3 well executed online communities
AOL's acquisition of the Huffington Post throws a spotlight on the real value of community engagement. Of course, the 117 million in combined unique visitors in the U.S. probably doesn't hurt, either. "HuffPost has an enormous audience who wants to talk," Betsy Morgan, the former CEO of Huffington Post, said on WNYC on Monday. "... And they will bring that community voice to AOL." David Carr writes of the acquisition in the Times:
"Today, AOL’s long-time business model of providing dial-up access to a gated community of content is still in decline, gradually superseded by growing broad-band adoption rates and a huge array of news and entertainment options, including The Huffington Post."
Building vibrant online communities and commenting cultures is one of the most vital though least discussed aspects of digital publishing. Here are three of my favoriter executions of online community.
The Huffington Post
Let's start off with the obvious. This has thus far been a tremendous week for Arianna Huffington's five-year-old site, which just reaped its first annual profit at the end of 2011. The Huffington Post is exceptional at SEO, and is so irresistable to people in search of a leftish political platform that over 6,000 bloggers write for the site without getting paid. As early as 2005, the Huffinton Post had a "problem" that most publishers would envy -- too many commenters.
Caroline McCarthy of CNet writes: "Readers are so active that stories routinely pull in thousands of comments, with quality assisted by a system of moderation and user badges that The Huffington Post schemed up in-house. The Huffington Post also enjoys a close relationship with Facebook, piloting some of the social networking site's news-sharing initiatives before they were available to other publishers."
How do they do it? One reason is lonegevity: the Huffington Post have been at it for a long time. A second reason is a passionate audience: the Huffington Post caught fire as the digital opposition to the then in power Bush administration. A third reason is crowdsourcing moderation: asking this passionate, engaged audience to keep the atmosphere from getting toxic is smart. The Huffington Post rewards -- with a moderator badge -- top users that flag inappropriate content.
The "C" in CNN might as well stand for community as the organization has been in the user-generated content business since 2006. "The very first iReport, back in 2006 that was on CNN was literally a squirrel," Senior Reporter Lila King told Beet.TV back in 2009. "It was in the middle of a heatwave, it was Kokomo, Indiana, it was a squirrel that looked really hot stretched out on a tree branch and it was a still photo. We've come a really long way since then."
Indeed they have. CNN's user-generated section -- CNN iReport, which uses citizen journalists -- possesses many great social media components. After signing in a user can read -- up to 30 days -- iReports from the people they follow. The most interesting iReporters get promoted through Twitter (57,208 followers) and Facebook (17,908 "likes") and -- best of all -- there is a real sense of community, of shared purpose and of the future of digital journalism going on on the site. And their frequently updated blog last week drew over 150 comments on a single post.
The Awl is, quite literally, the anti-Gawker. Founded two years ago by a couple of refugees from Gawker Media, Choire Sicha and Alex Balk, fed up with the sometimes overwhelming mercenary attitude of Nick Denton, created an anti-establishment digital publication that reads almost like a hip cultural literary magazine on the web. And it even has a poetry section and they just started paying their writers.
The Awl attracts a community of tastemakers, bohemians and media types. Not surprisingly, the comments are superb. Some of the commenters came along from Gawker, others outgrew the snarky forbidding attitude there and still others just happened upon the site for whatever reason and have set up tent at the coffee shop.
The Awl works largely because a reader has to put in the work to be accepted. And the reader wants to be accepted by the community at The Awl. It is a very cool crowd. But unlike Gawker there is at The Awl a real possibility at gaining "commenter respect" -- or, perhaps, an invitation to post -- through the currency of merit and wit.
Commenters adding value
None of these sites have a toxic commenter atmosphere, a common practice until recently. Snark may have finally jumped the shark. Also, it is no coincidence that all three sites are "bottom up," relying heavily on commenters to add significant value to the main content. The Huffington Post and iReport, which are more content heavy than The Awl, allow users to follow their favorite bloggers. Finally, two of the three reward top commenters, the last -- the Awl -- is a sort of digital democracy, but not all comments are created equal.