Growing a Community Powered Website

(In this article, Manas Garg, a regular contributor to PuneTech, explores the various factors involved in the growth of a community powered wesbite. These ideas are relevant to any website/company that expects to get a lot of its content from the actions of its users – and there are a number of such sites from SadakMap, and JustMeans to the Pune OpenCoffee Club, and of course, PuneTech itself. Even otherwise, these are important issues that any technologist living in a web-2.0 world must understand.)

Community Powered Websites (CPWs) are a rage today. And there are good reasons for that. First, you only build a website and the content (which is the primary value to these sites) comes from people. These people don’t charge you anything, in fact, you can make some money by running ads to these very people.

Secondly, the people who bring in the content also become the users of the website. Which means, people bring the content, people consume the content, and you just provide a framework for doing that using a website. Great!

Two primary factors contributing to the success of a Community Powered Website (CPW) are its tendency to grow and its immunity to abuse. This is, of course, in addition to the functional value that this website has.

Growth for a CPW means, more data, more contributors and more users. Simple. And immunity to abuse means when bad people come to your site to do bad things, your site can shrug off these attacks and get on with life. For Wikipedia, a bad thing is someone putting spam on a page. For twitter, a bad thing is someone hacking the system and making thousands of people follow him/her.

In this article, I have put down some of my thoughts on how we can make a CPW “tending to grow”. I do not claim expertise in this area. Nor do I claim to be exhaustive. I am just trying to make sense out of the way web is evolving today and community power is a very interesting phenomenon in that.

So, let’s start…

For any CPW, we anyway have to do things which people find valuable/useful and for which they would want to use the website in the first place. For instance, facebook, delicious, twitter, wikipedia have some fundamental value for which people would like to use them. On top of that functional value, there is a social design which makes them “tending to grow”.

A simple example is Blogger. It has some functional value (i.e. a blogging platform) for which people use it. But as long as the game is purely functionality based, people will choose Blogger only if its functionality is the best. Tomorrow, if a new blogging platform with better functionality comes along, new blogs may use that platform. That’s the reason blogger team is adding some social touch so that more and more people “choose” blogger if their contacts are already on blogger.

So, this is the “tendency to grow”. It is outside the purview of functionality. And it’s becoming more and more important because it’s becoming very easy for anyone to match a given set of functionality.

Now, let’s look at the contributors to this “tendency to grow”…

The Network Effect

In short, network effect is when a service becomes more and more valuable when more and more people use it which thereby increases its adoption and hence the value. This creates a self sustaining loop. The loop doesn’t go infinite as eventually there is a max limit to the final value. But it can certainly take us very far.

The general purpose social networking sites are the best examples of network effect. More the users we have, more the chances of getting more users. That’s why they have grown phenomenally in a short time span. Delicious doesn’t trigger the network effect even though it is social. There is no reason for me to join delicious even if all my friends are using it. On the other hand, I would naturally join LinkedIn because all my “connections” are using LinkedIn. Blogger, by being more social, is trying to bring in the network effect.

How to bring in the network effect is a subject worth another complete article or may be a book. Suffice it to say that a network effect has to be designed for in any CPW. Once we have modeled our website, we can test that model (mentally of course) for what kind of network effect this model can produce. If we are building a CPW but don’t design it for network effect, we are limiting the mileage we can get out of it.

Ease of contribution

It’s difficult to have a general purpose definition of what contribution is as it depends on the website. For flickr, photographs are contributions, for facebook, pretty much everything a user does on the site is a contribution. Even visiting someone’s profile on facebook is a contribution to facebook as the very fact that you visited that profile is shown on that profile.

On every Wikipedia page, you’ll see a clear “Edit” link to edit that page. For every section within the page, the edit link for that section is well placed. It almost “invites” you to edit. When the very design of a website has a look that invites you for contributions, it’s got the tendency to growth πŸ™‚

For receiving contributions, there are two possibilities –

  1. Unintentional contribution. We contribute bookmarks to delicious for our own purpose. We contribute photographs to flickr for our own purpose. While we are doing our own things, unintentional contributions are being made to the system. When we share something with our friends on facebook, the system is getting richer automatically even though the users are not working towards making the system richer πŸ™‚
  2. Intentional contribution. Wikipedia is a place where people specifically contribute with the intention of making the system richer. It’s not like sharing something with friends or saving something for future reference. There is an explicitness here.

Needless to say, it’s easier to get people on board when their contribution is unintentional i.e. they are doing their own thing and the system just gets richer. This lends a greater tendency to grow to the CPW.

I am sure there would be several other aspects of making a CPW tending to grow which escaped my limited knowledge and the retarded mind. Will some people with experience in this area throw a little bit of light here?

About the Author – Manas Garg

About the author: Manas is interested in a variety of things like psychology, philosophy, sociology, photography, movie making etc. But since there are only 24 hours in a day and most of it goes in sleeping and earning a living, he amuses himself by writing software, reading a bit and sharing his thoughts.
About the author: Manas is interested in a variety of things like psychology, philosophy, sociology, photography, movie making etc. But since there are only 24 hours in a day and most of it goes in sleeping and earning a living, he amuses himself by writing software, reading a bit and sharing his thoughts.
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