I’m an early adopter. I was 13 when I got my first computer, at a time when computer usage was very low. My family knew that the computers would dominate the future and bought me one so that I could get familiar with the technology. Around that age, being curious and kind of an outcast in my community, I turned my attention to online communities. I began perusing chat rooms and using instant messaging apps. Before Facebook and Twitter came around, my time was spent reading Metafilter posts, browsing art on DeviantArt and enjoying similar music taste with people on Last Fm. I visited these sites not because I was bored but to meet and have conversations with like-minded people, and get inspired. Communication in the old internet was different. People used to talk with each other instead at each other. Using real names was a rarity. We used nicknames not because we intended to post abusive comments and get away with it but to reflect our personalities. I believe we can still create this virtual environment if we take some lessons from the websites that created engaging online communities.
Here are the websites that are the most memorable to me. What made these websites long-lasting was not the technology they used or ground-breaking design, in fact, you will notice something in common between them – they all look kind of outdated – but it was their devotion to nurturing their community and upholding that community quality.
DeviantArt is an online artist community that started in 2000. It is now 16-year-old online network. In the world of web, 10 years is a very long time and there aren’t too many 16-year-old networks that are still alive. Yet DeviantArt is not only alive but it is still growing, now has more than 14 million “deviants”, a loving term used for DevianArt users. People can register for a free account, have a personal profile page where they post their “deviations” aka their artwork and photos, and message other deviants.
It sounds like any other social network site but what makes DeviantArt different is, they do more than paying lip service when it comes to supporting their community. There was a time the founder of DevianArt, Angelo Sotira starting losing his passion in the business. That’s when he decided to “humanize” his relationship with the DeviantArt community members by meeting them in real life, learning their names and faces rather than looking at them as just numbers in an analytics dashboard. So, in 2009 Sotira went on a two-month tour to meet as many DeviantArt members as possible in person.
“Angelo did all these things that we attribute to Facebook or YouTube way back,” says Travis Kalanick, founder of Uber. “And it’s by design that the site is doing as well in the space it’s focused on after so many years.” (Entrepreneur)
Last Fm is a website that specializes in finding music recommendations for you, by using a music recommender system called “Audioscrobbler”. As you listen to music with your music players such as iTunes, Last Fm records the tracks you listen to and transfers or “scrobbles” the music to Last Fm’s database. All the music you listen to is displayed on your profile page.
Last Fm used to have a radio streaming service, which was discontinued in 2014 and I truly miss that service. Although it sounds very similar to Pandora, Spotify or any other music streaming service, the community-fostering communication infrastructure last.fm built was what made Last Fm very special and memorable for me. I’ve made many friends from all over the world on Last.fm more than 8 years ago and we still remain friends to this day. Here are the things that made Last Fm great:
Members could influence other member’s music taste by sharing their own music, adding friends and listening to any other members’ music stations. The neighbor feature allowed users to see a list of members with a similar music library and play their music stations.
There was a compatibility percentage which showed the percentage score for musical similarities with another person.
Many of the help sections were run my members themselves.
Members could create or join groups according to their shared interests.
There was a shoutbox on both the user pages and artist pages. The users could write or “shout” public comments. Comments like “Love your music taste” led to more interaction with other members and the comments left on artist pages provided feedback about bands.
There is a Wikipedia-style linking journal entries to artists. Artist pages display the latest journals relating to that artist. These entries are created and edited by the users themselves.
The discussion of music, musical compatibility, bands and group topics created an emotional connection between members. Last.fm did all the right things to nurture a virtual community and that’s what made it more than a mere internet radio website.
Unfortunately, the great features and the sense of community are all gone now due to the latest horrible site update which made some Last Fm users start a petition to bring the old site back. It’s very sad to see how the company has completely alienated their user base by ignoring them. I hope Last Fm starts listening to its users again.
Metafilter reminds me of the pre-Facebook and Twitter internet. It’s not a site where people visit when they’re bored. They have a $5 sign up fee which probably deters many trolls from creating an account but certain characteristics of the website such as the dead simple design, dedicated moderators, the lack of some features such as upvote/downvote buttons and threaded discussions helped create a good virtual community where people respect each other and discuss things intelligently. They’ve been self-funded so they don’t have the pressure to scale up to please any VC investors. The site is still run by Matthew Haughey, who founded the site in 1999 and he has no intentions of selling it. All they need to do is make sure their community is happy and they’re doing a good job at that. Although they ran into financial troubles as of May 2014, the site is alive and thriving after 16 years.
Eksisozluk was found by Sedat Kapanoglu in 1999. Today, it is one of the most popular websites for Turkish people around the world. The word “Ekşi” means “sour” and “Sözlük” means “dictionary”. The name of the brand is “SourTimes”.
Eksisozluk is an interactive, informal online dictionary, but it is not a dictionary in the strict sense as users are not required to write correct information. In fact, the founders announced that everything written in the site might be wrong. All the entries are opinions of the writers.
Eksisozluk is a thriving online community because of its enormous and diverse content, number of active participants, and unique characteristics. Like Metafilter, the website has no bells or whistles and it is dead simple. The topics are displayed on the left frame, which has a chronological order and the frame doesn’t even refresh itself, you need to refresh the page to see what is written recently.
Eksisozluk has been successful because it manages to attract people from diverse backgrounds to engage, learn, and share information with each other. For people, Eksisozluk is not just a platform to express opinions but an effective search engine tool, a socialization tool and a great representation of Turkish people’s sense of humor. All these characteristics encourage user participation. Additionally, being able to express all kinds of ideas on various topics ranging from tv shows to politics makes the site the most popular online social platform in Turkey.
To make a business sustainable, creating an online community and connecting with that community is crucial. Creating an engaging online community takes more than building a social media site or providing a platform that allows people to interact with each other as “not all virtual groups are virtual communities”. (Blanchard)
Keeping the traditional community elements will lead to sustaining the virtual community. Providing good user experience is also important.
The Entrepreneur Magazine
Innovator: DeviantART’s Angelo Sotira
Blogs as Virtual Communities: Identifying a Sense of Community in
the Julie/Julia Project