Community “Products”

Rant Alert!

I just finished the first of my three planned white papers last night, and decided to let it percolate a bit before moving on to the next two. It is currently a six-page screed on microeconomic theory in the digital age, and I will likely post some portions of it here soon. In the meantime, I thought I would catch up on some blogosphere surfing and MyWeb bookmarking (come on Yahoo! marketing, where’s the verb for that? MyWebbing? Gong!). And after reading through a couple of posts linked to from Kareem’s highly-underrated blog, something just snapped.

I work at Yahoo!. We are the leading community on the internet both in size and breadth of tools. And, we have some brilliant people who really get community (shouts out to: Ian, Michael, Russell, Randy, Stewart, Caterina, Danah, and Cameron, among others). But we also have some people who seriously don’t get it. They see community as a means to an end, not the end in itself. They are jealous of MySpace and Facebook and whatever the next big fad will be, because of their rapid audience growth.

Audience is what matters to these people because audience is what you sell in conventional advertising [oh, wtf…I’ll succumb to the 1.0/2.0 cliché – I guess it’s only a cliché because it works], let’s call it advertising 1.0. As Google has taught the world, advertising 2.0 is about selling intent. In the pre-digital age, audience put through a number of filters (like content association, demographic information, etc) was used as a proxy for intent. Advertisers weren’t really happy with this approximation, because they knew it was an inefficient means of buying what they really wanted – access to consumers with a certain intent. But, that was the best that conventional media could do, so advertisers settled. As John Wanamaker said approximately a hundred years ago, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.” I won’t go further into advertising 2.0 other than to say that it is coming faster and faster. What makes advertising 2.0 relevant to this particular rant is the fact that it favors monetization of communities, not just audiences.

Getting back to the people who don’t get the “it” of communities; the way you can tell these people is that they talk about “user-generated content” way too much – they treat it as some kind of panacea that will fix the problems inherent with trying to port conventional media business models to the internet. The worst of these offenders use the term so much that they have taken to saving time by abbreviating it…from this day forth, I vow to walk out of any meeting in which someone actually uses the term “UGC” in anything but an ironic context. (Ok, I probably won’t really do that if there are executives present…but, that person will be put on my moron list).

Derek Powazek puts it much more eloquently than I ever could:

User: One who uses. Like, you know, a junkie.
Generated: Like a generator, engine. Like, you know, a robot.
Content: Something that fills a box. Like, you know, packing peanuts.

So what’s user-generated content? Junkies robotically filling boxes with packing peanuts. Lovely.

Calling the beautiful, amazing, brilliant things people create online “user-generated content” is like sliding up to your lady, putting your arm around her and whispering, “Hey baby, let’s have intercourse.”

Amen brother! Derek goes on to suggest the term “Authentic Media,” which I like a lot and hope gets memeified. Authentic media definitely jibes a lot more with all the web and media 2.0 theory around which people are beginning to coalesce.

Anyway, back to the rant at hand. The reason I ironically titled the post “Community ‘Products'” (yes, my over use of quotation marks is often meant to denote irony), is that I don’t believe big companies can succeed at community products. Big companies, like Yahoo!, Google, Microsoft, and even AOL, contribute most to the community value chain by building community platforms, on which the community builds its own products. Isn’t that the real underlying goal of online communities, to incite scalable self-sustaining user-behavior? If you define the product as what the end-user actually consumes, the value of any community product to a given individual user tends to be proportional to its focus on his interests. On social networking sites, like Friendster, Yahoo! 360, MySpace, Facebook, etc, what the end user consumes is a combination of content produced by the host, the community, and himself. The more that product management rests in the hands of that user, the more focused the product will be on that user’s

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