine platforms and disparate datasources

For more sophisticated levels of "external data," you’d likely see that in the form of proprietary/scarce datasets like the MLS, Yellow Pages, and PRISM. Because this external data requires time to acquire, format, and expose, this creates a higher competitive bar.

For applying smart transformations to this data, you’d expect functionality like clustering/recommendations/summarization/etc. The future of the Internet will look more like eHarmony (with its profile clustering) or Zillow (with its automated valuation algorithms) than

And for combining platforms, you’ll see more cross-channel interaction from phone to home PC to work PC to game console to whatever. The plumbing involved here can be daunting, which is why small technologies like recording voice data via phone and playing it on the web is not accessible for a random Web 2.0 entrepreneur. You’re already seeing some interesting companies playing in this space, where state is not tied to a platform but across platforms, and this trend will only continue.

UPDATE: Noah Brier pointed to the great Wired writeup on the Threadless guys.

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