Worlds & Time

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Bar of Entry

So, the holy grail of the internet seems to be online communities. If you've got it, you get page views by the thousands and people will follow your every move and buy products that you recommend and basically make your life a joy worth living. Or at least that's how it seems to me from the outside.

I think that a person that doesn't live their life on the internet can maybe belong to five online communities without running into trouble. Big ones, that is, and they can replace a big one with two or three small ones without issue.

Take me. I used to be a IIDBer, a CFer, a nominal Farker, a Myspacer and I read a few webcomics (Ooh, I forgot those. They don't require much time. You can probably read ten to twenty comics regularly before it sucks up as much time as a big online community).

Now I'm a TFarker, a Facebooker, a slactivist witness, a Qweerty/TowleRoader, and I read a few webcomics and I'm on the periphery of being a TalkRatter.

Your affiliations change from time to time. IIDB rejected me. MySpace suddenly wasn't cool any more. And some of the webcomics that I used to read don't update any more.

When that happens, you're lost to the winds for a while. You can't spend more time at the places that you frequent than you already do without suffering from boredom or overload, so you drift about and check profiles and eventually find another community to join.

But even though I've got logins at dozens of places, I don't really pay much regular attention to them.

So what prevents me from becomming invested in a new online community? The Bar of Entry. Dun-dun-dun.

This imaginary object, the Bar of Entry, is set higher or lower by the conditions of the community and makes it either easier or harder for people to join and form a community at. This is probably written in some guide to forming stable online communities so that business people can make money off of them, but let me see if I can recreate it from deduction.
  1. Design
  2. Broad Appeal
  3. Stimulation
  4. Ease of Application
  5. Consistency
  6. Prior Community
  7. Popularity
First, Design. Some sites are badly designed and some sites are well designed. And this isn't necesarily just measure of how visually pretty a site is but also how easy it is to use.

One of my favorites pieces of widely used community software is vBulletin. vBulletin is a great piece of software. It usually looks good, it's nearly infinitely customizable and it presents a profession and polished user interface that is easy enough to understand and take from vBulletin site to vBulletin site.

On the other hand, the typepad comment system that slacktivist currently uses blows chunks. It only shows 50 comments per page, and the typical slactivist post gets around 300 or so. Navigating between pages is a pain in the ass. It won't tell you how many pages the thread has, and it only provides forward and back buttons. If you read 100 comments the first day and then come back to read the next few hundred posts the next day, you still have to scroll through the first and second pages to get to the links to the next page. Nor does it allow you to put all of the comments on one page so you can scroll up and down to see which comments link with comments that are more than 50 responses removed.

Facebook also has some issues with the way that it operates, especially around photos. This entire post exists because BoingBoing just ate one of my posts, and I started to wonder if it was worth the trouble to try to get myself invested there.

Despite my love of vBulletin, only the community that I'm peripherally involved with uses it. In fact, I would hazzard to say that slactivist is one of my favorite communities, despite all the usage issues. So even though in this catecory it has a high bar, that didn't prevent me from joining the community.

Broad Appeal is the next notch on the Bar of Entry that I came up with. The more broadly the site appeals to people, the more people will want to join it. The number of Christians is greater than the number of atheists, so CF > IIDB. This will always be the case.

However, there are limits to Broad Appeal. Yeah, if you run a site that talks about fast cars you have broader appeal than a site that caters to Mustang owners only. (# of Fast Car owners > # of Mustang owners). Unfortunately, you'll also have a really difficult time creating an interesting community for the owners of all fast cars because people want to engage with what you're talking about.

Thus, the counter to Broad Appeal is Stimulation, by which I mean having interesting things for people to come look at and interact with.

If you try to create a site for all fast cars, it's pretty much impossible for one (or two or three) people to really do the sort of research and writing that will people coming back and getting engaged.

Stimulation also covers a few other things: How often are things posted, how well are they written, and what can I do to respond/interact with the community?

Whatever, John Scalzi's blog is usually posted multiple times a day, creating a high level of interest because every day I can visit and find something new.

Slactivist only posts one to three times a week but the quality of the articles is incredibly high.

Fark scores incredibly well in this category though, the highest of all my communities. It gets posted multiple times an hour (once a minute or so for TFark), the article headlines are diverse and funny, and not only does it provide a way for me to submit my own headlines, it has huge comment threads (and TFark has even more). Digg is another community that just hits this out of the park.

MySpace and Facebook also have lots of stuff for a person to do. MySpace has infinitely customizable pages and Facebook has the wall and games.

Ease of Application is how easy things are to join. I just need to leave a user name and email address on Making Light and Slactivist, and they don't even bother to verify them. Registration is the next step up (which will keep a surprising number of people from joining, See After user name registration, the next step is actually forcing people to gain human verified approval (IIDB required all new users to go though Admin approval) and the final step is requiring money. TFark costs five dollars a month. Something Awful requires a one time $9.95 fee.

Consistency is easy enough to understand. Qweerty has a semi-daily post with hot guys in it. I've already mentioned that slactivist is consistently high quality. On the other hand, some days Fark will be bouncing off the walls and some days nothing that gets posted catches my eye.

This blog happens to be terrible at consistency. I mean, you never know when one of these things is going to go up. There was a six month period where nothing got posted (visibly, anyway). The only three posts that people care about are: The Hot Gymansts post, the 10 Intellectual Sci-fi Movies post, and the review of Little Brother so I'm not even consistently boring.

Prior Community is a little more difficult for an aspiring blogger to control. Some places are generally genial and nice to new people. Making Light is good at this. Slacktivist is okay at it, although people there tend to use big words like "consistency" and "dominionist" and other four syllablers.

Fark treats newcommers like tumors on toliet scum. TFarkers look down on Farkers, and join date and user number is sometimes used like a badge. Most swearing isn't censored and implied and outright insults go unedited.

Part of prior community is definitely the people that run it. The way that Fark is run shapes that community. The way that slactivist writes shapes the community there.

Finally, the last on the list is Popularity. When someone is searching for a new community to join they can only join the communities that they can find. An intensive search for their perfect community might reveal a small place with six other members but they're more likely to find a place where those six members exist among a thousand other members. If everyone lists "BoingBoing" on their list of blogs that they follow a new person is more likely to wonder what all of the fuss is about.

The weird thing about Popularity is that it's inextricably linked with the popularity of the person running it. Rosie O'Donnell blogs and probably gets hundreds of thousands of people that read her blogs even though they don't appear to be particularly engrossing or well written. But she's popular, so her blog is too.

Sometimes this creates a recursive loop. Wil Wheaton was just an actor. Then he started blogging. Now he's more famous as a blogger and writer than I think he was as just an actor. Scalzi was a blogger first, and blogging led to writing, and now people that read his books can become invested in his blogs. Now they've got slowly expanding audiences that will someday take over the earth.

So now that I've explained all of the parts of the Bar of Entry, there's still the bar itself.

If you start a blog or website looking to build a community of users, all of the notches get added together. Even if you have the best designed blog on the planet, if it's about Ukrainian Easter Eggs, gets posted twice a year, requires a registration, and the only other member is your foul mouthed Aunt Ester you probably don't have a winning combination.

On the other hand, if you're a internationally famous actor, blog every day in perfect English about your life and the behind the scenes exploits of your costars (immensely broad appeal), and have a site that is designed that makes your users want to pull their own teeth out in frustration, you'll still have thousands flock to you.

It's all a balancing act. Control the variables that you can and see where it takes you.

One final caveat that I want to repeat about all of this though: not all users are looking for a new home. No matter how interesting, easy to use, and how broad your appeal is, not everyone is going to be interested. Perez Hilton doesn't have a 100% of the market share, although I'm sure he's working on it.

He does have millions of people that check his blog daily though and I'll bet that he's mostly happy with the community of people that check him everyday.

If I had millions of people reading my blog, I think I would be.

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  • It is totally the great injustice of the universe that mediocre people are getting the spotlight and the people that want to create something genuine and unique that just isn't mass palatable will never have the same success. *shakes fist*

    By Blogger Ashley, at 11:37 AM  

  • I guess I didn't specifically point out how strange it is that you don't really need to be excellent to gather a following, you just have to not be bad enough to overcome your other scores.

    I can think of (at least) one incredibly famous blogger that is incredibly successful without being particularly interesting. He's not even really too far on this side of palatable.

    By Blogger Spherical Time, at 1:53 AM  

  • Hey Ben!

    That's cool that you'll be going to the M.V. for christmas. I have friends from Middlebury who summer there and I here it's beautiful. I also have friends from Middlbury who use the word summer as a verb and that my friend is less than beautiful. Are you doing another writing thing there?

    Sorry for using your blog as an e-mail/random message space.


    By Blogger Keith, at 1:15 PM  

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