From Communities to Commodities

Online communities are strange places. You make friends and enemies purely on what they write or how they present themselves through text. On occasion those friendships move into the real world and with people you never would have met through your normal circle of friends. Normally online communities have formed on bulletin boards and consisted of text based linear discussions where someone would post their train of thought from the mundane to the philosophical and then their peers would expand on it, agree with it, tear it apart; it would act as a catalyst for them all to interact with each other. In a way sites like these pioneered social networking before bebo, myspace or facebook were a glimmer in their creator’s eyes.

Any online communities I have had experience with normally started off based around specific interests, one example would be computer gaming. They tended to branch out from there initial focus because of “off topic discussions” outside of the original remit of the site. Areas were created for people to have these discussions. In some cases the “off topic” parts of these sites have become bigger than the initial reason the sites existed for in the first place. New people then joined these sites who may not share the values or ideals of those who were there from the start.

One major issue is as these communities grow they cost more money and resources to run. Now some of these running costs can be covered by the members in the form of subscriptions or donations, or via online marketing where some revenue can be gained from click through adverts but at the end of the day the people who set up the site normally have to foot the bill. Once communities hit a certain size, let us say a critical mass then the business world gets interested in them, and why not companies are always looking for ways to get noticed by groups of people and online communities give them the opportunity to do so. It also addresses the headache of those that run the site as well, if they accept sponsorship, sell shares, sell the site totally, float the site or any other method of injecting cash into the site then the running costs can be covered and they can even make a return or profit on their investment.

The problem is once you allow a business to get involved then it ceases to be a community, it’s now a commodity, and the members become an audience for adverts or potential customers for products. The site is no longer based around the community; it’s centred on growing the enterprise as a media outlet. If some of the employees are involved in the day to day running of the community their decisions will be tainted and guided by what is best for the Enterprise after all it is putting food on their tables. If the goals of the enterprise are at odds with the needs of the community as a whole unfortunately the company wins. In the long run that will be the worst thing for the community as it has moved away from the needs of the members to the wants of the enterprise.