Community Is More Than Planet Brad

Since I’ve been working with and investing in Internet-related companies, I’ve always been fascinated with what creates a community.  Most of my investing activity has been around the infrastructure side of this problem – most notably companies that create the Internet substrate for creating, engaging, and managing community.  Occassionally I’ll venture into a company that is trying to do something with an actual community.

Recently, my head has been in this in two dimensions.  I’ve got a couple of “substrate” investments, including Me.dium and Lijit.  They started in different places but addressed a similar problem.  As they have evolved, they are diverging even more, but helping me really understand two sides of a very complicated issue.

The stimuli for thinking about both of these came from my realization – mostly through playing with MyBlogLog and talking to Fred Wilson – that I already had an actively engaged community on Feld Thoughts (yes – that would be you.)  My playing around with coordinating the FeedBurner VC Network helped me understand the dynamic even better.  But these were all self-referential communities – ones that were oriented around “Planet Brad” (I like to describe my own little world – the one that I’m at the center of – as Planet Brad – to distinguish it from the real universe), rather than ones that I joined because of affinity.

I’ve had a couple of investments around actual communities, including Judy’s Book, Enthusiast Group, and Dogster.  I’ve learned different things from each of these, but the most from Dogster about how a high affinity community actually grows.  When I first heard of Dogster, my reaction was probably the same as most investors (“social networks for dogs?  That’ll be a dog.”)  Wrong.  Ted and his gang get it and are masters of Planet Dog (and Planet Cat).  They’ve got a great quick presentation up that they did at CommunityNext titled Community Is Your Most Valuable Asset that is worth a look if you care about any of this stuff.

If you don’t, just remember that for those of us with mild dyslexia (or compulsions), we occassionally confuse dogs and gods, which occassionally turns into a really religious experience.

  • At breakfast with Dick Costelo last week, Dick said (and I believe he was quoting someone, but I don’t know who), “You can’t copy community.” It was a comment in reference to Flickr, and the many people trying to do Flickr knock-offs. It’s so true… you can copy all the same features… in fact, you can make superior features, but you can’t copy community. It must grow organicly and will be uniquely your own.

  • I have to say, although I like the interface of Lijit, I have absolutely no idea what it is or why. I had it on our blog for a few weeks, I’ve had 570 searches – and still no idea what or why it’s doing. Aha – it is allowing searches of our blog? Great – but not new. So where’s the community? I looked to add some more sources into it, but it looks like I can only add more blogs. Now, if it did something like MyBlogLog where people could add themselves to my community and then allow secondary level searching of their blog or something like that, it might go somewhere. At the moment – I’m a bit lost.

  • Ivan,

    Thanks for the comment on Lijit and let me try to help out

  • Todd

    I had the same thoughts as Ivan. Reading your comments, I have a better understanding. My gut says I’m still not positive about what it is that Lijit does. You may find Scott Maxwell’s post on messaging extremely valuable.

  • Jack,

    Thanks for the reference. We are a bit nerdy around Lijit and better messaging is a high priority. I really enjoyed the Scott Maxwell reference and will give it a try as we refine our messaging.

    Thanks again, i love to get these kinds of comments!

  • It certainly seems like it’d be possible to improve on blogs when it comes to communities.

    On the plus side, a good blogger will provide grist for conversations and a nucleus around which the community will grow. As word spreads, people with common interests may gather there from around the Internet, especially if the blog has a theme.

    There are some serious drawbacks to blogs as community builders, though.

    • Unequal power can disrupt the conversation. It’s the blogger’s blog, which puts the blogger in the role of moderator. Sometimes that works, but sometimes it can stifle conversations.
    • Conversations become fragmented over time. As the blogger posts new entries, the conversation in the comments area has to migrate to the new entries. New input tends to drop off as the old entry cycles off the RSS feed. Compare with an e-mail discussion group, where conversation threads tend to arise and die as the community’s interest in them waxes and wanes.
    • Conversations become fragmented over space. If you have a group of friends, each with his or her own blog, it can be very difficult to follow a conversation that spreads across the multiple blogs.

    I plan to check out Me.dium once they have the capacity to let me in. I’ll be curious to see how well its design addresses some of these issues.