A few months ago, Jen announces she's one of the new writers at Metroblogging Vancouver, in addition to Jonathon Narvey. Making a note it of it at work, I said in our internal group chat something to the effect of "it's almost as if you have to make something appear like an exclusive club in order to get people to join." I was a little on the grumpy side when writing that, mostly because Urban Vancouver, which has free weblogs, forums and event listings for anybody who signs up, but I actually consider Metroblogging Vancouver to be a successful group weblog: the authors have different perspectives on the same thing, and frequently contribute interesting writing. Same goes for Beyond Robson, of whom I'm envious of their Vancouver's art and music scene coverage.
Among the reasons Urban Vancouver isn't a successful community site:
- the design as seen in Internet Explorer is broken.
- even with the redesign there's a lot going on on the site: lots of blocks with 'most recent x' and 'popular y' and navigation that can be confusing
- I along with Ray are the only regular writers for the site, and I generally just cross-post Vancouver-related material (which I'd love if people like Darren Barefoot did with his great writing about Vancouver). Jonathon Narvey says he'll cross-post, and want to encourage people to do the same on Urban Vancouver.
- you have to register to post comments. That a pretty big impediment to participation. It was my decision and I stand by it: spam overwhelmed the site. As soon as we upgrade the software that powers it, that should cease to be a problem and 'anonymous' people—who can leave their contact info, just like on any other weblog—will be able to respond.
- the event listings sometimes show the correct time and sometimes don't. I'm hoping that's something related to the need to upgrade as well.
- what do you think? What would make Urban Vancouver (or similar community site) more iviting?
(Among the reasons Urban Vancouver is successful:
- fairly high traffic, and high ranking in search engines
- almost 4500 contributions over 2 plus years
- an understanding of how getting included in the aggregator, which I find useful in tracking what Vancouver bloggers talk about, benefits their weblogs even though it's technically republishing their writing. Note that inclusion is both opt-in and opt-out: you can ask to be included and to be removed as well.
- an identifiable brand, which gets me and others into some events for free as 'media'.)
We managing editors have other ideas for the site, but it languishes a bit as we work on things that are a little more mission-critical. Something I've been struggling with is, working for a company that provides tools to build community sites, I haven't created a lot of them. Successful ones, that is. PDXphiles, improvident lackwit and even 43 Thongs are good candidates for opening up for user signups. (That last one is the least likely to open up: I meant it to poke a little fun at some guys who were creating services I actually use and like, so I don't ever want to feel like I'm competing with them using their sites' design.) Watching China and Translinked have open signups, but I don't give them enough attention or promotion for people to want to participate.
If you watch my reading about community, you'll see links to some great articles about the subject:
- Jakob Nielsen on participation rates, something I've seen with Urban Vancouver
- Gillian Carson on turning visitors into users, or, a better word, participants
- Matt Haughey's article on building a community, using MetaFilter as his example (for which I don't blame him, he poured a lot of effort into it, and you can see that the first posts for a while were just him, which gives me some hope for Watching China)
- John Gladding on how to be a great host, or, or to start and maintain a great forum (aka community site)
What if you created a community site and nobody came? That question rang in my head when reading the above articles and thinking about it consumes a sizable percentage of my day. I continually have to remind myself that using the technology is about 5% of the work you put into building a community site. Public and private promotion (online and offline), maintenance of the site, user and content moderation, facilitation, participant retention, and technical support, not to mention participating yourself by creating the initial writing, video, audio, what have you, and continuing to participate in the community after it takes off constitute 95% of the time you put in. Soft skills, but hard work.
Tranlinked may or may not succeed as a place where people can write about Vancouver transit issues, but maybe I have to think smaller. Starting in April of this year, I created a group for Vancouver transit on Flickr for the sole reason that it didn't exist yet. Watching the 'translink', 'seabus', 'skytrain' tags, I politely ask people if they want to post their photos there (trying not to tell them what to do; that's a personality thing, but personality has a huge impact on the success of a community). I have quietly—via private messages, which felt more personal than leaving a drive-by comment on their photo—been building a small but already-passionate community using someone else's service. By piggy-backing on a photo-sharing community site I could carve out a niche for myself and others who think public transportation is an interesting aspect of their city.
In other words, I don't really have to build a community site or even a community: communities are usually already there. They just need a place to hang out and feel like belong to a community.