Online communities predate the content publisher/consumer face of the internet by many years. The earliest communities were the famed bulletin board services and usenet groups and now they’re making a comeback. This post will take a look at some of them.
Location-based social networks have a huge amount of unrealized potential and LocalCircles (in invite-only beta) is an attempt to do that in the Indian market. I am a big believer in this product segment and wanted to build a product in it, but wanting and building and two different things. In the U.S. market, a product called Nextdoor has been getting some good press of late and LocalCircles is pretty similar to that.
The big idea is very simple. If you can cover around 500 localities in 2-years and if each locality generates an average of 10000 page views per day (not entirely impossible if the product picks up) it will make for a neat half-a-million pageviews in a day. For a locality to be allowed to exist, it needs to have at least 20 members. You can easily average 200 members per locality once the engines get cranking and in the same 2-year period you can have 100000 registered users who are validated by location, interests and by the fellow circle members.
The monetization options are numerous: Classifieds, recommendations, deals — the list is endless. The true power in the product lies in the core of it — its exceptionally good quality of users.
Now that I have gushed enough about the positives, it is time to look at the problems. It all revolves around one little word called curation. Good communities, as a rule, need to be curated aggressively. Well, there are exceptions, which we’ll tackle later, but a good community is like a good garden. Everyone envies a good one, but few can manage the effort that goes into curating a good one.
The first step for a new product like LocalCircles is seeding/boostrapping individual communities. While the power of network effects is rather well-known, but brand new networks have little of that in their early days. To bootstrap 500 communities in the same manner will take a lot of effort and money. And once you get a locality going you have to then curate for the quality of content and member behaviour (any kind of arbitration/resolution in online communities is tedious). If you don’t set and enforce the rules early enough in the game, it can all unravel rather easily and once it does it is a genie that can’t be put back in the bottle.
Which can kind of work completely against what gets the valuation bells ringing rather loudly these days — the big ramp-up. I can only hope both the company and its investors are aiming for the long slow game than the short grow-like-mad-at-all-costs-and-be-valued-at-a-billion-USD game.
Speaking of curation and the impact it has on the quality/health of a community, I guess it is now OK to come out and speak about the acquisition of Tumblr by Yahoo!. Enough has been written about whether Marissa Mayer will do a Geocities Redux (you have to look up the Fred Wilson connection there. The Geocities deal kicked off his life in the big league.), so I’ll not go down that route. If Mayer had not snagged the deal (once the exclusive talk time was over, the bidding war would have started in earnest), the press and punditry would have roasted her alive and they are roasting her alive now that she’s done the deal. Ergo, the roasting is a given. No point paying much attention to it.
Anyway, coming back to curation, Tumblr is one of the most un-curated networks out there. Yet, the scale of the content flowing through it is so massive that someone had to step up and buy it (for the sake of convenience, I’ll ignore the terrible monetization issues they have and how much it costs to keep it going). In the world-before-Tumblr, posting someone else’s content on your page/site was a complete no-no. Tumblr popularized the reblogging concept, essentially making it easy to produce reams of good content on your page, even if you didn’t produce a single piece of your own.
Now, that sounds a lot like curation, does it not? Almost every active user on Tumblr acts as a curator of fine things in the topic of their liking. Which is why it is a massive hit with the adult content (*cough* porn) community. You have some of the best experts in any domain (there are a lot of them in the adult content niche, it would seem), picking out the best for you, in a format with nearly no ads, no crazy app requests or ‘real name’ issues. There’s only hours and hours and nearly endless goodness.
So, technically, there is curation on the Tumblr network. But it is a network of curators than the curated and therein lies a significant difference.
Speaking of being different, we come to WordPress, which recently celebrated its 10th birthday. WordPress is an interesting product (yes, it is a product as the company who manages it is called Automattic). The open source product (as seen at WordPress.org) that is the foundation of the various products is available for everyone to install and use. The company also runs the biggest managed/hosted WordPress network on WordPress.com and it also has a VIP program.
Automattic has been profitable for a while now and they have been one of the quiet success stories of the content and community world. They are also quite a boring company (in a nice way, that is), in that they publish a lot of their stats, saving you all the guesswork, instead of taking the time-tested route of hammering out the ‘explosive-month-on-month-growth’ riff on any stage available. To do the 10-year celebration in style, they even got some money for the early investors and founders (around $50 million at a rumoured slightly-less-than-$1-billion-valuation’) in a secondary deal.
Over time, they have integrated various community aspects into the product (network/Buddypress) and have seeded a less-visible but massive developer community and ecosystem around the main product. There have also been less than spectacular succeses on the community front. Gravtar was an early starter in the identity provider space, but it never really grew into something big. Same is the issue with IntenseDebate, which has been completely eclipsed by Disqus (there goes off the Fred Wilson portfolio alert again).
Fortunately, the core products like WordPress.com and the VIP program continue to do well and will stay strong for years to come, keeping the quiet success story going for both the community around it and the owners and investors.
To end, I’ll take a quick look at the elephant in the room — Quora. I can’t but be intrigued by a product that is so polarizing on the Internet. The legion of people who used to love Quora and now hate it must be as big as the entire user base of Medium, which is the new pretty one in town. That said, Quora still has a lot of active users (reportedly, majority of them are the minority of Indians, who can write well, seeking refuge from the onslaught of the masses elsewhere) and vital signs seem to be good.
At $60-million raised in three-years (including a good bit of coin from the co-founder’s own pocket), the company has enough money to last at least another couple of years, in which it will probably find a good suitor. One of the reasons why a lot of people walked off (including the rumoured sidelining of one of the cofounders) in a huff was the aggressive push towards increasing the user base and page views on the site. The hype cycle will play out through the next few years and if the money does not run out first, they will be acquired by one of the larger digital companies who will suddenly discover that they always had a latent desire ” to share and grow the world’s knowledge”.
Sounds much like a future quote from Marissa Mayer, does it not?