27, 2002 | Derek
Powazek is the author of Design
for Community and creator of The
Fray. Mindjack editor-in-chief Donald Melanson exchanged a few
emails with him about his book, online communities and weblogs.
How do you assess the current state of online community? It seems
to me like there's been a shift away from traditional online communities
like The Well towards more topic-centered communities like Slashdot
and Metafilter. Do you see this continuing or is there a place for
both types of communities?
The bar is raising a little more every day, and that's a good thing.
When the idea of virtual community became a reality, and it was
all so new, all you had to do is put up some community features
somewhere and people would flock to them. Let's be honest, the Well
is nothing more than a community tool, and not a very friendly one
at that. It's hard to navigate, there's little signage or help,
the place is very user-hostile for the newbies.
But that's okay because it's not for newbies, it's for the established
community. When The Well started, it was pretty much a singularity.
And the people there were what made it work. They made the content,
formed the social rituals, created the codes of behavior over time.
In the Well, the community *is* the content.
But, remember, all that was before the web. That was before the
internet explosion. When the web came along, all of a sudden anyone
could add community features to their site fairly easily. And web
users had an enormous amount of choice over where they could go
to interact. That's a whole new ball game.
So you couldn't start a Well-style community now. The internet is
just too big, and web users have higher expectations. Okay, so,
I can post a message, interact in real time, create telepresence.
Big deal! Who am I talking to? What is there to talk about? Why
should I bother? These are the questions anyone starting a community
site needs to be able to answer for their users now.
So of course there's a shift in virtual community, and it will continue
to shift. I'm excited by this state of transition, because now that
it take a little more to impress the general public, and the shiny
gloss of "virtual community" is fading, we're getting
down to what this stuff is really good for. Virtual community features
are becoming just another part of "real"community.
Just look at the church group with an email list to stay in touch
in between Sundays. Or doctors recommending health discussion sites
to newly diagnosed patents. Or the masses of people who turned to
email and instant messaging when the phones failed after 9.11.
This is just how our world works now, and I for one am glad for
How did the book come about? Was it something you had been planning
for along time?
It came about like this
I started speaking at web conferences in 1996. At
that time, there weren't that many people who could talk the talk,
and a whole lot of people who wanted to listen (pretty much the
inverse of today). SO I found myself addressing rooms of hundreds
of people about such fascinating topics as tables in HTML 1.1 and
cross-browser coding techniques (back then "cross-browser"
meant that it works in Netscape 1.0 and Netscape 1.1.
In 1999, I was invited to speak at Web Design and Development, but
I was tired of talking about all the same tech stuff I always spoke
about. So they asked me, "Well, what do you want to talk about?"
I thought about all my work on the web, both the professional and
the personal, and realized that it was all tied together by a single
thread: all the sites were about getting users to talk back. So
I wrote a proposal for a talk called "Design for Community,"
where I could share the lessons I've learned the hard way. How do
you design spaces that encourage positive user participation? How
does color influence the tone of the conversation? Where should
you put the post button?
The talk was a success and always got high ratings. I gave it at
a few different conferences (including South by Southwest and Web
2000). Meanwhile, New Riders was starting a new initiative - web
books by people who'd been working in the web for years. They knew
they wanted a book on community, and when they started looking for
someone to write it, they found me. I took the basic outline of
my talk and exploded it into the major themes - intimacy, barriers
to entry, commerce, etc. - and sent it to them as a proposal. They
And nine months later, I had a bouncing baby book!
I'm always curious about the process of writing a book. What
was the experience like for you? Given the subject matter, did you
feel rushed to get it out quickly in order to be as relevant as
If you want to know what it's like to write a book, try getting
eaten by a snake. You know, one of those jungle snakes that swallows
its prey whole, and slowly.
you want to know what it's like to write a book, try getting
eaten by a snake. You know, one of those jungle snakes that
swallows its prey whole, and slowly.
Writing this book was the hardest thing I've ever
done. It's an amazing process full of lessons about letting go,
self-control, and coffee. Lots of coffee.
But I didn't feel rushed to get it out. My editors at New Riders
were wonderful in that regard - they always wanted quality over
quick. I can't imagine how much harder it would have been otherwise.
Also, the lessons in the book are pretty timeless. Human nature
doesn't change, and the web, while it does evolve quickly, has plateaued
somewhat. The rapid pace of change we saw in the late nineties has
abated. Now we all pretty much know what the web is, what it does,
and how we can use it to communicate with other people.
Of course, that doesn't mean it'll stop here. But it does mean that
now's a pretty good time for a book like this.
I was worried about the examples I used, though. When
I read Amy Jo Kim's book, less
than a year after it'd come out, it seemed like most of the example
sites were gone already. That's just the nature of the beast - websites
come and go. Still, I tried to pick example sites that would stick
around a while. And, so far, they're all still online (he typed
while checking plastic.com).
There's been a lot of coverage of weblogs in mainstream
publications recently, much of it focusing on weblogging as journalism.
What's your take on this? If the National Post is catching on to
it does that signal the end of weblogs as we know them?
Weblogs aren't journalism. Period.
I studied journalism in college, so this meme is especially galling
to me. Journalism isn't like art: you can't just say it's so and
make it true. Journalism is a trade that has to be learned. It takes
practice and study.Sweat and experience. Coffee and cigarettes.
aren't journalism. Period.
Weblogs are, however, excellent first-person sources.
The power of weblogs lies in two places: their first-person, no-editor,
speak-your-mind freedom; and their many-pieces-make-the-whole structure.
When you become a frequent reader of a set of weblogs, it expands
your worldview and gives you a set of people you can turn to who
will know things you don't.
If I was going to do a story about Mozilla, I'd visit camworld.com,
because Cam has been writing about it for years on camworld.com
and knows his shit. If I was going to write a story on how a personal
site can get you fired from your day job, I'd go visit Heather at
dooce.com and several others who have experienced it first hand.
But let's not confuse sources with journalists. These people are
doing some of the work of journalism: first-hand experience. But
the rest of the hard work (research, editing, interviews, structure,
finding a peg to hang it all on) are not part of the usual weblog
equation. And that's okay! If weblogs were held to the same standards
and structures as journalism, the web would read like a newspaper.
And, personally, I'd find that quite boring.
I will say that sites like Kuro5hin.org are walking the line between
the two. At K5, the community suggests stories, members help each
other edit the submissions until they're ready for prime time, and
then the best are published and become open for discussion. It's
the closest the web has come to a truly democratic, many-to-many,
editorial community. And, in a way, it reminds me of the way my
college newspaper worked, minus the beer.
But there's a debate to be had about whether sites as complicated
as this break out of the definition of a weblog, and of journalism.
I'd suggest that sites like K5 and Slashdot are not weblogs at all
- they're community sites, built with custom tools for specific
communities, and always evolving toward something more interesting.