What If You Created A Community Site and Nobody Came?

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:

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.


On the subject of aggregation, I've heard that Google punishes sites that host duplicate content. Have you heard this? Do you think it's an issue?

Their help section on the issue says not to duplicate content, but I don't really know. Most of what I hear about Google these days sounds like voodoo. Besides, it's a technical issue that's part of the 5% of time spent on building a community site.

I was just asking specifically in regards to your comment about Vancouver-based material.

For the record, I was unceremoniously dumped from MB-Van for not posting the required 3+ times/week. Oh well. And since you asked for feedback, I'll say that Urban Vancouver has always just sortof... consfused me. The vision and purpose for the site are a bit vague. From the "about" page: This site brings together all the blogs and websites we can find out about Vancouver related topics and our comments on these blogs and websites as well as what you the citizens of Vancouver want to write about! It reads as if the site is trying to be everything to everyone, and not really succeeding at any of those things. Online Community Building through Blogs may be a relatively new phenomenon, but the basic principles of reaching an audience are the same. Figure out WHO your target is, find out WHAT they want/need (whether they know it or not), then go forward with your project in a way that fills the want/need. That's just one person's feedback, but if you want to chat about it further, I'd be happy to - just drop me a line.

Richard, interesting points. I actually had intended to write both for MetroBlogging and Urban Vancouver, but alas, reality kicked in. I just don't have the time to spend so much of it writing for free. It's tough enough getting enough posts for both my own site and MetroBlogging to keep them interesting, and since I didn't want to purely cross-post to UV (particularly since I'm included in the aggregator in any case), I just gave up on it. I wish you, Ray and the others all the best over at Bryght. Perhaps I will even post on UV at some point in the future again.

Darren: are you referring specifically about the Urban Vancouver? It absolutely duplicates content, though we do not and will not, as long as I have anything to do with it, serve ads on other people's writing. (You didn't ask, which applies to most of this comment, actually, I'm just stating that for the record.) Also we probably violate copyright, though that's not a certain statement. We've been asked, and always agreed to, remove a feed if someone didn't like it. Urban Vancouver operates on an 'easier to ask for forgiveness than permission' basis, and many people ask to get their feed included. As to the technical issue of whether duplicated content in Urban Vancouver affects negatively PageRank, I don't know. Only Google—those that have reverse-engineered Google—know for sure. If it does, there's still a cost-benefit analysis to be made: getting included in the aggregator tends to increase attention, measured in traffic, paid to the weblogs that get included. Another issue is whether content in the aggregator should be allowed to get indexed by search engines at all, since a lot of people come to Urban Vancouver, going to our contact page, and thinking they are contacting the original source. If we can, we point them in the right direction, but as to whether or not it leeches search hits from others, that's a good question.

Jen: I'm really impressed with the quantity of Metroblogging's author's output, and the quality is actually pretty good, talking and having viewpoints about the issues that people are talking about. As for our about page, maybe we should just change the text to "we are all thing to all people"? The target, in my opinion, are people who want to carve a space for themselves talking about Vancouver the city or Vancouverites the people. That's why I encourage people to cross-post their Vancouver-related posts and link back to their original posts. The site itself is very overwhelming. Geneva Lunch, which shares some of the same features as Urban Vancouver, does a better job with simplicity and focus. ...flat comments might be something we'll implement in Urban Vancouver. In fact, I just switched to them for Just a Gwai Lo. Not a lot of people get threaded message board-style comments for things that look like weblogs.

Hey, I thought I'd pop in my two cents. I think you just need bloggers. You already noted you've only got two, and most of your stuff is found elsewhere. Either you have to be a hyper-active blogging one man show, ala the Vancouverite's early months, or you have to have a stable of people who can get out a post or two a day so there's at least one new thing every 24 hours give or take. That's how you get people checking it all the time to see if there's something new. That's sort of blogging 101 though, and I'm sure you knew that already. So a few points, in no particular order. - "it's almost as if you have to make something appear like an exclusive club in order to get people to join." Well not really. I think Metroblogging is sort of what you're going for, with the exception of that there is one very thing level of administration. We take anyone whose interested in joining, though we do have specific times when we do a push on recruiting to keep our author numbers up, but really we never turn anyone away. (The reasoning behind having specific times to sign up new authors was because it was discovered that adding a new group of authors at once could really kick start a city in way that adding one or two every whenever did not). The one stipulation is being able to post on average two to three times a week and we're generally flexible on that if real life comes up. So the only real conditions is that a blogger is active in posting, and they post about Vancouver (which has never been a problem). We've had excellent bloggers join, some excellent ones leave, because it's not a job and I'm totally understanding about real world realities. Other than that there isn't much difference in the intent behind MBV and UV. We're a group blog about Vancouver, that's pretty much it. We're not the Masons, or the Illuminati. We didn't shoot Hulk into space, I promise you that. - Comments I think having to register scares off commenters. And a lot of commenters can turn into bloggers, it's happened with us. We deal with spam by turning off the comments on older posts, which deals with a lot of the robots. Also we've got pretty good filters on MoveableType. - Getting readers I don't really read UV much because your stuff as you said generally appears elsewhere and for whatever reason the World's Oldest Blogger stuff just doesn't appeal to me. Totally personal preference, it's not bad I just don't read it. I think more dedicated bloggers is needed. Either you've got to be a one or two man show, ala the Vancouverite in their first months, or just really get a goodly number of writers. Nobody would read MBV if it were just me, or at least not as many as do now. Each author brings their own readers, or some of them, and then attracts new ones. - Event Listings The event listings stuff is good, but I use MBV's event listings more. MBV's is nothing special, it runs off Upcoming's events so it's not like we're doing the work, but because Upcoming is more well used than any blog's event listings that's in my opinion a better way to go. That puts UV at a disadvantage because anyone who registers to put in an event at UV has probably already done it at Upcoming and so it's already on MBV. - Google Rank You guys do really well at Google. You're the second (and third) result under a Google search for Vancouver blog. We're the 6th. - The aggregator I think this is a really neat thing, and actually really cool. However it could be hurting you by making Vancouver bloggers think that you're just really an aggregation site and that they're already blogging for Urban Vancouver just by being included. --- I don't know exactly what you're picturing in your mind but I do think UV is a really great site. I think it needs more bloggers, but aside from that just a few tweaks. Certainly I read it more than any other Vancouver group blog (taking MBV out of the equation).