Web Communities Don't Bring in the $$$

ZDNet cans paid moderators

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Media SurveyOne of the most depressing stories to come out of the Internet crash is the failure of community on the web. Like so much else online, sites that bring users in to discuss matters have been a commercial disappointment.

The emotional argument for community was a democratic one: The web will bring us all together, enabling us all to come together as equals to talk about products, food, politics, sports, whatever. The commercial argument was actually less clear, if that's possible.

No question about it, there are successful discussion boards on the Internet. The problem with them is that few if any of them, have any chance of making money. The most famous that I know of is Slashdot.org, owned now by VA Linux and dedicated mostly to discussing technical topics with a pro-open source bent.

I'd also consider Epinions.com, a site where consumers rate and discuss products and services, a modest success from a traffic standpoint, but I have no idea if it makes money. More obviously unsuccessful in the same field as Epinions was Deja.com, which began as a search engine for Usenet but tried to become a community for online buyers of anything that could be discussed on Usenet. Just a few days ago, Deja was bought out by Google, which promptly shut down whatever was left of Deja and stripped it back to the Usenet searching facility.

There are also lots of other communities that don't try so hard to make money. In my town (Maplewood, NJ) a local guy runs a web site (http://www.maplewoodonline.com/) with a message board that is quite busy. There are sites that charge for access to discussions, probably as part of a subscription cost for other features (the Wall Street Journal is an example), but the discussions are a small part of it; the WSJ barely even mentions their own discussions.

In fact, there are many examples of retrenchment, and the trade press is full of them. We, in the trade press, were pioneers in the online discussion business. Long before the Internet became a big deal there was PCMagNet, which I believe began life as a single computer in Bill Machrone's office. But by the time I got to Ziff-Davis in 1991, "Ziffnet" was the biggest part of Compuserve, which, if I'm not mistaken, was the biggest player in the online business at the time.

Representing PC Week Labs on Ziffnet was one of the most fun and the most frustration of my job. I got to gab with others about technical matters, but I learned early on a lesson that's still true of online discussion sites: the inmates run the asylum. There are a lot of unreasonable people in the world, but they get a lot more unreasonable when they write messages online. In fact, I'd say most people lose inhibitions when writing online, but it's the biggest jerks among us who end up dominating the discussion and controlling the agenda. On the PC Week forum of Ziffnet, I ended up spending a great deal of my time defending myself against conspiracy theories. I've seen the same sort of thing on the Maplewood Online message board, where the township government officials who have the courage and decency to come online to answer questions are subjected to outrageous attacks.

Such is the fate of any attempt to have serious and open discussion online, unless you go to the trouble, expense and moral peril of having a human being decide which messages go online. Alas, while such moderated discussions filter out the crazies, they add expense.

I'm one of the moderators on ZDNet's Community Forums, where there are 56 discussion groups run by paid moderators who not only delete spam and abusive messages, but answer technical questions. My forums were on general programming issues, web programming in particular, and server administration.

CNet/ZDNet decided the other day to eliminate all the paid moderator positions. Apparently the forums weren't carrying their own weight. I haven't seen any actual numbers, but the head of the group said he was surprised at how much they lost. Now, I'm not especially surprised that really techie forums like mine were eliminated, but some of these forums were very busy. The forums will still be around, but as of March 15, there will be an automated porno filter and a staff moderator who will only eliminate spam and abuse. As great a time as I've had there, I'm not doing it for free, so I can only assume that most of the questions won't go answered. At the new CNet/ZDNet, there will still be the Talkback feature, a non-threaded mechanism that doesn't lend itself to discussion as much as barking.

I can't think of any other free, moderated independent technical discussion groups on the web, so I think the failure of the ZDNet forums is symbolic. If they lost big money on it, it basically can't be profitable. For ZDNet, I think the basic idea was "stickiness," that the forums were one more feature of the site that would tend to keep users in ZDNet rather than going elsewhere. I don't know how hard it is to measure their impact from that perspective; I assume that the CNet/ZDNet brass will find out some time after March 15.

Infoworld figured out that community was a problem a long time before ZDNet did. Infoworld used to have very busy discussion areas on their web sites. They took them down in November, 1999, for reasons unknown. Last fall they put up a notice that said that they were about to restart the forums, but the world is still waiting.

Or are they?

Copyright © 2001 Sam Whitmore's Media Survey. All rights reserved.

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