Communities and Specialized Information

This chapter focuses on business and services that cater to "communities" - though the author concedes the vagueness of that term.

Origins of Online Communities and Information Services

The original of virtual communities predates the internet. The era of bulletin board services created communities of interest, generally revolving around the topic of the bulleting board (which could be an area of study or a geographic area). When online services emerged (AOL, etc.) they often categorized their boards and chat rooms into topical categories.

With the Internet came community sites. The prime example being "the well" (which was an offshoot of the Whole Earth company, which was a catalog retailer that deal in "alternative lifestyle" products - including not only gay couples, but hippies, survivalists, and others who rejected mainstream culture). The BBS evolved from a place where individuals would review products to one in which they discussed their lifestyle choices and other topics.

The term "converted services" was coined to refer to Internet communities that had been converted from other channels - independent BBSes like the well, online "communities" from AOL and other online services. Generally, these were done by committed volunteers who did not seek compensation.

In other instances, an online community was an extension of a meatspace one - particularly in the cases of professional associations and communities. In most instances, these evolved when an individual or organization began with an online resource that drew individuals (such as a database on industry information) and evolved into a community as people began to assist one another in finding additional resources, then branching out into other topics of conversation and collaboration.

It is suggested that the "social" community is an evolution of an existing community of interest. In some cases, the "ancilalry" topics begin to take precedence over the core topic for which the community was founded, and people begin to consider their fellow members as social acquaintances in addition to (or ultimately, rather than) professional colleagues.

It's rather like the way in which social dynamics in a school lead to the formation of extracurricular cliques, or a group of workers who transition from professional workday colleagues to communal off-hours activities that are often unrelated to their workplace functions.

Brokerage Services

There is some discussion of brokerage services online as a foundation for virtual communities. eBay, in specific, is referred to as an online marketplace of buyers and sellers, and as people of certain interests (collectors, for example) tend to find themselves involved in the same transactions, communities of interests form, and eventually split off from the parent site.

Examples given include hobbyist and collectors communities that spawned off of eBay, investment clubs that have spawned from online brokerages, and social communities that have emerged from online gambling sites. In each instance, people gathered in a forum for a specific kind of business and, finding that they have common interests with others involved in the same kind of transaction, formed virtual communities - whether facilitated by the forum (community features on the site) or started by a few influential members on a separate site.

As noted, some companies have purposefully attempted to foster a sense of community, with the sense that the dedication of members to a community on their site would be a competitive advantage. An analogy is made to the bars and coffee houses, where patrons prefer a specific establishment, to the exclusion of others, because the benefit they perceive derives from the other clientele, rather than the service provided by the establishment in question.

The author also refers to non-commercial sites that have spawned virtual communities. For example, Napster brings together people of similar musical taste, who have formed online communities that were initially based solely upon their common consumer preferences. Though there is some indication that this may be true of some groups (Dead heads, for example, have much more in common than just their preference in muisic) but not of others (people who prefer jazz, for example, come from a variety of walks of life and have few similarities as a group).

Social Networking Services

A different kind of virtual community has arisen in recent years: communities that were created for the sake of creating a community.

The author speaks of dating services (match.com, eharmany.com, christiansingles.com, etc.) as a kind of commercial service where the company derives a profit for introducing people to one another for social purposes. At first, these services created one-on-one "matches" for offline social interaction, but have evolved to have community features and support groups, creating groups of people who have online relationships.

There were also services (classmates.com, linkedin.com) dedicated to enabling individuals to reconnect with former classmates and colleagues, which have evolved into social networking sites.

Other services, such as MySpace, Facebook, Friendster, and such are online sites where people go for the specific purpose of forming online friendships with little or no expectation of real-world social interaction.

It si noted that these services have become wildly popular, and some of them are among the internet's top destination sites, with large number of members, high usage overall, and a high degree of customer loyalty (re-visits by the same individuals, in both frequency and longevity).

Community Networking Services

There is a brief discussion of community networking services, where individuals with a specific interest gather for a specific purpose. The author notes that these are largely philanthropic endeavors that are developed and maintained by nonprofit organizations to unit the individuals who support a specific cause.

In contrast to social networking services, these have not been very popular. Many are short-lived by nature - once a goal, such as the passage of a law or the completion of a public-service project. In other instances, the rigid control of the patrol (discouraging off-topic discussion, squelching any comments that do not support their agenda) have discouraged participants from branching out to take on other topics that would make the community more compelling.

These provide a good example of what NOT to do if your intention is to foster an online community.


Community-oriented interactions are largely an unintentional side-effect of the Internet's communication capabilities - and while they can be created for a specific purpose, they will evolve of their own accord. It seems that any interference in natural evolution of a community is detrimental, and there is presently no example of a community that has survived attempts to direct its purpose or function. As a result, the present phenomenon is difficult for businesses to exploit for their own profit motives.