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IQ News: Community Begins At Home

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New online communities are grounded in the real world.
For those who haven't yet joined an online community, here's some news: the second generation of online community sites has already arrived. But the new virtual towns aren't coming from well-known online community brands such as GeoCities or Tripod, which have focused on letting users publish their own homepages. Though those sites rank among Media Metrix's top 50 fastest growing Web sites for the first half of this year, it's the so-called portal sites such as Yahoo and Excite, and a smattering of local sites, sponsored by, for example, newspapers, that are at the forefront of community development.
The new community sites aren't necessarily following in the same tire treads as those that have come before. While the older players have spent most of their time building Web-based communities centered around the fact that their members are online, the newer players are anchoring their communities in terra firma, building communities around offline interests.
"The definition of community is changing," says Scott Moody, founder of Throw, a company acquired by Excite last April that creates community applications. "A lot of money has been poured into public, open cocktail-types of communities," he adds. "We wanted a more intimate community."
The trend is a far cry from the early days of virtual communities, when they were centered around subscriber-only Web forums such as the West Coast-based Well or New York's Echo. Newer communities are centered around not only offline interest groups but families as well.
Redwood, Calif.-based Throw's technology is the backbone for Excite's community area on its People/Chat channel. Joe Kraus, a founder of Excite, says the company acquired Throw because their technology was the most progressive and efficient for community development. He compares personal homepages such as those built on GeoCities and Tripod to "cul-de-sacs of one. It's an individual who wants a personal billboard there. There's no real interactivity that goes on." Throw brings the ability to interact through accessing a calendar, sharing photo albums or bookmarks and setting up private chats or bulletin boards.
One other major difference the new communities have over the old is that they call for more structure and control of information and who can access it. For example, on Excite, users can control who is in certain groups and who can view certain things. Yahoo's product, called Yahoo Clubs, forms groups along lines that resemble the time-honored fan club model as well as special interests. Revenue is generated through official clubs formed around such entertainment properties as movies or rock stars, with a record company or studio underwriting the development of the club.
If Yahoo and Excite have grabbed recent headlines in the community-building category, it's arguable that entities with ties that already go deep into their community are doing a better job of it. "When you look at the players who have established real-world affinity groups, it's not centered toward the portals," says Peter Krasilovsky, vice president of Bethesda, Md.-based Arlen Communications. "It's newspapers and TV stations who have relationships in their communities."
For example, the New York Today site, sponsored by The New York Times, extends next generation community development to the online city guide segment, potentially one-upping Excite, Yahoo, and other local online products that have come before. "CitySearch was yellow pages," says Jonathan Glick, product director of New York Today. "Then [Microsoft's] Sidewalk is a good database. We were going the next step. Events, information and credibility in terms of The New York Times are our assets. We wanted to use that to bring in other people." Powered by technology from Mountain View, Calif.-based Zip2, the community element integrates local sources along with the voice of the newspaper. New York Today is built on a personal calendar. The more a user digs into the site to plan his or her life, the more the site can do.
"You're getting information from credible sources as well as your cousin and the guy down the street," Glick explains. The extension of the real world to the online world is also an idea he finds appealing. "There's increased focus on consensual communication," he says. "More people are doing email than chat. Email is consensual. Most relationships in the real world are with people you know."
Though New York Today, Excite and Yahoo have launched similar online communities ahead of sites whose community focus has thus far focused on personal publishing, that doesn't mean companies such as Tripod are sitting out the next wave. A company spokesperson says Tripod has its own similar product that will be launching soon. "It's a terrific concept to build on existing community," says Kara Berklich, Tripod's spokesperson. "We already have people with 4 million homepages. They can add a private club or private area."
However, what personal homepage publishers such as Tripod and GeoCities lack is structure, say some observers. Krasilovsky stresses that real-world affinity groups based in the community are better positioned to generate revenue. "Commerce happens at the local level," he says. "Newspapers are best positioned for that."
For example, New York Today is courting local merchants to sell access to the site's tools so the marketers can target users by using the calendar. If, for example, a boutique holds a sale for its store, that will appear on the calendar of people who've shown an interest in the boutique.
Koz, a Durham, N.C.-based community-oriented technology company, has also tapped the real-world model to build online communities. The company has an online 13-state soccer association that is sponsorship- and ad-supported. But its largest revenue stream is through OrgWare, a community publishing software system licensed to groups such as schools, teams or newspaper partners. Partners pay a licensing fee and a monthly hosting fee. Ad revenue is shared on local and national levels. "The next generation is real communities extending themselves into the virtual world," says Michael Moran, CEO of Koz. "The breadth of tools
available--either chat or threaded discussions integrated and the ability to make them private--is huge." Moran sees communities moving toward a number of targeted niche interests as opposed to a small number of big communities.
However, Krasilovsky cautions that ideas and tools for building community do not automatically equal instant success. "There are no home runs yet," he says. "Community is conceptual at this point."