Monday, June 9, 2008

Messaging is the Core Community App

I learn new things all the time on my job. That's one of the things I like about working on the web: there's never a final, determined way to do things. The best practices of today will seem like naive self-delusions tomorrow. If you don't keep learning and discovering, you will fall hopelessly behind.

One of the things I've learned -- or that I think I've learned -- in the past year is that messaging is the core community application. It took me a while to arrive at this point of view. For a long time I believed content was king: produce excellent material and people will come to read it, and out of that assembled audience your community will form. It was a nice idea, but traffic logs exposed the lie. While I was creating excellent content, my intended readers were whizzing past it on their way to something else.

Usually their destination was the discussion forums. That perplexed me. Why, I wondered, would they bypass well-written articles and choose instead to read poorly-written, poorly-spelled, ungrammatical, and often rude, juvenile, and factually incorrect posts in the forums? Couldn't they see that the better content was available elsewhere on the site? And, of course, the answer is they could see that. They just didn't really care.

Eventually I realized that my site's visitors weren't heading to the forums because they wanted to read. They headed there because they wanted to connect with other people. They wanted an active experience, not a passive one. And the way you actively connect with another person is by communicating with them. The sites I worked on didn't provide email or private messaging, so the forum experience was the only means to talk directly with their peers.

Of course, lots of other people have figured this out. MySpace and Facebook aren't built around their excellent content, they're built around the many ways in which they allow people to message one another (for what is SuperPoke but a somewhat annoying way of sending a message?). Twitter has become a hot startup because it managed to bring messaging to the little moments in life that aren't worth email, or even IM, but still are interesting to people who share a connection with you. I may have been late arriving to the party, but that's because -- as an editor and writer -- I had a lot of preconceptions to overcome.

I'm not dissing content here. People are still consuming plenty of passive content, and there are a number of blogs that I read even though I have little interest in posting a comment or emailing the author. Passive experiences still can reward the time you put into them. But, even so, blogs have become so powerful so quickly because the content is just the beginning. A blog post ideally is a jumping-off point to an ongoing community discussion. That's what's addictive: the sense that, even if you choose not to respond and engage actively in the discussion, you can.

I've been an editor too long to stop thinking first and foremost in terms of content. But I've learned also that content by itself is a sterile dead-end. It needs to be combined with messaging for community to perform; it needs to be forwarded, shared, commented upon, and criticized. Because messaging is the core community app.