How community is community news?

I went to a strange community meeting a few weeks ago BackFence is a site that publishes citizen-generated community news. This is the company that acquired Dan Gillmor’s Bayophere venture. They are new in Palo Alto and want to get the word out. The CEO, community manager, and development manager stood up at the front of the room wearing jackets. They gave a polished series of frontal presentations about the value and importance of bottom-up, community-generated news.
As it turns out, the folks included leaders from Palo Alto’s active community groups and moms’ groups. Interestingly, their main problem wasn’t that they didn’t get enough news — there are apparently very active listservs for the various neighborhood associations. THeir needs were getting word out to a wider audience. Also, getting locally powerful groups, like city council and real estate developers to pay attention to citizen concerns.
The questions for the audience tended toward condescention, “do any of you have any hobbies”? (I was waiting for someone to say, “I’m on a nobel slection committee”, or I’m on the boards of two schools and a church,” “I’m precinct captain of a political party”, that sort of thing. At times, speech used the language of advertising demographics, “a lot of our users in Virginia are “soccer moms.” Right, and the soccer moms also run the pta and the local fundraising, or take their kids to soccer in a break from software coding.
The audience sat silently. Slowly, people in the audience started to speak up. Many of the comments were feature requests — one person wanted different sorts of ratings, another person wanted to be able to control how the boxes on the portal appeared, another person wanted to tone down the blinking advertisements.
The feature requests struck me as thoroughly beside the point. The value of Backfence, if it takes off, is the telling of stories that are undercovered in existing media. The role of the instigators, then, would logically be to kick off a conversation about what people wanted to write and read about. By putting a screenshot up and describing features, the Backfence team positioned themselves as software providers rather than community enablers.
Attendees also commented that the focus on Palo Alto created an unnatural separation of Palo Alto and Menlo Park. At least three of the people in the room lived in Menlo; one of the mom’s groups was Palo Alto/Menlo Park, the sports leagues cross the town boundaries, social groups and cultural activities flow smoothly across the towns. The areas are politically separate but culturally linked. The CEO asked us to post that to Backfence, so they could consider making the change. It wouldn’t be hard to have a system that used tagging or geocoding to allow users to define the boundaries of their own community; it was irksome that the vendor was trying to define the boundaries of our community for us.
The Backfence presentation was totally different from my previous experience with a community portal. Austinbloggers.org grew out of get-togethers of local bloggers. We wanted to have a shared space to post about austin. So we gathered around tables at Mozarts, Brick Oven pizza, Spider House and chatted about the functionality and the rules. With Chip Rosenthal as tech lead and site host, and others including Adam Rice, David Nunez and me, we got started simply. We added features when it seemed like they were needed.
Austinbloggers is noncommercial, community governed, and the tools are released open source. Having a commercial community portal doesn’t bother me that much. It takes some money to keep a server running and keep spammers away. As long as I own my copyright and am free from spam — and those are their non-evil policies — I’m ok with a money-making site. There’s more of a problem making money off of someone else’s words. The BlogHer ad network, by contrast, shares the wealth, giving a majority share to the bloggers.
The governance issues are more troubling. To play a role in Austinbloggers, I showed up and tried to be useful. Probably the best way to a role in Backfence governance is to apply for a job — there was no obvious way to have a say other than market research. Backfence (and BlogHer) would benefit from going more of the DailyKos route, with additional front page editors chosen from among the community, with the power to make or promote posts to the front age.
In general, peer content is getting mixed with commerce in a variety of ways. In order to be accepted, the vendor needs to have the right level of respect for the community and contribution to the community. The niche that Backfence is attempting to occupy is an important and powerful one. If they don’t succeed at it, someone will. I’ll check in at Backfence to see if something interesting is going on, but will be seeking models of community media that provide more room for the community.

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