shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source

Broadcast Institutions, Community Values

This essay is an extension of a speech I gave at the BBC about the prospects for online community building by broadcast media.
First published September 9, 2002 on the 'Networks, Economics, and Culture' mailing list.
Subscribe to the mailing list.

There is a long history of businesses trying to harness the power of online communities for commercial ends. Most of these attempts have failed, for the obvious reasons. There are few products or services people care about in a way that would make them want to join a community, and when people are moved to speak out about a commercial offering, it is usually to complain.

Media organizations, however, would seem to be immune to these difficulties, because online media and online communities have the same output: words and images. Even here, though, there are significant obstacles to hosting community, obstacles peculiar to the nature of media. Much of the discipline a broadcast organization must internalize to do its job well are not merely irrelevant to community building, but actively harmful.

If you were a broadcast media outlet thinking about community building, here are five things you would think about:

1. Audiences are built. Communities grow.
2. Communities face a tradeoff between size and focus.
3. Participation matters more than quality.
4. You may own the software, but the community owns itself.
5. The community will want to build. Help it, or at least let it.

#1. Audiences are built. Communities grow.

Audiences are connected through broadcast. Everyone in the MSNBC audience sees MSNBC content broadcast outwards from the center. You can't build a community this way, because the things that make a community worthwhile are provided by the members for one another, and cannot be replaced by things the hosting organization can offer. Communities are connected through what Greg Elin calls intercast -- the communications that pass among and between interconnected members of a community.

Broadcast connections can be created by a central organization, but intercast connections are created by the members for one another. Communities grow, rather than being built. New members of an audience are simply added to the existing pool, but new members of a community must be integrated. Matt Jones uses the word "loam" to describe the kind of environment conducive to community formation. One of the most important things you can do to attract community is to give it a fertile environment in which to grow, and one of the most damaging things you can do is to try to force it to grow at a rapid pace or in a preset direction.

#2. Communities face a tradeoff between size and focus.

Communities are held together through intercast communications, but, to restate Metcalfe's Law, the complexity of intercast grows faster than group size. This means that in an intercast world, uniformly dense interconnectedness becomes first hard and then impossible to support as a group grows large. The typical response for a growing community is to sub-divide, in either "soft" ways (overlapping social clusters) or "hard" ways (a church that splits into two congregations.)

Small groups can be highly focused on some particular issue or identity, but such groups can't simply be inflated like a balloon, because a large group is a different kind of thing than a small one. Online groups that grow from small to large tend to lose their focus, as topic drift or factionalization appears.

Most broadcast organizations assume that reaching a large group is an unqualified good, so they push for size at any cost, and eventually bump into the attendant tradeoffs: you can have large community, but not a highly focused one; you can have a focused community, but not a large one; or you can reach a large number of people focused on a particular issue, but it won't be a community.

With these options, broadcast organizations will (often unconsciously) opt for the last one, simply building an audience and calling it a community, as in "The community of our readers." Though this may make for good press release material, calling your audience a community doesn't actually make it one.

#3. Participation matters more than quality.

The order of things in broadcast is "filter, then publish." The order in communities is "publish, then filter." If you go to a dinner party, you don't submit your potential comments to the hosts, so that they can tell you which ones are good enough to air before the group, but this is how broadcast works every day. Writers submit their stories in advance, to be edited or rejected before the public ever sees them. Participants in a community, by contrast, say what they have to say, and the good is sorted from the mediocre after the fact.

Media people often criticize the content on the internet for being unedited, because everywhere one looks, there is low quality -- bad writing, ugly images, poor design. What they fail to understand is that the internet is strongly edited, but the editorial judgment is applied at the edges, not the center, and it is applied after the fact, not in advance. Google edits web pages by aggregating user judgment about them, Slashdot edits posts by letting readers rate them, and of course users edit all the time, by choosing what (and who) to read.

Anyone who has ever subscribed to a high-volume mailing list knows there are people who are always worth reading, and people who are usually worth ignoring. This is a way of raising the quality of what gets read, without needing to control what gets written. Media outlets that try to set minimum standards of quality in community writing often end up squeezing the life out of the discussion, because they are so accustomed to filtering before publishing that they can't imagine that filtering after the fact can be effective.

#4. You may own the software, but the community owns itself.

The relationship between the owner of community software and the community itself is like the relationship between a landlord and his or her tenants. The landlord owns the building, and the tenants take on certain responsibilities by living there. However, the landlord does not own the tenants themselves, nor their relations to one another. If you told tenants of yours that you expected to sit in on their dinner table conversation, they would revolt, and, as many organizations have found, the same reaction occurs in online communities.

Community is made possible by software, but the value is created by its participants. If you think of yourself as owning a community when you merely own the infrastructure, you will be astonished at the vitriol you will face if you try to force that community into or out of certain behaviors.

#5. The community will want to build. Help it, or at least let it.

Healthy communities modify their environment. One of the surprises in the design of software that supports community is that successful innovations are often quite shallow. We have had the necessary technology to build weblogs since 1994, but weblogs themselves didn't take off until 5 years later, not because the deep technology wasn't there, but because the shallow technology wasn't. Weblogs are primarily innovations in interface, and, as importantly, innovations in the attitudes of the users.

Because communal innovation often hinges as much on agreements among users as protocols among machines, communities can alter their environments without altering the underlying technology. If you spend any time looking at LiveJournal (one of the best overall examples of good community engineering) you will see periodic epidemics of the "Which type of pasta are you"-style quizzes. ("You're fusilli -- short and twisted.") The quizzes are not hosted on LiveJournal servers, but they have become part of the LiveJournal community.

If LiveJournal had decided to create a complete, closed experience, they could have easily blocked those quizzes. However, they didn't mistake owning the database for owning the users (see #4 above), so they let the users import capabilities from elsewhere. The result is that the community's connection to LiveJournal is strengthened, not weakened, because over time the environment becomes fitted to the community that uses it, even though nothing in the software itself changes.

Hard Work

If you want to host a community online, don't kid yourself into believing that giving reporters weblogs and calling the reader comments "community" is the same as the real thing. Weblogs operate on a spectrum from media outlet (e.g. InstaPundit) to communal conversation (e.g. LiveJournal), but most weblogs are much more broadcast than intercast. Likewise, most comments are write-only replies to the original post in the manner of Letters to the Editor, rather than real conversations among the users. This doesn't mean that broadcast weblogs or user comments are bad; they just don't add up to a community.

Real community is a self-creating thing, with some magic spark, easy to recognize after the fact but impossible to produce on demand, that draws people together. Once those people have formed a community, however, they will act in the interests of the community, even if those aren't your interests. You need to be prepared for this.

The hallmark of a successful community is that it achieves some sort of homeostasis, the ability to maintain an internal equilibrium in the face of external perturbations. One surprise is that if a community forms on a site you host, they may well treat you, the owner of the site, as an external perturbation. Another surprise is that they will treat growth as a perturbation as well, and they will spontaneously erect barriers to that growth if they feel threatened by it. They will flame and troll and otherwise make it difficult for potential new members to join, and they will invent in-jokes and jargon that makes the conversation unintelligible to outsiders, as a way of raising the bar for membership.

This does not mean that hosting community is never worthwhile -- the communal aspects of sites like Slashdot and Kuro5hin are a critical source of their value. It just means that it is hard work, and will require different skills and attitudes than those necessary to run a good broadcast site. Many of the expectations you make about the size, composition, and behavior of audiences when you are in a broadcast mode are actually damaging to community growth. To create an environment conducive to real community, you will have to operate more like a gardener than an architect.

shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source