Be Careful About Pinning Your Hope on "Communities"

I was a guest on a webcast about social software this week (you can watch it here; it’s free) and the question came up about what publications can do to build community. I responded that they can’t do much and they shouldn’t even try because, with few exceptions, readers aren’t a community.

Then I checked my RSS reader the next morning and noticed this item from Content Ninja that makes the very same point: “You cannot build a community around content.”

“Community” is a poorly understood term (just look at the variety of definitions in online reference sources) and, like many buzzwords, it is being overused right now. Mainstream publishers trying to escape their sinking businesses are clinging to the community life raft, hoping that it offers hope for a future. For some it does, but for many general-interest publications, it’s a waste of time.

Newspapers, for example, have historically defined their communities geographically because that’s the business model that worked. While people who share a common space on the planet are technically a community, they’re the least cohesive kind of community. Outside of a shared interest in certain issues like public safety or schools, residents of a city or town have little in common. They may occasionally form strong communities around common interests like a school bond or tax increase, but those groups invariably dissolve as the issue goes away.

There are readership communities that work. Subscribers to a special interest magazine about needlepoint or scuba diving are a type of community. Those people have intense shared interests and they are much more likely to bond together in an online forum that serves those interests. Publishers of special-interest magazines have the best chance of turning their readership into self-sustaining online communities.

General-interest publishers serving broad audiences don’t. Their strength is creating content and their best chance of building community involves giving people a chance to discuss, comment upon and contribute to their content. USA Today does about the best of any major newspaper at encouraging this kind of reader participation. It encourages readers to comment upon and discuss its stories within the the limited confines of non-threaded discussion, but the readers themselves have no means to create groups, initiate their own discussions or contact each other. There’s nothing wrong with that. USA Today doesn’t have the illusion that two million readers are a community. It’s comfortable with its place in the world.

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