What's going on here? Didn't anyone remember that "community" was a four-letter word only a few years ago? Do theglobe.com, geocities.com, and tripod.com ring a bell? These first-generation online community sites came to symbolize the growth and demise of the dotcom era in the mid- to late 1990s and early 2000s. So what's the fascination with community and gaming sites now? Could there be such a marked difference between first-generation Web sites and newer community portals? Was the contrast so big that News Corp. is now willing to stake its future online strategy on it?
At first, the answer was a resounding no. Based on a little intelligence-gathering and online visits to these venues, I saw no major differences between first- and second-generation community Web sites. In fact, I was annoyed at how obvious it all seemed. But my commitment to investigative journalism required me to look further. I decided to use MySpace.com as a guinea pig and conduct an informal audit of the site. What I found actually shocked me and turned my original thesis on its head. Intending to spend only a few short minutes jumping around the site, I lost myself in the experience and didn't come up for air for several hours.
MySpace.com shared only a shred of similarity to its first- generation brethren. The rest is exciting, with new content and functionality that keeps the user experience fresh at every turn. Music is clearly at the heart of this site, serving as the connective tissue for the community. But there are also Web profiles, blogs, instant messaging, e-mail, music downloads, photo galleries, classified listings, events, groups, chat rooms, and user forums. Users of this community put their lives online.
These new online communities seem to be finding an audience, in large part, because of elegantly simple user interfaces. I recall roaming theglobe.com and geocities.com at their inception and getting totally lost, starting with the home page.
On MySpace.com, I feel at ease. The information architecture is well-conceived, the color palette is clean, and I can't stop myself from digging deeper for more content that's appealing. Even as I write this, I discovered five new indie bands on the site and legions of people, just like me, who share my unique musical taste.
The new community sites also benefit from an improved functionality. First-generation sites often showcased clumsy tools and functionality. But the new sites are different. Instant messaging, chat, music players, and games all load instantly and seamlessly integrate the user experience.
In exploring MySpace.com, I came to understand some of the figures and deals surrounding its recent acclaim, as well as that of other second-generation online communities. MySpace alone boasts more than 14 million unique users and ranks fifth among Web domains in terms of page views, according to comScore Media Metrix. Furthermore, the site serves more than 8 percent of all ads on the Internet, putting it in the company of Web giants Yahoo!, Google, and aol.
Having dispelled my cynicism surrounding the new online communities and finding great value in them, I rediscovered an old aphorism: Don't knock it until you try it.
Brad Kay is the executive vice president, general manager of Merkley ID. (firstname.lastname@example.org)