The Future of the Internet, According to Web Trendsetters

A group of bloggers, editors, and Web publishers gathered recently to talk about the Web’s evolution.
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At the recent Mediabistro Circus conference for media professionals in New York, a group of trendsetters – bloggers, editors, Web publishers – talked about the future of the Internet. The event pulled together diverse talents like Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired, Robert Scoble, managing director of Fast Company TV, and Anil Dash, vice president of blogging firm Six Apart. The core question they addressed was: how do you build your online audience?

If the event had an overarching theme, it was the importance of building online community, and leveraging the power of social networking and “user gen” (getting site visitors to generate their own content). In short, it’s not enough to host a Web site; sustainable success comes only when users see your site as a shared destination that they’re personally involved with. The word Facebook bubbled up again and again – as both a positive and negative example.

Wired editor Chris Anderson referred to the process of community building as “the Holy Grail” of Web publishing. Site owners and others hoping to drive traffic are constantly talking about this topic, he noted, but they tend to misunderstand it.

Many sites hope they can “just sprinkle social magic dust” and it will all be fine. They think it will be easy – “Put a little button on our site that says social network, or turn our site into a Facebook plug-in.”

Yet Facebook and MySpace aren’t what social networking is about, Anderson said. “Social networking pre-dates all of them. Social networking is a feature, not a destination, it’s something that every Web site should have. We need to bring it out of MySpace and bring it into our own sites in our own way.”

Social networking “has very little with do with the aggregation of ‘friends’” – that’s kind of an ‘arms race’ and rather a silly one, he said. Instead, the core of effective community building is a site with a clear identity and purpose. A sustainable social network evolves organically around such a site based on users with shared interests.

“They’re not about social networking first, and content second. They’re about content first, and social networking second.”

As an example of optimal social networking, he pointed to Slashdot, the highly successful uber-geek community founded in 1997. Slashdot, in fact, might contradict Anderson’s thesis. It has no original content; its copious traffic comes purely from users commenting on articles linked to from elsewhere. But its “news for nerd” motto does give it a clear identity and purpose.

Slashdot, Anderson noted, employs one of the key tenants of community building: it recognizes and rewards its users. If you click on Slashdot usernames (like KillerBob or Firehed), you’ll see all the posts they’ve made, as well as their Journal, if they’ve chosen to keep one. And, Slashdot invites its users to be moderators, which increases their responsibility and involvement (and makes the site cheaper to run). “Users should never be anonymous,” he said.

Hyper-Focused

“The world doesn’t need another generic social network. The world needs an infinite number of hyper-focused social networks that are about specific subjects,” Anderson said.

To see the future of Internet publishing, go to Ning, he recommended. Founded in 2004, Ning hosts approximately a quarter million “mico-networks” of like-minded users. These range from kayak enthusiasts to gourmet foodies to people trying to quit smoking. Hip Hop music star Fifty Cent owns one of the most popular Ning networks; Fitty boasts more than 100,000 members.

Chris Anderson, Wired


Chris Anderson

TechCrunch estimated that Ning is now worth a half billion dollars, and Fast Company glowed that Ning is a “viral expansion loop.” (That’s cyber-nonsense-speak for a site that gathers a crowd of users who then market their own sites.) Ning was co-founded by Netscape founder Marc Andreessen and onetime Goldman Sachs banker Gina Binachini.

Anderson himself, as a hobby, runs a small Ning site focused on amateur Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (radio-controlled model planes). His micro-site has about a thousand members and gets about 5,000 pageviews a day. He conceded that it makes only about $400 a month – it’s not really a business model.

“In my business [as the head of Wired, which is owned by Conde Nast] we don’t get out of bed for less than a million readers,” he said. But on his tiny Ning hobby site he can spend hours focusing on a mere thousand readers. The site is a model of social networking: the users comment often and add their own photos and other information.

On one hand, his micro-site, “feels really authentic and real and exciting, but on other, it makes no business sense whatsoever.” Presumably success would come from an aggregation of such niche sites.

Even though his Ning site isn’t a moneymaker, he feels this style of hyper-targeted social network – “absolutely laser focus” – could replace MySpace. “In a world of commodity information, what you need is a clear sense of purpose.” With that in mind, he urged site owners to focus their sites narrowly, to make them “granular.” Rather than running a site about photography, run a site about underwater photography.

“What is the optimal granularity, where you stand out? Shoot for single digit thousands [of users]. I think if you shoot for tens of thousands, it’s too much. Hundreds is not worth doing.” Shooting for a million is limited, he said.

"If it’s got to be a Top Ten site or it’s not worth doing, you’ll fail.”


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Tags: Facebook, social networking, networking, MySpace, netscape


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