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I am on a strict community moritorium

August 23, 2007

I have reached my limit. I refuse to fill out one more screen, on one more site to create one more profile. I have a profile on Facebook and Yahoo and WordPress. I have a profile on ProSportsDaily, on a few forums I have been going to for years, on MeeVee, WithoutABox, TomGreen, last.fm, and on and on it goes. I reckon I have at least 20 different profiles online. I refuse to keep track of one more.

This is a big problem. More and more, to get the full value of an application, or next generation content (video, music or website), you have to participate. Indeed, these applications and content are being designed with community involvement specifically in mind. If you don’t participate in the community, you won’t get the full value out of that application or content. But in order to participate, you need to invest in yet another online profile.

Similarly, it is a big problem for application and content developers as well. Creating an online profile requires investment in time and effort. Not only do you have to fill out user information, but you have to make friends, interact and use. Its like the first day of school all over again. People will react to this by either refusing to join any more communities (like I have) or by participating at the absolute minimum levels. Neither is a particularly good scenario. A lack of involvement is exactly what you don’t want from a community driven application or content.

Indeed, I can list any number of sites where I would like to create a profile and participate more, but I don’t because of the investment it entails (Travbuddy, Serious Eats, RUWT, I could go on and on). I am willing to bet that many of these sites are just never going to take off for this very reason: it is too hard for them to build the community required to succeed. As the community becomes either more and more niche, or more and more periphery to most people’s core interests, the investment required to participate in community becomes greater and greater, and the prospects of building the required community become more and more daunting.

There are some things application or content developers can do about this. For example, applications have devised ways to port functionality onto large, existing social networks (e.g. Travbuddy, WordPress iTunes and last.fm). Socialbox has taken another approach. They have created an IM application that competes with meebo, but lives solely on the Facebook platform, providing functionality that can’t be had elsewhere: the ability to IM within and outside of the Facebook user base. Indeed, an entire article dedicated to the economics of Facebook applications can be found here. Vuguru launched Prom Queen on Myspace, partially because of its huge density of relevant target audience, but also, I suspect, because of its proximity to a social network.

Leveraging existing social networks, rather than building new ones alleviates some of the concerns. But the notion that we would go to one place on the web for everything, just because our online profile lives there is just plain silly. Like anything else, community and social interaction must be a distributed service. Nobody gains from a thousand community islands in the interactive sea, none of whom talks to each other. I am sure by now you understand what I am ultimately getting at: while it is important for social networks to open their platforms up to allow other applications to function on them (the way Facebook did a few months ago), ultimately, these social networks should open up user profiles, allowing people to take their profile information with them wherever they roam in cyberspace.

By allowing users to export and to accrete social information and activity (such as who your friends are, what your various social network user names are, what social networks you belong to, what activity you have undertaken on various social networks, etc.), social networks would improve their lot in life. During the first Internet revolution, the AOL’s and Earthlinks of the world became the primary hubs because they were the platforms of access. During the second revolution, the likes of Yahoo! and MSN became primary hubs by providing platforms for the most important applications of the day: aggregation, “portaling” and communication via email. Now, Facebook has an opportunity to become the primary hub of the web by fueling social interaction.

Facebook is a tremendous example of the power of opening up your platforms. Opening up its user base to non-college students has certainly helped subscriber growth. But perhaps more importantly, by opening up its developer platform to outside developers, it has increased the usage per user as well. Portable user profiles would serve to help users like us as well. When we join a new social network, whether it be oriented around an application or around some content, we could immediately be connected to other friends we know from other networks. Going back to that first day of school, our propensity to play on the jungle gym is much greater if two of our friends are already on it. Perhaps the network could also devise ways to use my behavior and information from other sites to pre-populate my profile, not requiring a history of involvement. It would help the content, application and community owners as well. By lowering the barrier to involvement, you increase the chances of success. Also, knowing what networks my trusted friends visit might compel me to visit some new social networks as well (the social bookmarking model), enabling audience growth and acquisition.

So, Facebook, I say to you: open up your user profiles in the same way you opened up your developer platforms. Create a consistent, open source structure for social and interaction information that takes user privacy and security into account. Let various networks we want to join have access to that information, provided they abide by the same schema, and are willing to share information back with you. Then, let people create cool and amazing applications with that information. Both on Facebook, and anywhere else. I am willing to bet this will not only fuel greater growth in users, but will fuel growth in usage. It will also help me to participate in more communities, and allow me to more develop content that leverages community (hard), vs. content that must build community (almost impossible).

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