Something nice happens to me every now and then as a consultant. My client becomes my friend, and the relationship endures beyond the duration and scope of the consulting gig. This is exactly what happened with Martin Green, general manager for CNET communities who I consulted about blogging and presentation back in April-May.
Martin has not only become my friend, he has inadvertently helped me to shape Global Networks and has earned his place in it. This Q&A will be used in part in the book.
Here just about verbatim are the results of my recent interview with him. I think parts reveal why I like and respect him so much:
1. For the benefit of our studio audience, could you tell me a bit about who you are and what you do a CNET?
I've been with CNET in various capacities since 1996.
I manage the acquisitions, operations and growth of our businesses in lifestyle areas such as food, parenting, and a bunch of areas like travel and sports through our photo sharing community Webshots. My focus is on launching or growing social media brands for lifestyle categories. We currently run Chow, Consumating, UrbanBaby and Webshots. .
2. I owe you no small amount of gratitude. It was during a discussion with you that I got the concept of Global Neighborhoods. You discussed online neighborhoods with a great deal of passion and vision. Your perspective had more to do with the safety and familiarity of online neighborhoods. Could you describe this concept and how this impacts people online?
I live in a neighborhood where I walk my dog every morning. We drop into together to the local coffee shop where we say hi to a guy called Ismael. The neighborhood evolves, but a social framework gives it continuity, a set of expectations and a shared human experience.
Within cities like New York, there are many rich, vibrant neighborhoods. Each stands for something - and neighborhoods such as Williamsburg attract new people who want to participate and add to that experience.
Online, I can join neighborhoods that are about my interests - not where I live. There are neighborhoods around cars, travel, food or almost anything else. Members are there to talk, share, learn and commune. CNET believes branded social media properties can be built around these neighborhoods.
Many portals and start ups are not building neighborhoods - they are building platforms for everyone to use together or for people to use to connect or search based on their friends. Their focus is on size and marketing to their user base - I think discriminating people ultimately are looking for the best experience for themselves as community members.
3. How does this neighborhood concept impact what you’re doing as CNET Communities general manager?
A lot - online neighborhoods are built by members - not the company. Lots of companies want to build communities - that's backward - it's like a planned real estate development - it feels hollow. But you can create the conditions. We try to moderate the community to keep it on topic. And we hire from the community so the people working full time on the brand experience are authentic and part of the community. We are also working to blend interactive video, audio, editorial and programming with community social media. If we are able to do that well, it's a better media experience for members and marketers.
4. Can you describe for me how the neighborhood works in Webshots? Consummate? And Chowhound?
The central idea is that for every interest there's a place where people know they can come to hang out and share with each other around that topic. Everything else is built on top of that. Webshots has 10 channels and thousands of topics and tags within those channels ranging from gardening, cycling and travel. Chowhounds are passionate about food. Consumating has attracted a group of interesting urban twenty somethings. UrbanBaby provides a community for new moms.
5. You’ve argued that your community concept gives everyday people a greater voice than do blogs. Can you expand upon that a bit?
People in a community are there to share. Blog services don't provide an audience - the blogger does. If I post on my blog about a restaurant I went to, you, my friend Mike, my wife and a few other people will read it - that's it.
Publishing a restaurant review on my own blog is akin to me standing on a street corner in New York trying to attract people to listen to me for my restaurant review. The readers of my blog aren't there for my food reviews. Aside from a handful of people like you, the vast majority of bloggers haven't got many people listening to the topics they blog about. Communities give people a place to go to listen to and participate in an existing conversation with other people who care to converse about that hobby, sport, interest or life experience. Communities provide a stage and audience as well as the production equipment. Most blog tools only provide the equipment. And a community gives you the ability to be an performer or be part of the audience at different times within a social framework that has some familiarity from day to day.
If I post on Chowhound, I'll get many responses from people I know and respect in the context of food - and I'm sure that one of them will share back something that I didn't know. Communities shape social altruism.
6. Play this forward a bit. How do communities impact online communications 3-5 years from now? How about neighborhoods?
That's a big ask. Here's a take: I think personal blogs will be used like a combo digital name card/resume/journal - and most people will join digital versions of trade shows / book clubs neighborhoods in the form of online communities - ie: they will double blog - and services will need to support that the content belongs to the members not them.
Some blogs run by uber bloggers will look more like community sites. If you look at the comments on posts on TechCrunch - it's starting to feel like a branded community and I think that makes TechCrunch even better. I bet that many commenters are more read for a given TechCrunch comment than anything they've blogged about. I suggested to Mike that he run moderated threaded message boards on TechCrunch - he could give the frequent posters a thin profile that also is a widget on their blog. Unclear how profile pages on community sites end up working with personal blogs - however I think that widgets and APIs are starting to mean that they are profiles and blogs are being integrated by member/blogger. I like that notion.
7. Are all neighborhoods safe? How does one know?
All neighborhoods are not safe - and of course you shouldn't post certain info even on the safe ones if you don't control who sees the content because it becomes part of the searchable web. Not dissimilar to real neighborhoods - you need to check them out first, see if you fit in and will be accepted, conduct yourself responsibly and be very careful putting personal info out there.
Every neighborhood provider should educate their membership. Earlier this year, we started a Websense campaign to educate our members to be careful on a handful of issues - like not public ally posting personally identifiable info of minors. Neighborhood providers can also give members features to control who sees what parts of their content. You need to provide both education and control to members. For example, many Facebook users think their neighborhood is de facto private and therefore safe - not necessarily - Facebook needs to educate their members about that.
8. In your view, who should set neighborhood standards?
The overall tone or standards are set equally by the moderators and the members. It's a handshake.
9. How do online neighborhoods differ from tangible ones?
The best part of online neighborhoods is the ability to "congregate" the specific. If I'm a new mom, and I'm researching car seats and I have an C Class Mercedes, a good online global neighborhood for new moms is going to have someone with that car who can tell you that the car seat you're looking at won't fit. Try asking that of your friends or the people down the street.
10. Is there a danger that one can accidentally stray into a dangerous online neighborhood when they are part of such a large community?
Of course - but online you can put a big sign saying - down this street is the XYZ neighborhood - if that's sound good to you, click here. I'm a fan of community sites that have a stance on what they'll accept - say R or PG content - and publicizing and strictly enforcing that.