Friday, January 12, 2007

One man's community

Here's an interesting little vignette – Haymarket have bought an online community site for car enthusiasts. Why is this interesting? For several reasons.

Firstly it shows that big(ger) publishers have really latched on to the idea of "community". In one sense this is not surprising since magazines have always been about community, but on the other hand many print publishers have held off from the principle of digital community, being either wedded to the idea of physical product or unable to see the potential commercial value.

Secondly, it is a lesser example of the YouTube phenomenon. www.pistonheads.com may not have had the start-up money which YouTube had and it's a much, much simpler idea technically – basically just people talking to each other – but something started by an enthusiast and based on enthusiasm and hard work has turned out to have considerable commercial value. This is encouraging news for anyone in a similar position (though perhaps not immediately for my former student Jeremy Laird and www.newswheel.com, unless there's a Murdoch/MySpace type knock on effect with other print publishers).

When I read Victor Keegan's piece in yesterday's Technology Guardian, I did wonder about why he had invested real money in the online "world" Second Life, and how he could see that "such worlds could evolve into major economies in their own right" – but this sale seems to be another example of the phenomenon. After all, what have Haymarket bought? Really, just a domain name, a reputation and the goodwill of people who post to the site (check out the feedback to the founder's announcement, but note the concerns alongside the congratulations) – along with a whole bunch of email addresses belonging to known potential consumers, of course. If they change too much or alter the ethos of the site, those people will vanish like morning mist.

The principle behind both Second Life and pistonhead.com is what Charles Leadbeater has been writing about for years. As the spikemagazine.com review of Living On Thin Air notes, Leadbeater did not fill out many details of how the new economy would be organised, and he was probably wise not to try because the concepts will not come from the top down, they will come from individuals and the communities they attract – and who can predict that?

There are too many straws in the wind now for this concept of community to be just a passing fad: magazine publisher Meredith has been buying sites; the Sun is claiming massive uptake of its web offerings; BBC Worldwide has put aside £350m to develop social networks; Dennis has launched Monkey. Like it or not, this is going to have to be a core concept in any new launch – until the next big thing comes along.

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