Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Brief Biography of Every "Community" site

There was a time around the turn of the century when something very auspicious, but mostly unnoticed and insidious, started to happen.

Websites with applications on them started to be referred to as "platforms".

Not platforms in the sense of a combination of computer machinery and operating system (as the term had been used more typically until that time) but in the sense of a website that was running some applications.

And now people refer to things like Twitter as a "platform", like it is a mostly stable base to build things on, when in fact it is a website running some applications, as the whale-being-borne-by-birdies notice reminds us.

Facebook is also a "platform" now, MySpace is also a "platform", which at this point is mostly known for being too slow and being surpassed by Facebook.

Facebook became popular for reasons not very clear, but mainly (of course) because Buzz was Generated. Now there are many more people on Facebook than there are in the United States... well, many more unique IDs, anyway.

Facebook, like MySpace for the most part, is a way that you can fill in more forms that populate a website application that displays the information you provide in a genericized format. The forms are sometimes straightforward, and sometimes not. The "edit this thing" link is a way to pull up more forms. What "this thing" might be is not necessarily clear until you begin to edit it, and partway through editing it what does become clear is that there will be many more "things" to edit until you have the page that you sort of want. "Sort of want", because it will always be displayed the way that the website application... excuse me, "platform" wants it to look. Because of course the platform is a place where advertisers can put ads, that is what it is a platform for.

Because Facebook is the type of web application that accepts information about people, it is a "community" platform. Now, the actual mechanics of the application is that it accepts data that describes objects, so if the data accepted was about vegetables, it would be a "garden" platform, I guess.

So, in a community platform you edit a bunch of things and then are able to submit that information to the platform's seach system, which generally sucks, so that people can sort of find you, if they know some of the information that you entered into the platform.

More in the context of this blog, if they know that you are an electronic musician, and then enter in the search terms "electronic musician" there is a good chance that you will be among the results they are looking for, somewhere in the pages and pages of results, that is.

But that is not the concern of the providers of the platform. Their concern is that advertising gets displayed while people use their applications. In fact, if there is one key aspect of Facebook that works in its favor it is that unless you actually know some of the information about the people you are looking for, you are unlikely to find them. They want people looking for things that are like a description to find zillions of them, to prove that they are in there, but you won't actually find anything (any one, that is) unless you are describing a very particular thing.

So, here is the biography of every community site:

ACT ONE: it builds a dataset containing snippets of information about the people who join the site and enter data into the site's applications, essentially a directory. If you belong to the directory, you can link yourself to other people in the directory (basically, when you link them that way, you add them to your data along with your other data). Many many people join it, looking for various things. The creators of the platform have all kinds of data to provide to advertisers (aggregated, de-personalized) so they can target advertisements. The members of the directory are able to find people they may not have been able to find otherwise, or they may be people that they see everyday.

ACT TWO: More and more people join, the platform creators have no real clue why. They try to add some features to make the platform more appealing. These features meet with mixed reviews. EVERY feature will meet with mixed reviews, because there is a vast cross section of people in the directory so OF COURSE that will happen. Also, the platform creators have lots of money, or opportunities to borrow lots of money, so they start spending money on things they believe are cool but which may never bear real fruit. The platform starts to sprawl, with features this way and that. Somewhere, elsewhere, there is someone building another platform, with The Features that People Really Like. It begins to Generate Buzz.

ACT THREE: The community platform begins to react more slowly, many of the people who have connected have exchanged email addresses and tend to contact one another more directly. Others get bored, and find other ways to share 14 second videos of themselves doing stupid things. Community members who joined to promote a service or band or product realize that keeping their wall and discussion groups seemingly active is a lot of work, and that the lack of an active wall or discussion groups is a way for new people who visit to ascertain, at a glance, that they are failing. The people who built the applications built them hastily, in a way that will require more technical work to occur in order to keep them running just as they are, let alone the cool features. The young people who generated buzz start to generate buzz that the platform is passe', to the point where participating in the platform indicates one is behind the times. The site stagnates, it becomes another brand of platform that is supported by advertising. The advertising either supports the operation of the platform, or it does not, and the platform either folds or is bought by a company that will operate it at a loss for tax purposes


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