RealTime IT News

Out of the Ashes, Community

When the dot-com financial frenzy was in full swing, nothing swelled a business model like talk of "community." And no Internet business segment crashed harder than the communities. Remember theglobe.com?

Yet, today, thousands of online communities are flourishing. People have banded together in thousands upon thousands of communities, discussing virtually every technical product (from emerging programming languages to esoteric handheld gadgets) and every social issue (political, cultural, academic, whatever).

This phenomenon is much more than the Internet's version of social life. In a cruel twist to those who lost millions trying to finance commercially oriented communities, many of these communities represents a bustling marketplace of commerce. And much of it taking place out of the earshot of the most sophisticated marketers.

In just about any major consumer product category, there is a flourishing message board where products are being discussed in excruciating detail. You can see the decision-making process played out repeatedly as one consumer after another shares their experiences, both pre- and post-sale.

Shopping for a new TV, stereo or DVD player? AVSforum is the richest source of information on audio/video equipment compiled anywhere. And if you don't find your questions answered after searching more than 2.4 million messages, just post a question. One of the 74,000 members will answer you, often within minutes. Most days, the site has more than 1,400 members logged in.

One reason these topic-specific communities are flourishing is the evolution of a single software program. vBulletin has swept through the world of communities, winning over thousands of Webmasters with a feature set that nurtures discussion and provides tools for keeping the conversation civil.

It allows message board members to reveal as much (or as little) about themselves as they wish. It will send an email if a question they've asked has been answered. And it organizes the discussion in a way that is easy to understand even when hundreds of separate discussion threads are taking place. Perhaps most important, it provides tools for controlling the anti-social who want only to disrupt or self-promote; as a result, a well-run vBulletin community is totally free of the type of spam and obsenity that plagues newsgroups and many other online forums.

The software is not the product of a multi-million dollar IPO. It is the work of a small company in England, Jelsoft, that understood what the market needed. The opportunity for the company became apparent when a program that was gaining the lead among Internet message boards -- Infopop's UBBS (Ultimate Board Board System) -- was slow to update.

Jelsoft followed in the best spirit of Internet development. vBulletin is written in an open source language (PHP) and uses the leading open source database (MySQL). It also readily converted message boards run with UBBS, so it was able to quickly over-write it's predecessors market share. The program is now used for more than 25,000 communities.

Probably the most significant reason for its success is that Jelsoft places no restrictions on third-party developers. Anyone is free to examine the vBulletin source code, write enhancements and sell that code. But Jelsoft didn't stop there. Rather than distance themselves from people who wanted to alter their intellectual property, they encouraged them with a community board at vbulletin.org. In a matter of months, there were dozens (now hundreds) of "hacks" freely distributed that extend the program. Today, vBulletin is not just a simple message board, it's a gateway into a complex site.

The program has only one significant flaw. Its dynamic architecture prevents Google and other search engines from readily spidering all of its pages. So the full extent of the vBulletin population is largely hidden from those who rely on Google to provide all their answers.

Still, a few companies understand the power of these burgeoning communities. Tivo, seeing the success of an AVSforum spinoff, TivoCommunity, not only sponsors the site, it directs new customers there for support. While Tivo saves on tech support, probably most valuable is the extended focus group this community represents. Tivo product development people visit regularly, giving them fast access to thousands of their customers.

Online discussion forums have often seemed to be the last place you would go for civil, intelligent discussion. With the rise of vBulletin as a software standard, it's possible that order is finally emerging out of the chaos.

-- Gus Venditto is the editor-in-chief of internet.com.