It's even harder if you're trying to take on thousands of local communities all at once, with a single brand.
Local newspapers by all rights should own their local communities online. But there are 1,500 local newspapers in the US, and most of them don't have a lot of spare resources to experiment online. Usually most of their effort is focused on the product that keeps them employed -- print. And I'll say it -- culturally they don't really like the web. Newsroom-driven attempts to deal with the web are usually one-way and read-only. Of course. Go to newspaper industry conferences and you'll find they're still talking about nonsense like electronic readers to view images of the print newspaper, and charging money for online subscriptions. And when it comes to facilitating conversation with the community, newsrooms tend to get seriously uncomfortable with the realities of dealing with the net public. They typically pull community the minute things get hot -- which, ironically, is when you need discussion and debate the most, and when the discussions often become the most interesting.
There's an underlying assumption in common between the newspaper's online efforts and the single-community hyperlocal startups: that there will be many local brands online. Currently there are over 3,000 local news brands in the US, if you include both newspapers and local TV stations with newscasts. That made sense when geography defined the radius of distribution around TV towers or newspaper delivery trucks. But put your content online, and that radius goes away. Distribution expands to the edges of the net.
Are 3,000 community websites sustainable? Will online consumers really accept 3,000 local brands? Or will a McDonald's model win instead, subsuming the thousands of mom & pop hamburger stands?
Topix is betting that the national play will ultimately win.
Single-community hyperlocal sites tend to have passionate, involved editors and participants. But the labor and overhead costs are high. And they don't generally scale -- to tens, hundreds, or thousands of additional communities. So the costs of the overhead have to be borne by the revenue potential of just one or a small number of communities.
The challenge for a national hyperlocal play, on the other hand, is to get quality in the long tail of geography. Can that be done from an office in Palo Alto? Won't local community development suffer without an editorial office based in every city and town?
But this apparent deficit may in fact be a strength.
Single-community hyperlocal sites are still rooted in the model of the print newsroom. This is a one-to-many mindset that empowers a few to determine what the many will read. It made sense when the distribution network started with an expensive printing press.
But the Internet is not about one-to-many. It's not a printing press or a TV tower. The Internet is the first mass many-to-many communication medium. Users aren't on their community site just to hear one person talk. You can be the greatest local journalist in the world, but reading your output takes 5 minutes a day. Users are there to talk with each other. To learn from, gossip with, and argue with their neighbors. Users provide their own draw. The necessary job of the 'editor' here isn't to run the conversation, like a teacher in a 6th-grade class. It's simply to make sure that the conversation 1) gets started, and 2) doesn't completely run off the rails.
Scaling this to enable millions of people to talk with each other in thousands of simultaneous parallel conversations is not simply a matter of putting up lots of empty message boards and hoping it all works. You need a lot of seed traffic, as well as topically- and geographically-segmented content to prime the pump. You also need a social architecture that draws visitors into discussion with each other. Challenge #1 is getting the party started.
Challenge #2 is keeping it safe and on-track. A free concert in the park with 30,000 music-lovers is great, until the lights go out and the police aren't there. Then it can get ugly really fast. Not because most of the participants are bad people. But because a few bad apples can ruin things for the majority.
This has happened to nearly every online community system, from Usenet to the comment threads that the Washington Post took down, to the news message boards that Yahoo recently took down.
We've spent considerable effort at Topix on an architecture to not only get online communities booted up, but to let them socially scale. Effectively dealing with spam, hate speech, profanity and trolls isn't just about maintaining the quality of the commentary. Scalable moderation is essential for enabling growth to larger and larger audiences. If you don't keep the quality sufficiently high, you stop adding users.
We do a lot of this at the software level, with layers and layers of filters to catch all sorts of bad stuff. We also have centralized human editorial overseeing the whole show. The simple idea: get rid of the bottom 5% of posts every day.
Starting from zero a little over a year ago, we now have over 1,000 active forums (an active forum being defined as one which receives at least 5 posts per day). There are 30,000 local communities in the US, so by one measure we've hardly made a dent in nationwide hyperlocal. But 1000 active communities is no small achievement, when you consider how hard it is to start just one. Local community now represents 35% of Topix's traffic, and continues to grow double-digits every month.
Community-driven content has been so successful for us, in fact, that were going to be re-organizing our entire site to focus on it. I'll have more to post about this as we get closer to the date of our big relaunch. :-)