A community site without a community

Taking a little time at home last week gave me a chance to play around with one of my experiments that was nearly at its end. FlipBait is a simple Pligg/MediaWiki site that pokes fun at the dotcom golddiggers out there.

It’s mostly a sandbox for me both technically and journalistically. But it’s not really helping to inform or build community the way I hoped.

First, after a month I still have no participants. There have been several passersby, but a group publishing site needs to have a core team looking after its well being.

Second, it’s just too much work in its current form for me to keep posting to it.

I sort of expected this to happen, but I’m a big fan of experimentation. So, I thought I might analyze the issues for a few blog posts and close it down…

…but then Pligg 9 was released.

The new version of this Digg-like CMS added a key feature that may alter the dynamics of the site completely: Feed Importing.

I give it a few RSS feeds. It then imports the headlines from those feeds automatically.

Now, I have a bunch of feeds all pouring headlines into FlipBait throughout the day. I’m aggregating the usual suspects like TechCrunch and GigaOM and VentureBeat, but I also found a few sources from various searches that effectively round out the breadth of the coverage

I can find new dotcom golddiggers without fail every day.

This is very cool. Though you can see back in the Pligg forum archives that there was some debate about whether this feature would destroy the whole dynamic of voting-based publishing. That may be true, but it’s just too useful not to have.

Now, this might be the most interesting part…

I’m also importing stories from del.icio.us using a new tag: “flipbait“. That means that if you tag an article with “flipbait”, Pligg will automatically import that article and make it available to the FlipBait community. That’s how I’m entering my own favorite posts for the site as opposed to using the ‘submit’ function directly at flipbait.com.

You don’t ever have to visit the domain, actually, because you can pull articles to read from the RSS feed and submit articles to the site just by tagging as you already do.

Hmmm…what does that mean? Interesting question. Can a meaningful community form around a word that represents an idea?

Preview of the del.icio.us publisher api

I just posted a short screencast on the YDN blog of the cool new publisher api coming from del.icio.us soon. I’ve also embedded the video below. Lots of interesting possibilities with this new service, for sure.

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The importance of purpose in peer production

What is it about Nick Carr’s recent challenge to Yochai Benkler’s views on the peer production model that feels wrong? He says that peer production exists prior to a commercial market and that a commercial market will break down the peer production model.

“One thing that has become clear is that the success of social production collectives hinges on the intensive contributions of a very small subset of their members. Not only that, but it’s possible to identify who these people are and to measure their contributions with considerable precision. That means, as well, that these people are valuable in old-fashioned monetary terms – that they could charge for what they do. They have, in other words, a price, even if they’re not currently charging it. The question, then, is simple: Will the “amateurs” go pro? If they have a price, will they take it?”

Nick’s challenge is accurate, particularly when a peer production model doesn’t have a strong enough purpose to hold it together through adversity.

And Jason Calacanis has done what almost anyone in his shoes would also try by offering to pay Digg users for their “labor” on Netscape instead of on Digg. He wants to win.

“I’m absolutely convinced that the top 20 people on DIGG, Delicious, Flickr, MySpace, and Reddit are worth $1,000 a month and if we’re the first folks to pay them that is fine with me–we will take the risk and the arrows from the folks who think we’re corrupting the community process”

I guess it’s the assumption that people are motivated first and foremost by money that bothers me. No doubt I’ll do something for money if the benefit of doing it for love or because it’s right is less than the benefit of having the cash. I want to give my family all the advantages that I can.

But I think Nick misunderstands a value proposition inherent in the concept of communities.

There are a lot of people who put a lot of energy into building their church community when that time could be spent elsewhere making money. And I doubt most churches would suffer any significant memership losses if a nearby competing church offered to pay people to switch churches. They participate in the church community because the investment returns have personal and social value that have nothing to do with their material wealth.

People who moderate online communities like some of the more active Yahoo! groups invest themselves because of their interest in things like social influence or sometimes even for other selfish gains. The really successful groups have an undeniable and crystal clear purpose.

For example, the San Francisco Golden Gate Mother’s Group is a highly engaged community of women with new babies who help each other with the day-to-day challenges of urban motherhood. The community holds itself together by the shared desire to raise children well. That mission couldn’t be any simpler or more important to a first time mother. Even the least-engaged member understands that answering someone’s question now results in better answers for you when you need help in the future.

Paying people to participate wouldn’t make them better at what they do. I’d argue it might actually make them worse. If Netscape was a brand with a purpose that mattered to me, then Jason wouldn’t have to pay me or even the best bookmarkers to participate.

Nick also challenges the notion that peer production can operate without management overhead. I think he miscalculates the role of management in peer production. Yes, it may be required, but management is a service to the group, a service to the mission. Management in peer production could probably be outsourced.

I do think Benkler may actually underestimate the importance of a clear and cohesive mission for the group. Without a core purpose that the members of the group find important, a competing commercial market could very well break down the community.

But that then begs the question of how valuable the community was in the first place.

Designing for the future

There’s a great presentation by William McDonough speaking at the Bioneers Conference back in 2000 about designing for the future available via Google Video (thanks Metafilter). He has a revolutionary perspective on how humanity needs to think about its current institutions and processes compared to the kind of future we’re currently designing for ourselves.

He talks about the design flaws in a society that doesn’t yet respect the rights of non human species or the future generations of life. The Endangered Species Act was passed only 30 years ago, the first acknowledgement that another species has a right to exist. He discusses the design flaws in the Industrial Revolution that led to man’s intent to constrain nature.

McDonough goes on to talk about waste and the idea of “throwing things away”. Such phrases and concepts will undoubtedly be challenged by our children who have to own the future waste problems today’s generations are creating for them. He asks how you would map the plutonian disposal locations buried deep below the earth’s surface today for generations thousands of years from now who will surely need to know where we put it.

Anyhow, this presentation really captured my imagination in several ways including the important question of what we are designing into our future world with today’s Internet innovations. What can we do today to at least mitigate if not correct the known errors in judgment made to date?

For example…

Social Decay
The tools of the Internet have enabled us to connect to other geographically diverse people in amazing ways at amazing speeds at low cost. In most cases, those connections are lighter and looser and less involved than the connections people create when spending time doing things together.

Are the lightweight connections on the Internet costing us time spent face-to-face? Are we isolating ourselves from the real world as we bury ourselves under the many media experiences surrounding us all the time? How can the Internet connect us more deeply and meaningfully to the people and the things that matter rather than distance us?

Information Classes
Knowledge is power. But the power of knowledge should never be used for subjugation.  Couldn’t we mitigate abuse of knowledge by giving everyone access to as much knowledge as they want to have?  Is Internet access a right on a global scale that should be protected for all? Should objective information such as independent journalism be not just a protected public service but a requirement for modern global society?

Energy Consumption

Photo: Fully Armed Vishnu

The power requirements needed to sustain all the web sites in the world are escalating. Are there other ways to power the Internet? Can computers and networks use less power and create less waste? Is it possible to have a entirely recyclable phone? More importantly, can they create power and reduce waste?

McDonough challenges traditional capitalism and government policy alike. He sees a triumverate forming where a “Bill of Responsibility” much like the “Bill of Rights” might reconstruct the incentives for making the world a better place. It’s not about creating efficiency but rather creating a design for growth.

The questions is, “What do you want to grow?”