Community vs. Connection

by Dirk Knemeyer

Remember Arguably the first-ever social networking website it "connected" each of us to the people we went to school with over the years. Plagued by clumsy and poorly executed "Web 1.0" thinking, and an absolutely atrocious pay-to-play business model, could have been Facebook. Instead, it unintentionally ushered in many thousands of social networking start-ups that, as the market shook out, have become "Facebook and everyone-else-who-doesn't-matter-much-anymore." Still, there were plenty of steps between here and there.

What about Yahoo Answers? Today it still exists but is closer to being a ghost town than the success it enjoyed at its zenith. However, in 2006 it was the social network du jour. We worked with over 20 start-ups that year. More than half of them were explicitly building social networks, and a majority of those were treating Yahoo Answers as their exemplar. What did they like about it?

- Tons of traffic
- Many repeat users
- Game mechanics that created addictive usage patterns

I might go so far as to say Yahoo Answers was one of if not the key websites that led to today's tiresome trend of trying to turn everything on the web into a game. It was important, influential and an exemplar of the moment.

Of course it also proved to merely be a trend. Today a meager 1.7% of site traffic on Yahoo goes to Answers: 43.1% goes to Mail, 10.5% goes to Search, 8.6% goes to the home page and everything else is 3% or less. It is sobering to realize Yahoo the web monolith has been reduced to a very crummy mail app with a ton of users. To say the blood is in the water is an understatement; the Yahoo carcass is floating swollenly under the hot sun. Let's hope Andrei and his team can perform a miracle and make the save.

That unsettling digression aside, the point is that Yahoo Answers was meteoric in the moment: interesting, fun, popular for a while, to the point of influencing a micro-generation of start-ups, and today is simply a small footnote in the evolution of social networking on the web. Indeed, while most sites under the rubric of social networking are about "connection", Answers ultimately proved to be something else: a "community".

"Social networking" is a clumsy, and often inaccurate phrase. Indeed, while recognized as a social network, Yahoo Answers is part of a longer tradition of sites that are "online communities". These sites are similar to the earliest "closed garden" ISPs such as CompuServe, Prodigy and, later, AOL - not to mention the newsgroups that pre-dated the Internet. They tend to bring together people who did not previously know each other and develop a community that loosely resembles a real-life community: leaders emerge. There is hierarchy. Some people are deeply involved and invested - even obsessed - by their place in things, while others remain on the periphery and "use" the community as-needed. The website serves a social function that transcends - although it may also include - "real life" relationships.

On the other hand, Facebook is a very different thing. At its core it is a simple tool to "connect" people with existing relationships to each other. Sure, we might meet new people there. And increasingly businesses are stretching the edges of Facebook in order to "monetize" it. But Facebook's clumsiness in dealing with businesses and their needs is precisely the point: what it was intended to do, and what it still largely does well, is connect me to you and you and you, while letting us share some superficial stuff. While it is "fine" there is nothing particularly special about Facebook as a product or service. The remarkable thing about Facebook is its reach. They've managed to get my mom - my children's grandmother! on it. That is the ultimate "breakthrough" test. Once a site or service has achieved that, well, they just might really have something there!

But aside from being a success, Facebook is a site that "connects". It is not a community, even though we may increasingly find our communities there. It lacks the hierarchy, structure, content and ultimately community to be a community of its own. Rather it lets us all see and meet each other, serving as a peephole into bits of our real-life worlds. There is nothing wrong with that, it is just more specific and ultimately instructive to see it in that light - of connection - as opposed to the "social networking" blanket. I'm sure Facebook wants to be more of a community, and I would be shocked if they don't continue to evolve more and more toward a community. But for now what they do is connect, and there is nothing wrong with that.

Naturally there are shades of grey between "connecting" sites and "community" sites. It is not so simple as taking every social networking site out there and labeling it one way or the other. Yet, if we can begin using more precise language, and have a more nuanced understanding of what is happening on the web, we will improve our view and understanding of what is happening on the Internet. More than that, we will have channels by which to see differences and, dare I say, connections which enable us to see farther ahead and execute with more efficiency and effectiveness.

Topics: facebook, yahoo, theory, Analysis, Blog, software