As someone who aspires to be a new media expert, I don’t actually use many popular social media services. I dislike Facebook, I rarely tweet, and before winning the News Challenge I had never written a blog post. It would seem like I’m downright un-hip; yet I’m a young technologist who has been communicating online for more than half of my life.

Why the disparity? Simple: I care more about community than myself.

I’m sure you’ve heard people talk about the ego-centric nature of today’s social media, which tend to focus on one-to-one and one-to-many communication. Not only does the spotlight on the individual create an unappealing blend of “often boring” and “always noisy,” but it also makes it essentially impossible to facilitate real community. In fact, even the systems that are designed for groups leave much to be desired.

We all want to inform, and form, our communities using today’s digital tools, but how is this possible if the proper tools don’t exist? If there isn’t anything out there that can host community on the Internet without sacrificing something important, then maybe it’s time to invent something new. I’ve been thinking about where community stands at this stage of the digital era, and what these new tools, or tool, might look like. Here are some of my thoughts.

Charting Digital Media

I’ll try to simplify things by visualizing the current state of social media in terms of “focus” and “scope.” (See image below.) The location of each icon on the spectrum is subjective, so don’t ruffle your feathers if, for instance, you think Twitter should be closer to the “group” side. The point is to get a sense of where existing services might fall, and start thinking about the costs and benefits of each quadrant.

i-3e5c3f176936818d2505f256ee5602d4-participatory_web.jpg

Focus (Individual vs. Group) describes the type of social interaction users engage in on the system. Is the tool’s functionality geared toward private conversations or group discussions? Is content sharing ego-driven, or is there a focus on discussion? For me, if the system is primarily designed for one-to-one or one-to-many communications, then it is individual focused.

Scope (Niche vs. Global) explains the type of people found on the system. Is the site universally attractive, or is there a well defined target audience? Will users tend to find information thanks to common interest, or will they be exposed to a wide range of perspectives?

This setup creates a framework for thinking about online services. Here is what I was thinking about when I tried applying it (why I put the icons where I did):

  • Social networking sites (Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn) allow global users to contact one another directly, and create a detailed digital identity. These services provide effective one-to-one communication tools, such as private messages or wall posts, but the group-oriented features often feel shallow and impersonal.
  • News media repositories (Digg, Reddit) let groups share and discover content through collective intelligence. They provide a space for many-to-many conversation, but tend to aim at a global audience, since they rely on network effects to achieve a critical mass.
  • Personal media publishers (YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, blogging platforms) make it easy for users to get their message to the world, and therefore focus on one-to-many communication.
  • Discussion Platforms (Ning, PHPbb, and niche community websites) facilitate communication by creating a space for groups to use. This makes it possible for niche communities to function, though they do so with an element of isolation from the global community.

Looking for Trends

There are a few traits to consider within this framework:

The Noise to Information Ratio: How difficult is it for a user of the system to get the information they want? Intuition tells me that global services have more content, but they also have a better chance of getting enough users to support collective intelligence — and collective intelligence can help the system route information more efficiently. Niche services, however, have less content and a more specific audience, so there will be less noise in the system.

The Value of Contribution: A participatory system can only exist if it has users contributing content. It seems to me that it is much easier for a user to “freeload” on the activity of others in group-oriented sites by lurking in the shadows. On sites with an individual focus, the user won’t get nearly the same experience if they don’t interact in some way.

There are also some unscientific generalizations to be made about the four quadrants.

  • Global-and-Individual (upper left) leads to popularity. There is a lot of interest in being able to share your voice to the world, and these sites do exactly that. These are the places online where an individual could become a superstar, or at the very least feel important. If I were a psychiatrist, I’d probably be able to make an argument that people flock to these sites because they secretly like themselves a lot, but I’m not, so I won’t.
  • Niche-and-Individual (lower left) promotes personal relevance. If a user chooses to participate in a niche-content system, they presumably belong to that niche (or aspire to). If the interactions are individual-focused, they are probably applicable to the individuals involved. This adds up to a system where most of the messages are naturally relevant to the people that see them.
  • Global-and-Group (upper right) creates and organizes knowledge. There is something to be said about the crowd’s ability to organize information. When you have a global user base behaving as a collective, there is huge potential for the creation and organization of knowledge.
  • Niche-and-Group (lower right) facilitates community. Community requires group interaction with an underlying common identity. These sites provide space for exactly that.

Dreams of the Future

Community tools exist, but they are drastically underpowered. The systems lack the popularity of Facebook, the societal potential of Wikipedia, and the personal relevance of email. As a result, they are drowned out by the far more successful alternatives that I outlined above.

To change this, we need something that can:

  1. Host niche communities without isolating them from the rest of the world.
  2. Give individuals a chance to shine without letting their egos dominate the content.
  3. Attract enough people to drive collective intelligence, while maintaining the level of granularity needed to provide a truly personalized experience.

That isn’t too much to ask for… right? I personally believe that these systems will be the key to meeting community information needs. As such, I believe this is the direction that news organizations need to move if they want to maintain/reclaim their role as community informer.