Community-driven Websites: Rise and Decline

Posted by Mike Merritt in Websites on

In his open letter to SixApart, Paul Scrivens writes about his recent transition from the Movable Type blogging platform to that of WordPress. According to Scrivens, his jump to another software came for two reasons, which are both related. The first was that he lost data from his database twice during his tenure using MT. The second reason, and possibly leading to the first as a result, is that he feels that now Six Apart is a corporate entity, they have become distant from the community that made them into what they are.

I’ve noticed that similar feelings have been expressed in other areas of the web quite apart from blogging companies.

Take, for example, Invision Power Services, Inc. I’ve used the software they make since its inception, and have even used software by the same author since before IPS even existed. I help run a highly popular (not biased at all!) resource website, completely dedicated to IPS’ software. When Invision Power Board and IPS were the new kids on the block, they were the talk of the town. Not only did they bring – I’ll estimate 98% – of the community with them when Matt Mecham and Charles Warner left Ikonboard, the community did all the advertising for them. If IPS has ever had to pay for advertising, they certaintly haven’t broken their budget with it, that’s for sure.

Yet, spending hours upon hours coding for free, trying to meet the demands of the community, doesn’t help the wallet. Everyone knows that, and I think everyone was accepting that someday something would have to be paid for. So, instead of cutting back on coding hours, IPS took a gamble – although, with the support they already had, it wasn’t too big of one – and started a company from the ground up. Well, I’m not privy to figures, but I’m guessing IPS isn’t exactly digging for money at the current time. Slowly, more and more started to become paid. I’m not current with SixApart’s history, but I’m guessing the stories are similar. Then the board software itself went paid. That turned the tables on everything. IPS was now fully corporate, with all their products up for grabs, if you have the money for them.

It seems to me, that when the business side of things starts to become more prevalent, that when the higher ups start to lose touch with the community. Indeed, this seems to be the case with IPS, and from what I’m gathering (besides using MT, I’m not too involved in the community), this also seems to be what’s happened at Movable Type. In the beginning, the higher ups at IPS interacted with the community continually. Don’t get me wrong, they still do. They look for ideas from the community, take bug reports and security concerns from the community. They all also still post in the actual forum community to varying extents.

However, and there have been many complaints and many good members leaving over this, those who run IPS have become somewhat distant with those who support them. Things are more business and less play nowadays. I understand the reasoning – the higher ups need to present themselves professionally. You don’t get serious contracts with the big boys (as IPS has) by being a constant joker. Still, becoming too distant is never a good thing. IPS has yet to do this, to build a stone wall between them and their customers/users, but they seem to face going in that direction. To be honest, customer relations has always been IPS’ weak point, and I think many would agree. They’ve made great steps to improve it, but there is still much work to be done.

Losing a user/staff relationship is not only confined to business websites. Any website can have this problem. The resource website I work at has had this problem. So, the problem has many facets. Take an example that I learned of just today. A relatively short-term member of the IPS website (many members are “relatively” short term compared to me, but I digres). He joined earlier this year, but has been quite active since joining. Today, I learned that he is leaving the IPS website, possibly because of lack of community, literally. He’s been accused of breaking the rules. Whether he actually has done so or not is irrelevant to this discussion. He’s apparently tried to work things out with the staff. However, with the exception of a few, he’s received no help in resolving the problem. That is what made him choose to leave. Something which could probably have been prevented if he’d been responded to. Now, to be fair to IPS, this person could have been impatient and only have waited a few hours for a response. Or it could have been several days. I’m not sure, I honestly cannot tell you. However, this is not the first time I’ve heard of this type of thing. So, it would make sense that its happened as he insinuates.

Websites, all of them, are in a constant struggle to provide content while maintaining the relationships with the memberbase. For businesses, this struggle is even more prevalent. They have a duty to turn a profit, which can lead to strained relations with their customers/users. Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying IPS (or SixApart for that matter) are wrong to look for payment for their work. That’s their right, and I support them. On the other hand, they should not forget those people who made them what they are. When a business (or any website) starts to turn its back on the community in search of money, things start to go downhill. In the end, it can lead to closed doors at the office. That’s what happened to Ikonboard, although it has slowly but surely regained some of its memberbase. The solution to the problem is simple: work on customer/user relations; that all it takes. So long as IPS and SixApart work on improving their connection with the community, I forsee a bright future for them. If the connection continues to pull apart, then well, it’s hard to tell what will happen. All I can say is, good luck with the effort.

Assuming you’re still with me, I’m sorry for the essay. I never intended my discussion to be this long. If all my real world essays were this fun to write, I’d pop them out in no time. It’s just that, I use IPB, and I use Movable Type (for its easy templates – I’d jump to WordPress in a heartbeat if they used template tags), so I felt compelled to respond. I do think, though, that I’ve quite redeemed myself for not having a good entry for a long time. If I had to define my website’s name, Dymersion, as a noun, this entry would be the example used. So, if you read any part of this, thanks for reading. Feel free to comment with your thoughts! Well, that it’s for me tonight. Time for bed!

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