From Content to Community

Since the beginnings of the commercial web, people learned quickly that “content is king.” Appealing and unique content is a guarantee of raw traffic, and that hasn’t changed with Web 2.0.

What HAS changed is that traffic from content won’t necessarily result in return visitors and loyalty. Syndication feeds have made it increasingly easy to filter exposure to websites, so that a user can maximize only what they want to see. I won’t bother browsing around a website that’s got interesting content 75% of the time, when I can grab its feed and use my newsreader to view interesting content from many sources nearly 100% of the time.

Quality content needs vibrant community interaction around it to ensure that a website gets loyal return visitors. A lot of old media still hasn’t figured this out. They try to fool users with fancy-looking websites, attempting to masking the fact they’re still, well, old media.

One example is The San Francisco Chronicle’s upcoming redesign. While the visual feel is fairly clean and consistent, the page is horribly cluttered. The flawed rationale is pretty obvious: let’s put tons of crap on the screen and maybe someone will click something!

User feedback on the redesign is very mixed. I suspect that the positive responses are coming from non-tech savvy readers, people who are evaluating the layout based on its resemblance to a print newspaper. (They’ll soon change their minds when they can’t easily find anything.) That audience isn’t very large and it’s slowly dying out over time.

Interestingly, the negative responses aren’t just about layout clutter, but the lack of interactivity. Intelligent, web-savvy users aren’t interested in being passive readers. They want to be part of the news, to help shape it and to comment on it; they want their voices featured prominently on the site, and not ghettoized in tiny comments sections, sidebar polls, or letters to the editor. Being a truly integral part of a community makes engaging people feel appreciated, gives them a reason to come back, and makes them want to spread the word.

If Web 2.0 means anything at all, it means that people are realizing the web isn’t yet another publishing medium; it’s an interface for social interaction. And this means successful websites are increasingly distinguished by the kinds of community they foster, not just their content. In the world of technology news, for example, there are plenty of sites that publish decent, timely content, original or aggregated. Sure, they each have their own editorial styles, but in my mind, what truly separates them are the unique communities: Slashdot is mostly full of snarky, pro-Linux and anti-Microsoft ideologues; ars technica is a bit more neutral with a strong gamer and “power user” demographic; reddit tends to have good conversations about submitted links in their programming subsections.

There will always be a place for online newspapers and their model of publishing, but I think their core readership and audience will continue to decline, unless they’re willing to give up their monopoly on content production and focus on fostering distinctive communities.

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