If the web had a sign posted at its gates it would read “Welcome to the Internet Ã¢Â€Â“ crushing preconceptions since 1993″. Given the dozens of internet billionaires out there, we think we have the beast licked, when in reality we’re only just beginning to understand it.
The most persistent problem is our tendency to fixate on what sites can do Ã¢Â€Â“ their functions and features Ã¢Â€Â“ the software in other words. Take the current gold rush around social networking. We compare the outgoing next-best-thing to the newest toy and conclude: “Ah Ã¢Â€Â“ people like function X more than doodat Y”. And a million wannabe-Mark Zuckerbergs rush out and clone function X.
What they miss is so obvious it seems like a clichÃƒÂ© Ã¢Â€Â“ it’s the community of users that matters most, not the software. The most incredible and powerful thing about Facebook, for instance, isn’t its slick interfaces Ã¢Â€Â“ it’s the fact that (almost) everyone uses their real names. And that has almost nothing to do with their world-class software.
But it goes even further than this: All the globally successful sites out there have been willing to do one thing Ã¢Â€Â“ swallow their pride and follow their users wherever they lead. A case in point is MySpace, which introduced a way for users to customise small sections of their profiles, not realising that users would exploit this loophole to completely overhaul their own pages.
Soon MySpace was awash with purple glitter ponies and seizure-inducing backgrounds. Rather than clamp down on this phenomenon, MySpace allowed it to bloom, realising that their core audience (teenagers) cared more about unfettered self-expression than readability.
Unfortunately their predecessors, Friendster, learned this lesson too late. Once at the vanguard of the industry, they began cracking down on “false” profiles (from Santa Claus to Hitler) and generally dictating how their users should behave. This, along with a range of other issues from management indecision to an inability to scale, saw them fall from first position to a distant fourth.
Another example of community trumping software is Orkut. Its creator, Orkut BÃƒÂ¼yÃƒÂ¼kkÃƒÂ¶kten, never intended for his site to become Brazil’s most visited property.
He built it as an experiment while working for Google (which later bought it). Like all experiments, it was haphazard, full of security holes and iffy functionality. And yet, inexplicably, the Brazilians loved it and joined in droves, while the American market largely ignored the site.
Then there’s 24.com Blogs. With over a third of local bloggers* we dominate the market, and yet our custom-built software isn’t quite as slick or powerful as the current gold standard, WordPress.
Our community doesn’t seem to care Ã¢Â€Â“ they are more interested in meeting new people, sharing everything from baby photos to recipes and gossiping gleefully. And with 100,000 readers and growing, they’re clearly not the only ones enjoying themselves. This success has allowed us to begin closing the gaps in functionality Ã¢Â€Â“ based on what the community want rather than what we think.
In fact, 24.com Blogs has attracted a different age group than we intended (we aimed for 18 to 25s and we got people about a decade older), who use it for a different purpose than we intended (a cross between a forum and a social network) and have a different set of priorities than we ever imagined.
We would never have guessed that bloggers would want to meet in person and yet in late 2006, without prompting or functionality to make it easier, they began organising get-togethers called MOBs (for “meeting of bloggers”). So is building good software a waste of time? Of course not.
Facebook has proved that a strong community ethic plus great software equals global success. But building the best functionality without first finding an audience is like building the city of the future in a place where no-one ever goes.
*At the beginning of the year 24.com had nearly 9,000 blogs and over 1,000 active bloggers. According to research by Arthur Goldstuck (World Wide Worx), the total number of South African blogs at the time was 26,179 and the number of active bloggers was 3,789. Given that we have experienced growth since then (over 30 percent in six months), we feel it’s safe to claim that we have over a third of local bloggers.
Alistair Fairweather is product manager in 24.com’s Social Networking & Media division.
This article first appeared in The Media magazine (September 2008).