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Interview With Howard Rheingold

by Nancy White

Interviewed April, 1999

Howard Rheingold, author, virtual community pioneer and host of the Brainstorms Community

Brainstorms and Rheingoldian Writing

What has been your experience with the value of content and community? Has it helped a community form and grow? Is it a driver or a side issue?

You need to look at this question with a more fine-grained analysis. What kind of content, for what kind of community? A mailing list for people with Hepatitis C is going to focus on ongoing information about research about cures to that disease which would stimulate conversation. On the other hand with Salon, a magazine style content site, you provide people with an opportunity to talk about the magazine content. They have content that a great many people read, and lively conversation, which is sometimes about the content. Those two are loosely coupled. Many people who participate in many-to-many conversations (on Salon's Table Talk) who never read the content. This is partially a user interface issue. It is tricky to be able to build something that serves people who seek content and participation simultaneously. And part of it is social. People are not loyal to content. They are loyal to other people.

At Electric Minds we learned that we had set up a magazine model like Salon, where we had selected columnists, and conversations about those columns. But there were conversations about other things. "Other things" were very popular. We wanted to turn the paradigm around to have the conversations ("other things") become the content. Pay people to contribute, to edit. I don't think that anyone has implemented that.

Then there are chat rooms about subjects, small mailing lists, huge public sites. You really need to look at a finer grain. Asking questions like this (content and community) about VC in general are not really useful. Ask specific questions about ... is it social, interest, geographical, listserv or chat room? What is the particular tool you are using and what are the needs of your audience? What is the interface, how do people hear about it, do you need a browser to access it? If you have people who pay lot of money for insider stock tips, they want information. They want it knowledgeable and they want it early. They may or may not have conversations about it.

What are the effects of online communities on our offline lives?

Ask again at a finer grain level...look at people like Howard or Nancy -- this is an enhancement of our offline life, a pool of social capital. How do you find people you are going to get acquainted with offline? If you have no network, you loose that. If you are homebound, again, your F2F network is limited. Online can provide connections. I would say that there are people for whom online life is a poor substitute for offline life. Timid, adolescent, tempted to spend more time online where you have more control of relationships. Some people use it pathologically, but way too much has been made of that. Circumstances exist where people do get together offline and form f2f relationships, especially when they are geographically proximate.

It's like asking how the telephone impacts our life, -- it depends on the circumstances

Look at how people have used online tools to advocate, organize, and recruit. Liverpool used to be the major port for England. Dock authorities offered a buyout package to close the port for commercial traffic. The dock workers went on strike, and used the web to mobilize other dock workers worldwide. Look at Radio station B92. The Serbian government shut down the radio station and everything went to the web. People are being able to use the medium effectively. Racists and Nazis do this too. Everyone gets the advantage.

The tool does not automatically make something that is dull exciting. It extends our ability for people to continue to communicate, to organize, get the word out, diffuse information, to create a community network.

There's no question that there are thousands --- tens of thousands or groups that are using these tools.

Are they using static web pages or are they adding the interactive elements such as discussion boards or "community?"

Discussion boards are in many cases are helping. A Web page is a broadcast. That's effective. There may be many cases where that is pretty much it . But it does not allow constituents to communicate to each other, which is more exciting than reading static content. It depends on the group. For a group of people who are trying to implement something very technical, it enables them to share information, and answer questions for each other.

What is your take on the current state of online community today? What are people doing with it? Who are the people taking part? Why?

There are an awful lot of businesses that have heard the word VC and haven't the least idea of what it is. It is not as simple as it sounds.

Most companies need to think about what their objectives are and about the consequences they might not have considered. Like asking for feedback --they had better listen and had better be able to respond.

We are still very much seeing the beginning of companies using VCs for commercial purposes. We have not seen huge success stories yet. It is very early. Some will succeed very well. Many will not succeed. But there is still not enough glue to bring their constituencies together. They fail to think it out properly. What is your purpose? Are you prepared to respond to you constituents? Do you have the proper software, social infrastructure -- the software is very important.

They (companies) think they all they need is to slap up a message board or install chat software -- and there they are. There is an unwillingness to provide the resources to do it right. To think it out. Companies that do it right will find it successful.

The IBM Deep Blue/Kasparov Match (online community) - they knew what their reason was --showcase Deep Blue II to the geeks, and high-end users, to show that IBM was not a staid old brand. They wanted to improve the perception of their brand. They had a well-organized, well thought out VC around that chess match. They knew it was the cost of doing business. They did not seek to make it revenue source.

Look at Ebay - and to the degree it enables people to communicate about the user experience. Reader reviews on Amazon -- that is something like VC. There are a whole lot of shades of community. One of the original principals in E-bay was one of the writers of Well Engaged. He understood community and how it can empowering to have people communicate with each other.

What is the most surprising trend that did or did not happen with online communities?

The thing that surprised me was the degree of cluelessness of large sites regarding software and social infrastructure. You see big brand names. (With exception of Netcenter on Netscape), using shitty software and no organized or paid hosting, no real set of rules or norms. Mining Co. Yahoo, Excite. Take a look at the message boards, they are not as good as Well Engaged and CommunityWare, Caucus and Web Crossing.

Conversations are not documents. Any message board that requires you to open a document to read it and then close it and open another one cannot qualify as a conversation.

What do you think are the major trends in online community? What will the next year, five years bring?

An awful lot of people will be trying it out and then an abandoning it because there is a lot of shitty software. Some will migrate to better software. But we're never going to see it go away. It (virtual community) preceded the web by decades. It is just now becoming part of the WWW. It will probably be part of the browser. Buddy lists, IM, the ability to easily create email lists, message board or chat room. Lots of "roll your own" communities. Virtual community is becoming a commodity. It takes years for people to learn to communicate in a new medium. This is a new medium.

Its too bad that the American public does not understand that we have a capability as citizens to have discussions with each other about issues that affect us. Virtual Community could be a great tool for public discourse in a great democracy. But media have not chosen to educate people that they have this right. People would use medium more to communicate about issues, and spend less time buying predigested opinions from the mass media.

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