There are a huge range of websites that offer like minded individuals the opportunity to come together and share joint passions. Gardening, archaeology, science, journalism: the list could go on for a long time. The internet is an enabling technology, bypassing constraints of distance and accessibility.
One of the features of online life that has significantly contributed to the growth in these online environments is the concept of ‘User Generated Content’.
Look at your sunday paper. It’s got page after page of articles, adverts and features, all of which has been carefully crafted to inform you, to entertain you, or to sell you some ornamental china frogs (*only 12 monthly payments and these delightful artisan frogs could be yours to keep. Forever!*)
The concept of user generated content is that someone delivers your paper, but it has no content: you have to write some of it yourself, then pass it on, so that someone else can write something new. It’s a devolved model of content creation that both satisfies the need to have lots of content with the desire of lots of people to write things. In theory, it’s the best of all worlds. And, indeed, it frequently forms the foundation of many successful sites.
Once you adapt to the concept that it’s unedited, that there is no defining editorial stance, then you know what you’re in for. Or you can employ the community to provide editorial input too: look at Wikipedia, user generated and user moderated content. Sure, there are gripes and issues with it, but the principle is sound.
So some people engage with these communities to contribute, to help to build the collective knowledge.
Others prefer to respond to content, to take part in the debate, to consume new information and react to it. This is the nature of most forums and is increasingly where we turn to for answers. If you google ‘how to change a fanbelt’, chances are that you will find a forum high in the results.
In this sense, online communities deliver something to both questioner and respondent. For the former, it’s a chance to demonstrate expertise, for the latter, a chance to reach out to a large pool of potential experts. People within these forums often spend considerable time responding to posts, although there can be a less convivial side to it. We find that people behave differently online, with less inhibition. Often you’ll see that a post will ask a question, that someone will respond, but that in subsequent questions, answers and responses, people get increasingly aggressive and put others down. There can be a really nasty edge to some of these discussions.
It’s not necessarily something that’s an issue if you are an experienced forum dweller, but for newcomers, it’s intimidating.
Not all online communities are created from user generated content or forums. There are many sites that specialise in bringing together, in curating, a selection of information and resources that relate to a specific topic, be it XBox games or Management Development tools. These sites may be altruistic, or may be paid for services: either subscription based or pay per use.
If one thing is certain, it’s that the models of commerce, of valuing Intellectual Property and expertise online is a rapidly evolving one. Micro payments are particularly of interest, the theory being that you think hard before spending £10 a month on something, but would think little of spending 25 pence. Micro payments add up over time, and if someone has spent 25 pence once, they are highly likely to do so again.
So people come together in communities for various reasons: to find something out, to gain support, to give support, teach or show off, or to make money. So, much like in the real world i suppose!
The opportunities for creating real value added places to engage with like minded individuals, to find high quality information in a well curated space, these are significant in many fields. As businesses increasingly operate online, both for trading and for learning and development, they need to be aware that they are competing for both your time and your money. As discerning consumers, we may increasingly choose to do our learning and engage wherever best rewards that effort. This may not be our employer or local business.