20 Years Since This Community Software Was Released
UBB wasn’t just on the market before practically any community platform available today, they were among the very first web-based community platforms available, following the days of BBS and the closed network of AOL. Rosemary O’Neill co-founded Social Strata and, once upon a time, they developed UBB. We get into the history of the project, plus:
- How UBB might have invented emojis
- The evolution of community software
- Why people are returning to more focused, niche communities
“[When UBB introduced] the table interface, the original columns where you could see how many replies there are, what’s the topic, who’s talking about it, what date was it posted – those first bare things made it really, really easy to come into a community and see what was going on in one glance. … You could sit down and start talking.” -@rhogroupee
“UBB was one of the first, if not the first to have a browser-based interface where the community manager could actually configure things without knowing how to program. … [This put] that power in the hands of people who maybe didn’t think they could do that sort of thing.” -@rhogroupee
“Community managers are really involved in trying to demonstrate the value of what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis to the C-suite and the people who are making the investment in the application. If you aren’t working on building that in and making life easier for those community managers to make that proof and to show the value of what they’re doing, tangibly, you might be on the wrong track.” -@rhogroupee
About Rosemary O’Neill
Rosemary O’Neill is the co-founder/president of Social Strata, which makes the Hoop.la online community platform. For the last 19 years, she has been helping businesses create thriving online communities as an entrepreneur, writer and speaker. She supports brands like Rodale, Time Warner Cable, Shutterfly and Dun & Bradstreet as they use Hoop.la to engage with fans, customers and internal teams.
Rosemary was named one of the top 100 community managers on Twitter by Little Bird. She has also appeared on Fox & Friends and NPR as an HR rebel, promoting her company’s innovative unlimited paid leave program which has been in place for five years. She is a contributor to Inc. Magazine’s Been There, Run That column.
You can find her online via Twitter (@rhogroupee) and sharing online community tips and ideas on the Social Strata blog. She lives in her happy place, at the beach near Charleston, South Carolina.
In order of reference:
- Jared Smith
- Charleston Weather on Twitter
- Ted Sindzinski
- Ted O’Neill
- Social Strata
- Forum Software Timeline 1994 – 2012
- WIT – WWW Interactive Talk
- Matt’s WWWBoard
- Community Signal episode with Jenna Woodul
- Community Signal episode with Jay Baer
- Interview with phpBB founder James Atkinson
- The WELL
- Archived Infopop about page
- Derek Powazek
- Design for Community by Derek Powazek
- How Community Software Can Use Forensic Science to Identify Bad Members by Patrick
- Community Signal episode with Brian Pontarelli
- #AskGaryVee Episode 126, where Gary Vaynerchuk says forums are the future, not the past
- Facebook Wants You to Post More About Yourself
00:04: Welcome to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
00:16 Patrick O’Keefe: Hello and thank you for making Community Signal a part of your day. If you enjoy the show, please consider rating it or reviewing it on iTunes, Stitcher or your podcast app of choice. On this episode, we’re talking to Rosemary O’Neill. Rosemary is the co-founder and president of Social Strata which makes the Hoop.la online community platform. For the last 19 years, she has been helping businesses create thriving online communities as an entrepreneur, writer, and speaker. She’s supports brands like Rodale, Time Warner Cable, Shutterfly, and Dun & Bradstreet as they use Hoopla to engage with fans, customers and internal teams. You can find Rosemary online via Twitter @rhogroupee and sharing online community tips and ideas on the the Social Strata blog. She lives in our happy place at the beach near Charleston, South Carolina which I just visited. Rosemary, welcome to the program.
01:03 Rosemary O’Neill: Thank you Patrick, nice to be here.
01:05 Patrick O’Keefe: It’s good to have you on. I just saw Rosemary, face to face for the first time. And saw a little bit of Charleston and an even smaller amount of Isle of Palms, South Carolina. But it was cool.
01:16 Rosemary O’Neill: Yeah, we got you a little bit of that southern food, next time we have to do something more than breakfast.
01:22 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah, I look forward to visiting that area of the country again, I have a very good friend there, Jared Smith, who lives in Charleston and as I told you, runs the Charleston Weather @chswx handle on Twitter and has been in the area for a long time. We met in forums, we met in the phpBBHacks.com Support Forums where he was a moderator on my support team, I don’t know, 15-odd years ago. And yeah, we were both teenagers in high school and now we still know each other and hang out and keep in touch. So it’s really fun, I look forward to getting down there again.
01:50 Rosemary O’Neill: Those forums bonds stay strong over time.
01:53 Patrick O’Keefe: They do, we talked about another one, Ted Sindzinski, who I’m gonna have on the show here at some point. Another friend of mine who is just super smart, digital marketer, with a great understanding of community, co-founded ScubaBoard, the definitive scuba community online, talking to him and talking to you, there have been moments where I’d see you talking to each other, or he’d see us talking each other and he’d say, “Oh, I know that person or they know me.” And it was kind of funny to hear a little bit about Ted’s background as a UBB installer.
02:22 Rosemary O’Neill: Yeah, it’s a small world and I’m happy to say that I was one of the original discoverers of Ted’s talent, he’s a smart guy.
02:30 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah, it’s something to be proud of, he is one of the the best. So we’ll have him on but let’s get down to the topic at hand. Now I began moderating communities in 1998 and managing them in 2000. From that time when I was coming up, Ultimate Bulletin Board, UBB was a name that I remember well. It was the solution if you wanted to host your own forum or message board. Now I didn’t really do anything with UBB because while it wasn’t that expensive, I didn’t have any budget at that time and the freeware version was limited. So I didn’t know the people behind it and now I do. It was you, your husband Ted, and your company. And May 7th marked 20 years since the first version of UBB was released.
03:10 Patrick O’Keefe: Forum-Software.org has this great forum software timeline and it illustrates just how early UBB was. It lists with WIT, W-I-T, a private discussion group for the W3C as the first web-based forum software in 1994. But it was a forum software in the sense that they put the code online, it really wasn’t supported. And then there was Matt’s WWWBoard, which I remember, this very super threaded, no login as far as I can remember, piece of software, that was in 1995 and then 1996 there was UBB. In other words, UBB didn’t just come before any solution we have today, it came before almost any web-based community software period, in the history of community software. So that’s a lot to take in but I wanna go back to the creation of UBB. What was the motivation for initially programming that software and throwing it online?
04:03 Rosemary O’Neill: Yeah, it’s hard to even think back that far but it was such a different world. The original Ultimate Bulletin Board was done by my husband Ted, who was the visionary, who sat down one night and just said, “You know? There’s gotta be a better way to do forums.” We were both hanging around in various bulletin boards and places online, and AOL, chatrooms in IRC. And I think that he was thinking everything was in that tree format back then and not a lot of people remember those days, but everything was nested to infinity. And so he sat down one night and he literally came out with the original freeware, Ultimate Bulletin Board and put it out there for people and I’m sure you remember, huge script sharing community then online of people like, “Hey, I just did this neat thing.” And they put it out there and there were sites that would share free scripts and things.
05:00 Rosemary O’Neill: And so he just put it out there and it kind of went wildfire from there, it was really word of mouth. It was really the first Perl script like that where people could take it and install it and be up and running really quickly and they could control it to the nth degree, and they just completely nerded out on it. They loved it. It kind of pulled us both into, over the next couple of years, doing it as a full-time job because it got so popular that we had to support it and it kind of became a business on its own. People just wanted it so much and so we had to actually start charging for it. And then really, once the big brands came calling, even for our little Perl program. Folks like Warner Bros. and people like IBM were coming and wanting to use this little Perl program. We had to do something to actually respond to those people. [chuckle]
05:58 Patrick O’Keefe: Right, yeah.
06:00 Rosemary O’Neill: Yeah, so those days were really fun and we had a really close community of our own called Script Keeper. So for all you OG people out there listening, hopefully you’re out there. You’re first UBB when you came in and started sharing your little hacks and scripts, and there were a lot of us on there and we felt close enough that people, when I had my first child, they would come in and post messages for us on our community. So it was a pretty tight group.
06:29 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah, I had Jenna Woodul on the show recently, and she’s the chief community officer at LiveWorld and they’ve been around for 20 years.
06:35 Rosemary O’Neill: Yeah.
06:35 Patrick O’Keefe: She came from Apple and she did community stuff for Apple. AppleLink, kind of the AOL pre-cursor, and then AOL ended that program, and she loved the community. She loved the idea of people connecting. “How can I do this? How can I start doing this as a business?” So then they started LiveWorld and Talk City and offered moderation services, and we have your story, Social Strata, and before that Infopop and Madrona Park, and that’s 20 years in the community business. There’s not many companies like that. There’s not many people, companies of any size, large, small that have been catering to this industry in whatever form for 20 years. And in fact, if you ask me right now to name them, I could only name two.
07:17 Patrick O’Keefe: LiveWorld and you.
07:19 Rosemary O’Neill: Yeah.
07:19 Patrick O’Keefe: So it’s pretty amazing to think about that kind of longevity.
07:22 Rosemary O’Neill: Yeah, and I have friends over at LiveWorld too, so hello to you guys. [chuckle]
07:27 Patrick O’Keefe: And when you say a tree format, like just to put that in context for people. What it was, was here’s a message, and then you can go to the previous or next. There would be messages, there would be threads in the sense that someone would start something but it would be almost like an e-mail conversation where you viewed one message at a time, and then cycle to the next one. The idea of viewing a lot of replies on the same page, or seeing a list of messages together. It didn’t really exist. It was more like a mailing list format and that’s probably what it was related to and it’s very related to the BBS format, is like here’s a message and then you wanna go to the next one. I’m not that old.
08:02 Patrick O’Keefe: I’m just going to be honest. So I don’t know why that was. I mean I would guess maybe it was a creation of lack of bandwidth and saying, “We can’t afford to load everything all at once.” If you wanna see something, you really need to say, “I want to see this message,” and go there. We’re not gonna show you everything. I’m just speculating, I don’t know. But that’s what it was. It was like this is one message you’re viewing, one message at a time. It wasn’t a list of replies, a list of posts, a list of comments. That really wasn’t something that was prevalent or normal or common or in place.
08:31 Rosemary O’Neill: Exactly right, and think back, one of the reasons… You’re right, it’s because of the load and not only that, but we’re talking about flat files. We’re not talking about a database. That original, Ultimate Bulletin Board was not a database. So that was one of the first major shift points I’d say in forums. That first thing of… When Ted sat down and said, “Okay, this is gonna kind of look like a table and a conversation on a page rather than this topic reply, reply, reply and they keep indenting ’til you stop seeing them.” That was a really big shift, and then I’d say the next really big, big turning point was going to a database back end. So it took a while to get there, but people realized once you got these conversations… You had topics with tens of thousands of replies of people participating. You had to go to more of a database backend.
09:29 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah, and these are even… Going back to that time in the mid-90s, virtual hosting, shared hosting was not [chuckle] an easy thing. Even that wasn’t an easy thing to do. The things that we do today, signing up and having web hosting automatically and it just works. Someone had to invent that once upon a time. I had Jay Baer on the show a while back, and I know you know Jay?
09:50 Rosemary O’Neill: Oh, yeah, absolutely.
09:51 Patrick O’Keefe: Jay’s a great guy, and so he worked with the guy who came up with the programming or whatever it was to say, “Okay, we’re gonna split up a server and create virtual hosting.” Someone had to invent that and it was very expensive at first. Like that web hosting was very expensive. And slowly, to the point where I started to host my own websites in 2000, thankfully at that point I got to the point where I could get a really basic plan for… I don’t know what it was, $10 a month or $15 a month, but it was super basic and super low, as far as what you were given. So UBB did a lot of things that influenced the software that followed. UBB powered hundreds of thousands of communities. vBulletin and phpBB probably hosted more, just with the proliferation of the internet, especially with phpBB being a free and open source, widely available. But as commercial and open source options, respectively, they hosted a ton of communities and remain popular to this day. But both were heavily influenced by UBB. vBulletin was created as a PHP re-write of UBB. phpBB’s creator has said that when he began to develop the software, his goal was to clone the look of UBB. What did UBB bring to the table that made it so meaningful to social software developers?
11:03 Rosemary O’Neill: I really think that table interface, that original columns where you could see how many replies there are, what’s the topic, who’s talking about it, what date was it posted. Those first bare things made it really, really easy to come into a community and see what was going on in one glance. So you could sit down, and it was so intuitive to use that the front end… You could sit down and start talking. The other really key piece I think, was the back end, which doesn’t really get talked about, but UBB was also one of the first, if not the first to have a graphic browser-based interface where the community manager could actually configure things without knowing how to program. You could go in and just pick what you wanna do, fill out some fields, and actually configure the thing to work the way you want without being a programmer and putting that power in the hands of people who maybe didn’t think they could do that sort of thing.
12:04 Rosemary O’Neill: That was a really powerful thing. It really made people feel like, “Hey, I might be able to be in control of this thing,” and I think it took it beyond the step of just the geeks and just the people who know how to install a pro program on a server and that’s why we had people like Ted too, helping do it do the installation, but beyond that when you start to run your community, all of those hobbyist out there and all those people sitting in the middle of a company trying to do their business, maybe it was customer support, maybe it was a fan site, maybe it was a hobby site, they actually could have that power to set up something and connect people without knowing how to program things and that’s a pretty big important thing.
12:49 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah, and when you talk about the table format, again that’s threaded versus flat or linear, linear or flat is sort of the way we look at everything now. I’d like to say forums are everywhere, because when I think of forums, I think of the exact format you’re talking about. Here’s a first post and here’s the replies, and it’s really the gift of context. When you talk about being able to look at the discussion and see what’s happening all at once and see the date it was posted and see kind of everything that’s going on around, who’s posting, what their background is, what they’re saying, when they said it. It’s the gift of context, because otherwise, the old format is fairly cryptic to people coming in without any exposure to that community.
13:29 Patrick O’Keefe: If you just see one message without the larger context, it makes less sense, the community makes less sense to you and that impacts how you view the community, how valuable you think it is, how likely you are to sign up, etcetera. And so, it’s funny to think that, that stuff has to come from somewhere. There has to start somewhere. You don’t just arrive at Facebook and have status updates and replies. Jenna Woodul, who I mentioned earlier, she said that… When I mentioned The WELL she was kinda surprised and said that, “You know, if you ask a lot of people today, they think it started with Facebook.”
14:01 Patrick O’Keefe: And that community started with Facebook and not to make fun of anybody, because certainly if you just come around in the last few years it might seem that way. But there is this whole infrastructure like we didn’t just arrive at everything that we have today, it happened very slowly, evolution, growth happens very slowly. A little bit over time, things change a little bit over time and so, it is interesting to think about how that format influence a lot of social software developers and certainly community software and forum software as a whole, is largely still influenced by those platforms that came up and grew in popularity in the mid ’90s, like UBB. And so, there’s just a lot to take from that. You mentioned something to me when we were talking about smileys and emojis. And turning like a text, a colon and then parentheses into a smiley graphic. And how that was something that, obviously that didn’t happen at first. At first it was just text and someone had to program that.
15:01 Rosemary O’Neill: We weren’t sitting there in a vacuum. We had those fantastic community of people on our site and working with us, both volunteers and staff and actually the idea of turning the text when you type in a colon and parentheses, turning that automatically into a graphic little smiley guy in the forums came from one of our members named Graham, and to this day in our software, we call those “gremlins” after him.
15:31 Rosemary O’Neill: And so, all the time I get asked by our customers, “What the heck is a gremlin?” [laughter] But there’s no way we’re changing that. It’s just one of those things that you just now take for granted, even BB Code, which a lot of people that just miss out there in a lot of software, that was originally UBB Code and Ted, when he sat down and was working on one day decided that in order to turn things into emojis, you would type colon and then a word and then a colon and then that would turn it into an emoji and you could create your own gremlins on the background. Now today, when I’m in Slack, what am I doing when I wanna type an emoji into my Slack window? So, a lot of software’s working like that. I find that really kind of exciting, it’s just makes me happy knowing that all this stuff has flowed and community is still going strong all this time.
16:28 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah, and one of the things that I see when I look at software over time is that it learns from one another, like different social software options learn from one another and some might learn it a little too much. [chuckle] Maybe they’re stealing, I don’t know. I mean, that with software it’s tough, you program a feature, people love it. Let’s say, it’s one person whoever came up with micro actions, whoever came up with that if that’s little click in, here’s a like, here’s a thank you, because it’s pre-Facebook. I’ve seen that on forums for a long, long, long, long time. There were thank you hacks for phpBB, where you just click a button and thank you instead of replying to the post. That stuff has been around for a long time, but it’s like someone saw that and said, “You know what? That’s a good idea, and now we’re gonna use that,” and now it’s everywhere. And now it’s everything. Microactions are everywhere on every meaningful social platform, forum software, community software, every social media, social network platform has it, and so, people look at things like that and the idea of let’s say a flat view or emojis or smileys and… Someone had to come with that first and then someone said, “Okay, that makes a lot of sense.” It should just be that way, that’s just the way it should be, it’s like breathing.
17:35 Patrick O’Keefe: It makes sense and so, they add it in to the platform. And I think that it’s a good example of how things tend to happen as far as the future. And one of the reasons I tend to shy away from predictions when people ask me about the future of community. I don’t like those questions, I really don’t. Because I think that the future is something that we make. The person right now is programming for the best solution they know of right now and then, someone else will face a different challenge and they’ll tackle a different way and then that person says, “Oh, you know what? That’s a better way of doing it.” We learn and we grow and we change through experience and through actually doing things. Is that predicting? I think it’s just doing. I like to think of it that way.
18:11 Rosemary O’Neill: You’re so right. I’ll just say the challenges change over time, too. Right? The problems you’re trying to solve are gonna change, so, we don’t know sitting here today what are gonna be the challenges facing community managers or marketers in the future. What is it you’re gonna need the application to do? Are you even gonna need an application for that? In my mind I always like to keep that horizon flexible, we’re always looking to the future, but you don’t wanna lock in, you wanna make sure that you’re always learning and always growing.
18:44 Patrick O’Keefe: It seems like every three to six months there’ll be a wave of people talking about the evolution of forums. I wrote a book called “Managing Online Forums”, so people tend to talk to me about forums and see me as kind of the forums guy, for better or worse. And I’ve lost track of the number of software developers offering their solutions as modern forum software.
19:05 Patrick O’Keefe: Who can’t even get 2000 people to use that software. It’s a lot of marketing. When people talk about the evolution of forums, I generally don’t find much of substance, I think a lot of people want forums to look somehow different as if we aren’t dealing with text on a screen, as if the idea of a first post whether applies hasn’t been embraced by, again, virtually every meaningful social platform online. I don’t see infinite scroll and microactions that I just brought up as evolution. I look to features that not only look pretty on the front-end, but make it easier to manage and moderate. And I feel like there still isn’t enough attention and maybe I’ll always feel like this, maybe this is just the community professional in me. But I will always feel like, well, I hope I don’t always feel like that people don’t pay enough attention to moderation and management and building tools that make that process easier.
20:00 Rosemary O’Neill: Yeah. I think sometimes it feels sexier to do things to the interface. To me, in my mind I look at it like haute couture fashion. Not to get all crazy on you but…
20:13 Patrick O’Keefe: People love a coat of paint.
20:14 Rosemary O’Neill: They’ll go and create these crazy clothes that are only… They come down the runway and everyone goes, “Whoa, it’s amazing.” But no one is gonna wear that walking down the street. Similarly with software, you can come up with something where everyone looks at the interface and there like, “Oh, it’s so Zen, it’s so beautiful.” But nobody actually wants to actually get in there and use it on a day to day basis. You always have to ground it in listening to what are the people who are using the software looking to do. Right now where my brain is at is the community managers are really involved in trying to demonstrate the value of what they’re doing on a day to day basis to the C-suite and the people who are making the investment in the application. If you aren’t working on building that in and in making the life easier for those community managers to make that proof and to show the value of what they’re doing, tangibly, you might be on the wrong track.
21:12 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah. I think that there are a lot of software vendors making dashboards and analyzing data, and I think that’s important, because as you noted it there’s this push toward community ROI and how we define that and how we use data to define that. And that’s good, because data is the answer to community ROI at the end of the day, it’s a least part of the answer anyway. I don’t wanna say it’s the full answer, it’s part of the answer. It was funny ’cause I was looking at old UBB about pages in preparation for our conversation today and even back in, I think it was 2002 on the UBB about page it mentioned using UBB software as a way of “increasing user retention.” Which, if you’re in the community space, you probably heard the user retention drum beat quite a bit over the last, I don’t know, 12 to 24 months. People talking about that a lot we’ve talked about here on the show. Even community ROI isn’t new. Even kind of the ideas of what the value community creates, aren’t all that new. I had Derek Powazek, who wrote a great book Design for Community, back in I think in ’02 also, and in the book he interviewed the director of community for Amazon.com, who does exactly the same stuff that we’re doing now, 14 years later. It’s like, there’s a lot of things and there’s a lot of people… I don’t know. It’s good in a way, ’cause it’s a way of learning. There’s people developing endless amounts of models, of frameworks, curves, ladders…
22:36 Rosemary O’Neill: Step stools.
22:37 Patrick O’Keefe: Training. Yeah. All sorts of things and it’s good. It’s good because the profession is growing. But, I think it’s a lot of stuff that we heard before and so where software vendors can come in is really using the data. I really wanna see software vendors use the data in the way you mentioned, also an idea I’ve been pushing is the idea of forensic science. I’m kind of pulling from that police drama playbook here and saying that I wanna know when there’s a fingerprint on my community that matches another member. What I mean by that is it’s easy enough to say these two members have the same IP. Honestly, software doesn’t really do enough with that already.
23:13 Patrick O’Keefe: I want a dashboard where people say, “You know what? These two people joined and they have the same homepage URL. They have the same link on their profile, maybe we should take a look at that.” For the most part, community professionals have to discover that stuff or have it reported to them. I want data like that analyzed in the least creepiest way possible.
23:29 Patrick O’Keefe: And say, “This is public data that they’re sharing on the community, if their profiles match or their emails match or it’s clear that they might be a similarity here, don’t do anything, just inform the community professional about it and let them take a look and decide what actions need to be taken.” Nothing really does that, as far as I know. There’s no one doing that with the data and say helping them find sock puppets, for example. Helping them find sneaky spammers, the non-obvious ones, the ones that don’t hit the filters. There’s nothing that’s proactive in that way and I feel the same way about filtering tech. We did a show awhile back with the CEO of Inversoft. And I get it, there’s companies dedicated to filtering and that’s good, but are software vendors, especially at the enterprise end, let’s say, making enough of an effort to help automate some of the moderation process, so that you have this idea of algorithms and filters, and you have public databases, and you have all this data that you can tie into or things that you can program to kind of help clear out some of the obvious spam. Are you doing those things or are you just programming a single sign on, or tweet this post, or adding infinite scroll to the page.
24:35 Patrick O’Keefe: The most vain example I can think of. And so using data as a whole, we expect community professionals to do it. Everyone talks about it. Community professionals need to use data to prove their worth, they need to study the data. Some community departments have data scientists, I like that idea. But software should really be tapping into the data in all of these ways, not just vanity metrics, and ROI is good and tying it into those sorts of things, community health metrics are good, but also management moderation and using the data as a powerful tool for the community professional, and the platforms that do that, to me that’s real evolution.
25:11 Rosemary O’Neill: I’ll talk to the dev team Patrick. [chuckle] But honestly that’s a good lead-in though. Our next software release is called “automated admin actions,” and we’re calling them recipes, and it’s coming extremely soon. I can’t be more specific than that and I don’t know when this is airing, but it’s coming. And I think it’s not exactly what you described, but it’s a good step in that direction of automating a lot of those processes, including some of the moderation. Things that used to be moderation rules can now be multi-step processes in the backend, so we’re really excited about that.
25:47 Patrick O’Keefe: I saw a post in your website about that and that is a step in the right direction. I’m just still trying to get people to innovate on the word censor here.
25:54 Patrick O’Keefe: I’ve talked about that for like 10 years, what I’d like people to do with the word sensor, and for the most part it’s still just, “Replace with this term,” so yeah.
26:02 Rosemary O’Neill: You’re a voice in the wilderness.
26:03 Patrick O’Keefe: I try.
26:04 Patrick O’Keefe: Community is very cyclical, that’s what I find. What might seem new now probably isn’t all that new, and there are plenty of people with community in their title who think, for example, that forums are bad or are outdated or dead or on the way out. And when I talk to people like that I tell them to check back with me in 10 years, of course I’ve been saying that for at least five years so we’re half-way through and still looking pretty good, [chuckle] I like to think. But there are also a bunch of people in that category who don’t manage community in any major depth, and so when someone like Gary Vaynerchuk says, “Forums aren’t the past, they’re the future,” people feel conflicted. But we go through cycles, people become really concerned with going as wide as possible, going through to platforms with the largest number of users and the most potential reach, and when you go wide like that you lose your depth, and then they’ll shift back to more niche-focused channels that have a specific group of people that they want to engage with, we’re seeing this with Snapchat right now. Those who really got it never really lacked that understanding that niche community and focused groups were important, but we all have to prioritize our resources, so I get it. I get why you might shift your focus to a Facebook page, especially if your boss wants you to. But are we seeing a shift to more purpose-oriented communities and away from massive networks?
27:16 Rosemary O’Neill: I feel like I’ve been seeing that shift coming over time over the last few months, and if you look at the news that’s coming out lately about some of the big social networks, and particularly Facebook, it looks as though their original posting is down, and I don’t know if that’s a symptom or an indicator we should be looking at, but I see, when I look at the younger people that I know, they’re not that interested in broadcasting things to everyone on planet Earth, they’re much more interested in trying to communicate with their friends and with their classmates, and with people they know intimately. One of those drivers is they don’t want these things to follow them around for the rest of their lives, those keg-stand pictures never die on Google, and I think they’re seeing that, starting to realize it, which is good.
28:13 Rosemary O’Neill: But then also, that need to think that what you had for lunch is gonna be of interest to everyone, I think it’s beyond that, and now it’s okay if you wanna put a crazy filter on your face on Snapchat and send that to your cousin, send that to your classmates, ’cause it’s gonna go away tomorrow. And the problem’s gonna come in, now that marketers are trying to find their way in these niche communities. It’s gonna be very tricky I think, because particularly Snapchat is like a leaky sieve. Every morning when you wake up you’re gonna have to fill that content bucket again, and it better be engaging ’cause it’s gonna go away, and people can look at it and then it’s gone, and so you better have resources devoted to filling that bucket up. But I’m definitely seeing a bigger interest in these small communities. People coming to us are more interested in influencer communities, for example lately, and smaller intranet applications, things where they wanna communicate… After a workshop you wanna talk to other people who were in the workshop, these types of smaller, closer-knit communities, I’m seeing much more demand for. People used to come and say, “I wanna be the next Facebook, can your software do that?”
29:35 Rosemary O’Neill: And no. But I’m not seeing that as often and we’re not getting the idea guys. “I wanna be the Facebook for vegetarian people,” or things like that. I’m not really seeing that so much anymore.
29:48 Patrick O’Keefe: So I have a brother who’s a teenager, and he is not on Facebook, he’s not on Twitter. I actually have an account for him he doesn’t even know about.
29:56 Patrick O’Keefe: I signed up just to lock down a name for him. I have his dot-com too. He doesn’t know that either. I’ll tell him one day. He’s shown no interest in it whatsoever. But I being… The internet savvy brother that I am.
30:06 Rosemary O’Neill: No, thank you.
30:07 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah, yeah, maybe he will. But he’s on SoundCloud which is an audio community. A lot of DJs and then music artists share audio there, and they have comments tied at specific moments on the track, so he’s on there, and commenting on various tracks and sharing various songs. He’s big into gaming, he plays on Steam and the Nintendo, whatever they call their social network now. He has a Wii U. I know he does a little private chatting here and there with people he’s met through those platforms but… That’s about it. He doesn’t post on any larger platforms, larger networks just has no interest in it. So it’s not to say that people of his generation don’t, but there’s a lot of choice. I think there’s a lot of choice, and it speaks to purpose and it speaks to the motivation that they have in the content they’re interested in. So it’s interesting to think about how focus communities, communities with a goal, with an aspiration, with something in particular beyond just connecting the world’s population, which well… It being an admirable goal is not terribly specific.
31:01 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah, I think it’s interesting to think about how those kind of platforms are gonna come around again. Because when you go wide, when you try to get everyone, there’s sometimes this unintended downsides that people don’t think of. When you go wide, you get wide problems.
31:13 Rosemary O’Neill: Oh yeah.
31:14 Patrick O’Keefe: And that touches everything. You think about what brands can be wider than say a Walmart or McDonalds right? Do you really wanna be the person who runs to moderate the comments, on a McDonald’s or the Walmart pages?
31:27 Rosemary O’Neill: Yeah, duh.
31:28 Patrick O’Keefe: And that’s no disrespect to whoever is doing that right now, but that’s a job and someone has to do it and there’s value there, and there’s all these great opportunities for serendipitous moments. But a person who is managing a community of really dedicated local customers probably is gonna have a better time at their job, and is probably gonna be able to do a lot of interesting and creative things that that person can’t do. Because they’re going so wide and so mainstream that they’re kinda losing, or they don’t really have a focused audience. So niche community allows you to do that, allows you to go deep in ways that you can’t otherwise find. When you are trying to cater to all those people, or you are a super-duper mainstream brand. But most of us, most people who work in community don’t work for a brand like that. Don’t have to be that. So I guess it’s just speaks to knowing who you exist to serve.
32:13 Rosemary O’Neill: Yeah. And use the right tool for the right job. Some people think well, you’re a community software vendor of course, you think community’s important and you hate Facebook. You’re like, “I don’t hate Facebook, I have a Facebook account, I use it all the time.” I think it’s all about applying the right solution to whatever challenge you’re facing. Yeah, if you’re trying to communicate out about a new book you’ve written, and you want to get it in front of the most eyeballs you possibly can. Go set up Facebook ads. Maybe you need a Facebook group. But for other things, where you need to control the data, you need to be able to export all of it, and analyze it and own it, and control the experience. Or if you’re trying to get SEO for your website, you better be using your own community. ‘Cause your SEO on Facebook is zero.
33:08 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah, I feel the same way. I think that even though people might look at me as being this person tied to forums, [chuckle] that’s all I know and understand. It’s really very purpose driven. People ask, “What’s the right tool for this?” Or, “Should I do this?” And I tell people regularly, “Don’t do that, don’t start a forum. Don’t start a hosted community. If you’re not willing to do this, if you’re not willing to invest X in it, if you’re not willing to put six, 12 months into this thing, don’t even bother. Don’t open the doors.” Community is a long term thing, especially when you host it, because you have this great responsibility. But with that great responsibility comes this great opportunity to build something that is less dependent on platforms and companies, organizations that can fundamentally alter the arrangement with a terms of service update, or with a paid new programming, or by updating their algorithm. Or how their homepage sorts new items. And so that’s gotta be good for you. When Facebook cuts rates that’s gotta be good for community software vendors. That’s good business.
34:07 Rosemary O’Neill: I will admit to rubbing my hands in glee, some mornings when I wake up and I find out things like LinkedIn got rid of its Q&A section or [chuckle] random things like that.
34:17 Patrick O’Keefe: That’s not, that’s not good.
34:19 Rosemary O’Neill: Yeah, sorry.
34:19 Patrick O’Keefe: Just kidding, but it’s only natural. Rosemary thank you for coming on the show today.
34:24 Rosemary O’Neill: Thank you so much, it was a great conversation and fun walking down memory lane too.
34:29 Patrick O’Keefe: I appreciate you sharing it with us. We have been talking with Rosemary O’Neill, the co-founder and president of Social Strata, makers of the Hoop.la online community platform. Visit their website at Hoop.la, that’s Hoop.L-A.
34:41 Patrick O’Keefe: For the transcript from this episode press highlights and links that we mention and please visit communitysignal.com. Community signal is produced by Karen Broad. Bye for now.
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