“Community” doesn’t matter
The way most tech entrepreneurs emphasize the word is disingenuous and possibly misleading for other startups.
For example, I hear people say that users comment or participate because of a sense of community. I hear this all the time, so much so that “community” may be the new “go viral.”
Users do things because they have incentive to do so. That’s it. That’s the grand thing. That incentive may be “community,” but it often is not. While not having a sense of community can create feelings of insecurity that dis-incentivize participation, it is often not the primary motivator.
For example, I do no participate in Groupon because of a sense of community. I do it because I like the deals and I like sharing the deals – not with Groupon’s online “community,” but with my own social graph.
I feel very safe using Mint.com, but it is not because of a sense of community. Rather, it was their clean design, one nice article in Techcrunch and a couple of recommendations from friends of mine and – voila: It feels safe.
Even in the above examples, there is another pattern. Not only was the makeup of the “community of users” of those services relatively unimportant, but my relationship with my own social graph was very important. My friends make me feel safe. I want to impress my friends.
And of course there are other great incentives to doing stuff online. For example, del.icio.us was just awesome at saving bookmarks across browsers and working collaboratively at work. But when my tags were aggregated with others’ tags, del.icio.us became a useful index of web services.
I did it for me. I tag for me. I tried Mint and use Groupon for my personal benefit. It’s the same with Facebook and on down the line. I continue to use the service because it continues to be the easiest way to get to that benefit.
So the question is: Why would users want to use your service? And, in relative terms, are there easier ways for them to derive the same benefit from another service?
I could have nabbed that line right out of a “how to write your first business plan” book. Yet we have gotten so bored with this simple concept that we wrap it in mystery. Nowadays, anytime I hear someone is offering an incentive to participate online, it is some form of “game mechanics.” This is another overused and often misleading term.
Groupon used to rely on game mechanics. Sure, early on you had to tell all your friends about a deal because you didn’t know if the deal would reach a threshold and become active. At this point, almost every deal in every market kills the threshold so fast I bet most Groupon users these days don’t even realize that rule exists. The “game” is really that you have only one day to purchase the deal. Wow, fun game! I can’t wait to play.
It’s applying a simple business rule to incentivize desired behavior. I guess you can call it what you want to, but I think it just makes corporate leaders seem like they are innovating something really novel, when they are doing something we all do.
Let’s take a look at Foursquare for a moment. It uses badges and points. It turns your whole life into a game, right? Game mechanics. Well, sure, but people are looking at the wrong side of the game to emulate. Think of when you were a kid playing your first RPG or maybe 3D platformer. One of the most fun things these game opened up was the ability to explore. Exploring the game world was fun, and stuff you found there was interesting. I liked to play RPGs on a TV with a friend so we could share the experience.
I love exploring, and I love sharing the experience with my friend. Did I really care, then or now, about scores? Sure, I did and do a little. But that is a byproduct of the game, not the real mechanism. The game mechanism and deep-rooted motivation for using Foursquare is exploring my world. It is adding a social layer and a scoring layer that completes the game of my world.
Going a bit deeper, mayorships are another game mechanism employed by Foursquare. Often, the mayorship is actually driven by simple incentives. There is an incentive to impress your friends. There is an incentive to feel like you own the place or that you are closer to the people who work there. I used to feel that about a little restaurant called Ink Eats & Drinks just a couple of blocks from my house. This was way before Foursquare, and it wasn’t scored.
OK, now how would you apply these findings in the local news space? For one, if you want to incentivize participation and good behavior on your site, try answering a simple set of questions:
- What do you want users to do? Do you want them to comment, rate, tag, share or write an article?
- What benefit do they derive from that?
- Why would they chose to use your service to do that over other services?
Take the example of a comment. I would argue that not only are comments not “broken” as some would have you think, but comment behavior is much easier to understand in the context of the above questions than in the context of “community.”
So you want a user to comment. What makes you comment? I know what makes me comment every time – even when I’m on my stupid little phone. I comment when I virulently disagree with something in an article or another comment. Disagreeing makes me feel anxious and even a little upset. The comment lets me relieve that tension. Then I usually tell a bunch of people that day how stupid the “thing that made me mad” was and how smart and passionate my response was. I keep checking back to see if others agree in rating my comment or leaving their own. I get into small spats with people I may or may not have known before.
Break it down. Comments are spurred by emotion. They are designed as a reactive mechanism. They themselves can be the tonic – especially if you can easily share them in context with your social graph. This is why tying Twitter to comment systems is natural. This is why Facebook comments should work. I know they don’t, but that’s another subject.
Comments may do something useful in creating a community of people around issues over time. That is not why I do it, but a happy byproduct of the action. How media outlets then leverage these communities who have niche interests is up to them, but at this point, they don’t really do it well.
On The Sacramento Press, we have a really hot topic. All the articles are from community contributors and biased to different sides of a debate about how the local grocery co-op operates. So we want to write a less-biased story about the issue and then create a splash page to lay out all the advocacy pieces and our story in a balanced way. It would be splendid if we could make the same commentor community that was active on the earlier threads aware of our new work around the subject.
Going further, it would be nice to solicit many of those people who write comments to give us more context in a full-length opinion piece. We need to find ways to incentivize that behavior. And we have an advantage: We are local. We can meet the contributor for coffee. We can explore our city together. We can chat and interact. We can even play. As a local news source, we can be at the center of an actual community and facilitate crucial conversations amongst the members of the community most likely to have direct impacts on all of our lives.
Now that is not just jargon. That is not a misuse of the term. That is community.