When Britannia opened for business in July 1997, 100,000 people swarmed the city. Within days, the homesteaders transformed the barren landscape into a town and that became a community. And it would be a lovely story except for one fact: Britannia was a jumbled mass of human chaos. There was no infrastructure available to address the problems inherent in creating a city overnight. No government structures to police the wrongs. The many, many wrongs. Hunters slaughtered animals, destroying the natural habitat. Civilians were killed, ruthlessly and without provocation.
Britannia Week One made stories of the Wild West seem tame.
The communal spirit that percolated through those first hours brewed into outright hostility in less than a month. Citizens began to meet, to talk, and to organize. They planned a march on the city's Great Hall to protest the lawlessness and lack of governance. There was no central platform of ideas. There was no leadership for the people. But they all agreed that they didn't come to this place to be harassed, cajoled and killed.
As all this happened, the city's governing body - an informal committee "in charge" - watched. They were thrilled that the people had risen up to voice their unhappiness, thrilled that they had stopped following the rules, and thrilled that they had taken the tools available to them and gone after those who ran the system. They were even thrilled as the protestors began disrobing, drinking and throwing up all over the Great Hall.
The city governors, who had taken a hands-off approach to this new world, had a decision to make during the protest: respond with an iron fist or with welcoming engagement. The wrong decision, they knew, would end the experiment.
This place was the epicenter of the first commercially successful massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG). This "persistent world," which existed whether or not players were logged into the game, changed the way we viewed online communities. Suddenly, the worlds that had existed simply in text formats (e.g., The Well, CompuServe and QuantumLink) became graphical and they were populated by thousands of people at one time.
That's a technological leap, though. Ultima Online, the long-running game title that spawned Britannia, was, at its core, an experiment in digital communities. Everything existed within a communal space, which meant Richard Garriott, the designer, and the rest of the Ultima Online team had to figure out how to foster and negotiate a community of people, balancing the storytelling and game mechanics the designers wanted with the very real needs of the community that had invested so much time in the world.
These lessons aren't just applicable for game worlds, although it's not difficult to see why big industries such as the media ignore the campy world of Orcs and dragons. These are games, after all, not serious business. On the surface, it may not seem obvious what news organizations can learn from these places. To ignore these worlds, though, would be a mistake though, because, while games can't teach students how to vet sources, how to interview, how to copy edit, how to hit the streets and find stories, what they can teach journalists is how to build, foster and interact with an online community. And ignoring these lessons in the digital age could prove disastrous.
The newspaper industry, you see, has a nation-building problem.
The Kongo Gumi Problem
Kongo Gumi, the oldest independently owned company in the world, was founded in 578 A.D. as a Buddhist temple-building organization, subsidized in part by the Japanese government. It was a safe, important business - one that was necessary to the times. As the Japanese population grew, the need for more temples would follow. The company thrived through the centuries, passed down from one family member to the next.
Throughout its 1,400-year existence, the Kongo family shifted its model slightly, here and there, to navigate the ever-changing tides of history. They shifted from making government-subsidized temples to commercial properties in the 19th century. They briefly made coffins in the 20th century. But they never strayed from their sole purpose: building.
Generation after generation, the family built until the company attempted to diversify its business in the 1980s by taking on heavy debt to acquire real estate, its first foray outside of its core business. Masakazu Kongo, the 40th member of his family to run the company, saw his $70 million company begin to crumble under the weight of $343 million in debt. It couldn't have happened at a worse time. The temple-building business, its core asset for 1,400 years, began to evaporate from underneath.
A year later, the Takamatsu Corporation bought the company from the Kongo family.
This story, physicist Michael Nielsen pointed out on his blog, is analogous to any about how large systems can fail when they get too big to respond to faster-paced markets and start-ups, but it suggests a second lesson, one that is more germane to the specifics of the news industry. The Kongo Gumi is a cautionary tale about expanding into new, seemingly related areas.
There's surely many reasons why the new industry is failing, beyond the simple transition from an atom economy based upon paper to a bit economy based upon digital data; however, the seeming "related-ness" of the two industries - news delivered on atoms and news delivered using bits - suggests that newspapers also have a Kongo Gumi problem.
The transition from one medium (paper) to another (screens) has pulled the rug out from under the traditional industry. The U.S. newspaper industry is in a tailspin, with few signs that the traditional business models that have driven growth since 1950 will translate into the digital world. The newspaper industry has had unprecedented growth in the advertising sector since 1950, experiencing only two back-to-back years with declining advertising revenues; however, both of those have occurred within the last decade: 2001-2002 and 2006-2007, and there are indications that this revenue decline may stretch on longer than just two years.
As those advertising revenues have dried up, newspapers have scrambled to create bit-based products using very traditional ideas. They have tried to nation-build using atom-based thinking. And they have succeeded only in running off the next generation of readers. According to its own figures, there were fewer readers in the 18-24, 25-34 and 35-54 demographics in 2007 than there were in 1998. In fact, the only readership demographic that has grown has been those 55 and older. Despite what those who have proclaimed the end of the educated democracy say, the reality is that people are using the Web, search and other digital technologies to find information that is relevant to what they want.
The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 42 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds use the Web first for their news and information, placing it ahead of cable and local news and the daily newspaper. A smaller percentage - 26 percent - of the 30-49 demographic used the Web first, placing it behind cable and local television, but tied with the local newspaper.
The readers, and not just the young ones, have left newspapers for the Web, a place of conversation and interactivity. It is a place where they expect two-way, real-time discussions and where expertise is earned and not given. Exactly the type of experience newspapers are not equipped to deliver, even as they roll out new digital products that are, in the words so often thrown around as code for control, "editorially driven." Newspapers are not equipped to handle the electronic version of the Great Hall Protest, yet they have extended their business into this realm just as Kongo Gumi did with real estate.
It's a combination few feel confident the newspaper industry will survive, at least if you buy into the idea that the stock market acts as a predictor of future events. Within the last few years, Gannett's stock dropped 67 percent, McClatchy's dropped 82 percent and The New York Times, Dow Jones and Tribune companies each dropped in the mid-40 percent range. In the summer of 2008, seven newspaper companies - McClatchy, Lee Enterprises, GateHouse Media, Gannett, Media General, New York Times Co. and News Corp. - hit all-time trading lows.
But it's not too late for newspapers because the answers they are looking for - how to build commercially successful online communities - can be found in
The Decades From the Dungeons to Doomsday
The founding of the first interactive communities, the Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs) and other interactive, multiplayer text adventures is incidental to the story of newspapers, although it's quite important in virtual worlds. Much of what happens in modern, graphics-driven computer games traces its roots to paper gaming in the 1970s and its early computer counterparts in MUDs. So, to understand what makes a thriving digital world, it's important to return to a time in the late 1970s when computer networks were in their nascent phase, where communities like the WELL were rudimentary threaded message boards.
One of the first MUD developers, Richard Bartle, spent more than a decade creating these text adventures and studying the ways in which players interacted within virtual environments. A game designer and storyteller, Bartle was deeply interested in creating rich environments that maximized the players' ability to experience a story while maintaining editorial control over the rules and direction of the world. In the late 1980s, he wrote a paper called "Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs" where he outlined four player archetypes - Achievers, Explorers, Socializers and Killers - and graphed the different types of reactions that happen when these archetypes come into contact with each other. This "simple taxonomy," as Bartle called it, allowed developers to plan out specific types of activities within a world ahead of time to encourage the three types of positive behavior while limiting the one type of negative behavior.
The taxonomy also enables developers to quantify the actions within any system and subtly shift the environment to encourage different actions, ones that are more conducive to community-building. Community designers could, as Bartle said, tinker with what the players could do, change the rules of the world, create a more interactive environment or build more direct action depending upon the type of experience they were trying to create.
Bartle's ideas, which are really more of an evolution of his thinking over the course of a decade, have found their way into the work of other luminaries who began writing about the growth of online Web communities (which are graphically dissimilar from Internet communities, but functionally the same).
Amy Jo Kim, one of the early community moderators for Ultima Online, developed her own principles - independent of the taxonomy - based upon her experiences with players. Still, many of those rules, such as creating a space for the community to exist, echo Bartle's taxonomy. In short order, other technologists without computer-gaming backgrounds began examining the foundations of Web communities (David Weinberger, Small Pieces, Loosely Joined), the ways in which these communities developed (Lawrence Lessig, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace) and how these communities spread across mobile networks (Howard Rheingold, Smart Mobs). These writers explored in greater depth how communities sprang up, were fostered and sometimes died. And much of what they found aligned itself neatly with Bartle's work.
While each of those works examines communities ranging far outside the basic taxonomies, they each seem to
agree on four basic principles for building communities and four basic rules for managing those communities. The four principles - Good Content, Simple Navigation, Simple Interfaces, Decentralized
Controls - align themselves with the Bartle's Taxonomy in this way: The content is for Achievers and Explorers, the navigation is for Achievers, the interface is for Socializers and the decentralized
controls allows for the thwarting of Killers. The four rules - No Free Riding, Rules Compliance, Rewards, Ad-Hoc Growth - not only offer guidelines
for punishing Killers, but also for encouraging Achievers, Explorers and Socializers.
Which brings us back to Britannia.
Garriott and crew realized rather quickly that it wasn't enough to simply create a world and then hope for the best. And they were familiar enough with Bartle's work to know that they were nation-building, which requires winning the hearts and minds of the players. So they hired community managers - there were only two - who became the voice of the players inside the company and the voice of the company within the community. Instead of fighting with the players or pushing them to do things "the right way," Garriott decided to give them a prominent place within the company.
One of those managers, Carly Staehlin, said the initial task was daunting. Players were posting across the Web.
There was no centralized location. On top of that, executives with Origin Systems (where the game was originally developed) and then Electronic Arts (the current publisher) were concerned about the
types of conversations occurring, which prompted the marketing and public relations departments to push for control of the community moderation.
Garriott and his team, though, resisted that temptation, instead making community management its own independent entity within the company. Within a month, the community had turned from a chaotic, sometimes vitriolic mass, to a self-organizing and self-governing group because of the hands-off moderating, which amounted to everything from answering questions on the official forums to visiting the forums where players set up their own communities. At Ultima Online's height, Staehlin said roughly 32 percent of the 242,000 subscribers were actively engaged in the forum.
In other words, the company treated the players as equal partners in the game process. They weren't considered an afterthought. They weren't considered incidental to the process. They weren't there to be the recipient of corporate-speak. They had a voice within the organization, a way to redress concerns and a way to provide constructive feedback that changed the way the developers upgraded the system. That the game still continues 12 years later, with more than 100,000 players, is a testament to this system.
The Laws Have Changed
The newspaper industry made a Kongo Gumi error, a tactical expansion error into the digital realm without fully understanding that the knowledge it had in one area (atoms) didn't translate very well into another area (bits). Not surprisingly then, industry executives ignored - intentionally or not - the nation-building ideas put forth by Bartle and perfected in the virtual games space, leaving those ideas to the new generation of entrepreneurs who grew up immersed in this virtual environment, the very type of nimble business-makers that Michael Nielsen discussed in his blog about Kongo Gumi.
What emerged from that digital landscape left completely untouched by the newspaper industry were companies like Digg and Facebook, which deploy virtual world community rules and engagement ideas, along with news organizations such as Pegasus News and the Chi-Town Daily, which engage with their readers to create content in rich ways. Every day, new organizations like Collecta, which creates a real-time search-and-share widget for any topic, allow for an ever-greater engagement with anyone on the Web.
These news businesses, for better or worse, are native to the digital network. They engage readers and make them users. They are not constrained by the atom-thinking, which continues to have its place, but will never be as popular as bit-thinking companies. And if newspapers are going to avoid the fate of Kongo Gumi, becoming wholly-owned subsidiaries of larger Web-based operations, they will need to become more like bit operations and less like atom operations.
Because the Web isn't getting smaller. But printed newspapers are.