Communities and Abandonment

"There are 0 users online. Last login: July, 2002"

The Internet has matured to the point where its “history” is starting to become open to interpretation and there are entire memes, technologies, and highly-trafficked sites that have actually faded from memory. Geocities, Lycos, Mosaic, AskJeeves and a slew of others may have a legacy within other things, but the original flavor and intent are lost forever.

One type of interaction that has been in steadily accelerating decline is the BBS. This article sums it up.

These are serious signs of the digital times. Message boards were key components of Web 1.0 — the Web before broadband, online video, social networking, advanced traffic analysis and the drive to monetize transformed it.

A major part of my early Internet experience was spent on various special interest message boards. There was a peculiar sense of “belonging” that occurred when I found out that there were literally hundreds of people around the world that shared extremely narrow hobbies, from the 1970 Plymouth Hemicuda to breeding hermit crabs (never been done in captivity). I participated enthusiastically and eventually started a few of my own. I also served as moderator for several high-profile boards. That sense of community I would get every time I joined a message board is not paralleled to any degree by something like Facebook or any other general social mechanism.

But, as mentioned in the article, special interest communities are dying, or rather, people are abandoning the format. Message boards are self-policing but liberal on off-topic tangents, and they often become tightly-knit family units as they mature. They develop their own shorthand; if you were not part of the electric bass playing community, I doubt that RWFB would mean anything to you (rosewood fretboard). Despite this “club” mentality, the best boards are always inclusive. They are forward thinking enough to realize that attrition is a real concern with this part of the web that relies 100% on participation.

So why does this matter? Because retailers have been trying, for the past few years, anyway, to create communities. Apart from technology companies, who have their own issues with message boards becoming giant tech support complainfests, they have failed. To increase engagement and to provide alternative avenues for commerce, brand-based “clubs” are popping up everywhere. And they are beautiful, informative, and robust. But they are empty. A major retailer I’ve been researching has a garden club. There are zero barriers to entry – it’s free and easy to sign up. The wealth of information is staggering, and the discussion boards are easy to use.

But there have been less than 300 users in 2 years. And no activity on the discussion boards in months. There are so many orphans (messages with zero responses), that I had to go to the second page to find an actual discussion. And this is not the exception when it comes to retail brand-based discussion boards.

It’s pretty obvious why; “community” in the Internet sense is not the same as “community” in real life. You cannot expect busy moms, technology-challenged seniors, or casual shoppers to join and enthusiastically participate in a narrow interest community, and you also cannot expect enthusiasts of a subject to trust that a community set up by a vendor of goods related to that interest is going to allow non-biased communications on their platform. This is a huge challenge that has yet to be addressed let alone overcome.

The casual and familiar conversation that message boards allowed is now available as status messages and tweets. Wikipedia, and to some extent, Google have been slowly getting better and filling the knowledge transfer gap that the demise of message boards may leave. But that sense of community and the intangible benefits that it produces (loyalty, trust, camaraderie) can’t be addressed by the big guys. If retailers are going to create communities – and they are going to have to if they want to stop cannibalizing their constituent consumers – they are going to have to think small, think organic, and let things grow on their own. It won’t fit into a simple project plan. It can’t be artificially swelled by confederates. It has to be seeded and left alone, no shunts or cages allowed.

Let’s see if we can get it right. If we don’t the BBS is SOL and DOA.

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