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Minding the Business Model
Jun 17, 1997 :: Michael Sippey

It's old news by now, but Electric Minds is on the ropes. On Friday, Howard Rheingold, expert on virtual communities and founder of Minds, started a new topic in "The Commons" titled "Keeping the Community Alive." In it, he described the dire financial situation that Minds is facing, and his desire to have the community that he helped create carry on. "I feel it is of the utmost importance to create the means for continuing the community that met here, even if the business entity that gave it its first home goes under," posted Rheingold. "That community transcends the business, transcends the postings that have been made in the past six months."

Minds had an auspicious beginning. Back in October of last year the "push" craze had yet to hit, and the phenomenon du jour was "community." Independent web publishers and corporate IS types alike were interested in building communities to foster intelligent conversation. Those legions of message posters would not only provide witty banter, but also attractive metadata: on the publishing side a site-addicted, like-minded demographic just ripe for advertisers, and on the corporate side a willing labor force for the organizational knowledge mining effort. So, with the web-based Well Engaged conferencing system locked and loaded, and with the conference hosts well trained in the art of guiding errant conversants to the appropriate topic, Minds opened their doors to the public.

And what a public it was... I spent (and continue to spend) most of my time on Minds lurking in the Media Shock conference. It's there that Rebecca Eisenberg and David Hudson preside over an intelligent -- if occasionally nit-picking -- dissection of the relationship between media producers and media consumers. The fact that in this conferencing environment we were on both sides of the content fence was such delicious irony...

Media Shock became home to some incredibly dense conversations... Joey Anuff and David Kline battling back and forth on the future of Wired Ventures -- just after the withdrawn IPO. Long, involved discussions on some of the more obvious conflicts of interest occurring in new media. Small threads of useful ideas wrapped up in the mother of all conference titles, "The Book Is Dead." Not to mention a list as long as my arm of other topics in other conferences that I didn't have time to follow, but gained satisfaction from by knowing they were just there.

This past spring I led a friend through a tour of the Media Shock conference, showing him interesting discussions, trying to convince him to register and start participating. After about six or seven minutes of clicking and scrolling he turned to me and said, "Oh, so it's like The WELL. Only it's free." Pregnant pause. "So how are they making money?"

This was not such a stupid question, as it turns out. Minds, of course, was trying to make a go of it with advertiser support. There was spec'd and edited content outside of the conferencing system -- rants on technology, "how to" articles on building communities, updates on tech culture in cities around the world. But as many E-Minders noticed, and as my friend quickly pointed out, the real action was in the conferencing system...where the ads were non-existent. The discussion on Minds was a free-for-all. Literally.

In the topic where Rheingold posted his news last Friday, dozens of E-Minders are now hashing out how they can keep the "community" alive. At last count the topic had nearly 300 postings, full of chatter about T-1 lines, NT servers, SQL databases and different brands of conferencing software. Rheingold, to his credit, has occasionally piped in with a plea to remember that they should spend their time building a community infrastructure and not a network infrastructure. It's good advice, because the community that posts on Minds also posts on other sites, and on other mailing lists. They'd be wise to remember that conversations that began on Minds could just as well continue on Netly-L, nettime, WWWAC or any other "push conferencing system" masquerading as simple email.

It is also in that topic that the weaknesses of the "flat" non-hierarchical nature of conferencing becomes painfully clear...simply put, it's chaos in there. There are dozens of voices, several different proposals, one guy selling his solution a bit too forcefully, and a bunch of others piping in occasionally with a "Hey! I'd love to help!" At this rate, by July (the threatened date of extinction) there won't even be any archives of the material currently sitting inside the Engaged system, much less a fully operational alternative home for the Minds conferencing junkies.

The final irony, of course, is that only now are E-Minders piping up and offering to pay for this new, mythical service. Not that Rheingold ever asked, but without the millions of page views they must have planned on for their "real" content, Minds could have used a recurring revenue stream from subscriber fees. Not only would it have helped cash flow, but it also could have acted as a natural selection agent...and raised the ratio of poster to lurker. They still could have offered the "real" content for free to attract the masses, run teasers of posted comments, and plastered the thing with banner ads to earn two sources of revenue.

Maybe it is pure hindsight, but is seems fairly clear that a community on the web can't exist without a sound business model to support it. Hmmm...maybe it's finally time to dust off that WELL account from so long ago. At least they have a somewhat stable revenue stream...



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