What new online communities does the world need?

One of my favorite things about God is that He chose to give most of the world’s money to folks who aren’t sure what to do with it.  Some friends of mine want to start and run an online community sort of like www.photo.net, but on a different topic.  Have you ever asked yourself “I wish there were a photo.net for ____”? If so, on what topic(s)?  Please use the comment section to answer.

25 thoughts on “What new online communities does the world need?

  1. Good question, Philip, as I pondered all the online communities I am a part of and have found. It almost seems like no matter what one’s interests, passions, pleasures or needs, some limited form (yahoo mailing group) of community can be found that is ‘close’ to one’s needs. If not, one can create it almost instantly on a limited scale and it can grow large and quickly with the energy of it’s founder.

  2. Great question!

    Real communities are becoming a thing of the past it seems to me. Each day I hear more about the so-called disintegration of society as we know it.

    Even though I personally don’t think on-line communities are a substitute for real life, they obviously have their place. Nowadays you can find any interest group you desire on the net. So I think the scope for a new group special interest community is limited.

    Perhaps what’s needed is a totally open community of people from all over the world. United only by virtue of their membership of the human race. No special interests as such. I don’t know if one already exists. Seems to me there’s scope for one. A site where people can just hang out and form their own fora according to their interests. Where you can speak freely on a number of different topics, ask questions and learn from others whose interests may be very different to your own.

    As well as being fun, I think that would be a real on-line asset. Naturally, as fora become established, appropriate advertisers would be attracted and revenue generated.

    Keep up the good work! Especially at Photonet!


  3. A community around good books and good writers. I’d like to see one on modern literature. Writers like John McNally, Richard Russo, Mary Gaitskill, and Kent Haruf. So many of the literary sites end up either going obscure or genere fiction like Crime or Lawyers in Trouble. I wouldn’t mind a site on good business books.

    In both situations, it’d be nice to learn about the writers not in the Amazon 100.

  4. This idea isn’t for a topic-based community, but you might still find it interesting.

    I’d like to see a distributed social networking system where the data characterizing the nodes and edges of the graph were portable between hosts, and each host had flexibility as to the method by which the graph would be viewed and queried. Think BitTorrent + MySpace. Also think cell phone number portability.

    This would probably entail the publication of a standard data format for nodes and edges, as well as a protocol for aggregating and querying the extended graph.

    A possible business model would be in the hosting of nodes. ‘Basic’ node hosting would be free, ‘extended’ node hosting would cost something per month. If your prices got too high, competitors would probably spring up offering cheaper options, as with web-hosting. But a high-quality host would probably offer better methods for querying and viewing the data. Hosts could also sell advertising on their sites; if users didn’t like advertising, they could switch to a different host, or host themselves, if they already had an internet-connected server.

    This idea obviously isn’t totally thought-through, but I would like it if something like this existed, and I bet a lot of other people would, too.

    – Davi

  5. First, you may want to replace Xs with [blank] or ‘____’, or you’ll start getting odder-than-usual search engine referrers in your logs.

    Second, I have generally found that there is an online community for just about anything you can think of. Most are not ones I want to participate in, even if the topic is of interest to me, usually because they use PHPBB or some other generic discussion software with irrelevant bells and whistles.

    Perhaps that is your friends’ point.

    That said, the one feature that in my opinion most online community software lacks is an NNTP interface. Yes, this is a power-user feature, but it is a power-user feature that has zero impact on the UI for casual users, and nothing is better for interacting with threaded discussions than a dedicated NNTP client.

    Some interests of mine (some of which are currently handled by existing communities, largely on mailing lists, Usenet newsgroups, weblogs, or IRC): Graphic Design (esp. logo design), standards-based web design, Science-Fiction Fandom (particularly the historical aspects), volunteer-run conferences, web-application design, Free-Software business models, Python programming, and coolhunting.

  6. MIT and many other universities have been making content freely availble via OCW. But having the content available is generally not sufficient for learning, for most people learning is a social activity.

    I’d like to see a community that provides tools for people from around the world self organize into small study groups, tutor-student relationships, virtual classes with official teacher student relationships around OCW content. I’d like to see the community tools available in people’s native language even if the content is in English. In addition to all the standard tools LMS and communities have it should have a way to annotate and extend the OCW content while maintaining the integrity of the original. Example are sticky notes, multiple informal translations etc.

    Another focus of the community should be on what materials should be put togehter to achieve differenet learning objectives. Each university has a set of couses it puts toghether to create a degree. That is a good place to start but a degree probably isn’t your objective you are on this site. Empowering people to work together to figure out what they should study is another useful role for the community.

  7. One that focuses on local community, neighborhood affairs. There have been attempts, but they’ve failed because for the most part, thus far in the U.S., there is still a sizable segment (~30%) that are not online and of the other 70%, a big chunk of them are still on dialup and don’t spend much time online. That makes it hard to create a successful site focused on the local community/neighborhood, as it would be odd to have more than a few people visit/contribute…

  8. I would like to see better online scientific communities. For most scientists, the people in their sub-sub-sub-specialty constitute a few dozen around the whole world. It would be really great if there was a centralized place to post and discuss papers, exchange data and software, etc. Clearly, the technology required for this is low. However, the site has to be so seamless and intuitive that it almost immediately gets > 50% of the target people using it. (If there are 20 people worldwide who are interesting in sparkle-widget-frequency-analysis, a community with only 10% of them using it is dead.)

    So, I want scientific community with ipod-like intuitiveness and ease of use. A site where people around the world can tell me if a difficult to read paper is crank garbage, or a major result. (I think most researchers read much less than they should because of this. There are many good papers, but most papers are bad. The investment of time that it takes to decide if a paper is good is too high to bother with out a high probability of success.)

  9. Gosh, in a way that’s kind of sad. How did these guys get wealthy without developing interests or connections to people with interests?
    I think one of the reasons that photo.net has done so well is that Philip was passionate enough to write and contribute a solid core of content, and thousands of others share that passion and have added on.
    It’s commendable that there are people out there ready to start writing checks, but there are so many ways to start an online community now that I think interest, and not money, is what’ll really make a community prosper at this point. I’ve been a member of a community for years (at http://www.freediver.net) All they’ve got is a website maintained by one guy and an email mailing list. They recently switched it over to a yahoo group. It’s a pretty small and congenial online community, and it can be an invaluable source of information, but almost all the real capital is human.

  10. “I want to build an online community for X” without knowing the value of X before formulating the statement is a recipe for failure.

    “The world” doesn’t need _any_ online communities. But there are doubtless many logical communities currently in existence (or common factors around which a logical community might form in the future, given the resources) that could benefit from a meeting place on the web. If your friends’ lives are so bereft of interest that they don’t have any ideas of their own about it, then maybe online community building isn’t the right choice for them.

    Photo.net is a success because the photography came first. If the developers aren’t referring to their target community in the first person, they’re putting the cart before the horse.

  11. I would like to see a smal elitarist photo community, with membership available only to a fixed number of people, thus creating a stronger sense of community and no need to “market yourselt for a year before somebody starts commenting on your pictures”. There was one community like this here locally in Latvia, that came to be that way because registration stopped working at some point and new people could not register. I think it was the best photo community that I have encountered, for myself. Alas, it is no more.

  12. Think big. How about the community of everyone? The Yahoo of collaboration.

    Users can start any community on the system and the tools are powerful and general enough to support whatever type of community that is needed by the users. This would be a nice scalability exercise for the MIT geniuses at your disposal. If successful, you might have to support 10^8 users or so. Revenue can come from tasteful, targeted ads. Tools would have to be provided to merge communities as parallel communities would inadvertently be created by users with similar goals.

  13. The problem isn’t what communities to create since there are thousands of individual communities built around forums and email lists, but how do you bring transparent shared logins across these seperate communities and even find them to begin with.

    I run a rather small forum dedicated to Kawasaki motorcycles, sport bikes more specifically with a bit over 26,000 members. It’s kind of my expertise at the moment, so I’ll talk about it.

    Just in that narrow scope I see a new Kawi forum pop up every few weeks to be added to the 20 or 30 I can name of the top of my head. Why do they start up? Because someone wants to run their own show, they couldnt’ find the larger ones for some reason or they just want to run their own more specific forum on say a particular model or geographic region. If my members want to participate in that more specific forum, they have to sign up, start a new profile, post and monitor posts in two places. It’s a hassle to say the least, and belonging to only two is far from the norm for most people.

    Why should we try to force users into a single dominant service instead of being able to participate in several smaller circles that may suit them better? Mostly because of money. I pay for my site out of my own pocket with a little help from advertisers so sharing in a community is more important to me than making a buck, but I think that is far from the norm also. I’m far from large in the overall motorcycle segment and the monstrousities of the larger boards with 20 (not joking) ads per page, a full page of navigation and ads before content and white text on black backgrounds make me physicaly sick to navigate, but they rake in the money realitive to the rest of us.

    I think we need a (I shudder to use the buzz word) organic way to source niche communities and make those participations seamless instead of trying to square-peg a photo.net sized solution.

    So to answer your question, I wish there were a photo.net for everything. Just on a more intimate and distributed scale.

  14. An online community with photo.net user interface? I’m in! Let me share this…

    Last night I experience the web as a living organism, a digital Ouija Board capable of reading minds. Now long-term planning has been on my mind of late. Then without prompting the web offers up a community that uses a five-digit dating system (www.longnow.org). Weird! It’s like meeting someone half way round the world who had only two degrees of separation from you in the first place. Try that in a lonely high-rise elevator.

  15. Cheap travel! Although this may actually be a by product of other communities that are really communities with active regular participants. I think one where folks can meet and say I’m traveling from x to y on such and such dates and if you want to share the ride let’s share info would be great. Also if you have a place you wouldn’t mind lending out then folks could do living spaces swaps when they travel. This would have to become a real community because of all the scam potential inherent so it might be best left as friends you’ve met elsewhere online type thing.

    I know you’ve asked for some programming project ideas in the past also and I was thinking a website where folks could meet up for car pooling would be a great thing. Local area of say a 30 40 mile radius could have all the streets listed and folks could either type in where they are going and looking for someone to pool with either as driver or passenger. Could be an on going pool as in work or say you go somewhere once a week or just a one time I’m driving 50 miles to wherever if you want to share the ride. Could become really big when gas goes really expensive

    Wanted to say also that I like your blog because it has some thought and makes you think about some things. Lots of blogs are the new vanity press which can be entertaining once in a while but gets old as a steady diet.

  16. I would like to see something like lusenet. Somewhere where it’s easy and lightweight to create a forum for say, my local triathlon club, without being choked by the banner ads.

  17. “…start and run an online community sort of like http://www.photo.net...”

    Photo.net worked because you and a few other people were extremely dedicated to talking about photography. On the other hand, at some point those people got out-numbered, photo critiques became whining about how hard the shot was to get rather than how to improve the shot the next time, and I stopped participating.

    So those looking to start another site don’t know what the community is going to be about ahead of time, then it’s an attempt to be another MySpace or somesuch, not a community born out of their passion. That’s fine, but it’s not about building the community as much as it is providing an environment for the community.

    In terms of tools for community, I’ve got two organizations, our local community center, and my road cycling club, that I’d love to point towards a hosted solution to do events and announcements. Some number of accounts which can have various privilege levels that can post to a calendar or an announcements list, with pictures and such. The announcement lists need to be RSS/Atom and email, and need to help in formatting so that they work for press releases to news organizations. Comment and discussion boards are unnecessary, they just attract trolls, and both of these groups are interested in facilitating real-life interaction more than creating yet another online forum.

    And, Michael Bernstein, my own little corner of the web, Flutterby, has a content management system that, yes, has an NNTP interface.

  18. I would like to see an online community for discussing and learning about ways of receiving income other than wage slavery… e.g., stock investing, real estate investing, starting/buying businesses. Most folks think that they should go to college for X years, then get a job. That’s not a bad thing to do, but there are so many other options for either supplementing one’s wages or replacing them entirely, and a lot of people are pretty clueless about such things.

  19. The world needs a million online communities about every imaginable topic. If enough people are attracted to any one of them, then it will survive.

    It seems to me that trying to study, poll, analyze and design the ‘perfect’ community that is just aching to thrive, is doomed from the beginning. Sure, you might be able to convince enough people that it is cool and get them to participate, but at its core it is bound to be empty.

    What I think is really needed is fertile soil, a medium that provides the environment that communities can take root in and that also provides the symbiotic elements that enourage growth. These would need to fill the gaps that are usually handled by really enthusiastic people (or that support moderately enthusiastic people’ to build the sort of relationships that encourage participation.

    If you plant a few thousand seeds then you might be able to cultivate a small number of vibrant communities.

  20. I’ll take the bait. I’ve long ago thought of using this software to create a community. Indeed, there could and should be a community for everyting, but I agree with the organic approach and planting the seeds of possibilty in one big plot. However, it should be mentioned that the myspace community grew out of an incredible spam campaign.

    This is the place to build…….

    1. Myspace for Grownups based around hobby/interest – that makes it easy for singles to find one another – academics – news/pollitcal junkies – church members – sports enthusiast – parents – etc.

  21. From yesterday’s TechCrunch Blog on Citizendium:

    “Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger has announced that his new knowledge sharing wiki project called Citizendium will launch at the end of this month or earlier.

    “Sanger says topic experts will function like village elders or college professors – they’ll simply make the wiki a civilized place”


    And by Larry himself:

    “But this is changing very rapidly, and I want to make a prediction.  In the next year, by the end of 2007, every major university, library, museum, archive, professional organization, government, and corporation will be asking themselves with increasing urgency: how, using what systems and methods, can we pool the entire world’s intellectual resources to create the ideal information resource? ”

    from: http://www.citizendium.org/essay.html 



  22. How about civics.net? Even if they still taught it in schools, not many students would care, but it is the adults who need an accurate reference and community so that grass roots action could choke out the weeds of indiscretion. These days it seems that politicians use ignorance of the rule book to abuse their authority, with everything from local sunshine laws to the Bill of Rights/Constitution being violated on a routine basis. School boards forget who they work for, zoning laws are “selectively” applied, and a lot of state/federal politicians find ways to short circuit any safegards built in to legislative due process.
    (A Google search revealed no matching documents for http://www.civics.net-typing it in as a URL brings you to Techbuyer.com:great products for tech professionals)

  23. How about a community for developing software?

    We have things like sourceforge already, but they seem to focus more on the software and less on the people involved. I would like a forum modelled more on the proposal/discussion/patch methodology seen on the LKML (or the PEP process for Python) rather than a cvs server+mailing list.

    The CVS+mailing list tends to be mostly about disseminating changes to other users, rather than discussing them. I imagine somewhere where patches are introduced, discussed, updated and tested before being added to whatever project is being worked on. This would provide an opportunity for advice and mentoring that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.

  24. Davi,

    Sounds like the blogosphere. 😉

    And RSS is the standard data format.

    Now I agree that what you are describing is more tightly coupled than the loose affilitation that links provide in the blogosphere, but the groundwork is there.

    So we just need some traction to use something like SSE to turn blog posts into tightly threaded discussions like an email list or newsgroup, as Michael suggests.
    Some blog posts, not all.

    I built the experimental http://skinnyfarm.com to test SSE, and by the way, I learned what a database was from Philip’s free discussions in the late 90’s.
    The user table there isn’t much different from the Arsdigita Community System’s.

    If you add some features and sophistication to RSS feeds, you have all the communities you’ll ever need.

    We’ll get there.

    Also, check out what Marc Canter is doing with the PeopleAggregator. I see a lot of progress in distributed social networks.

    Eventually, social networks will be a commodity and fluid, so that we’ll move between them with ease.

    The real business will be happening between people, like it does now in the real world.

    That is, if the government doesn’t intentionally squash it.

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