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Building a Community

April 11, 1996
A web site that doesn't ask for anything back from its viewers is missing the point. The Internet is not a passive medium. We already have one-way distribution channels for information. Newspapers and magazines, radio and television all essentially push information at you, asking for your attention, but not your participation. Granted, listener call-in shows and letters to the editor exist, but compared to the one-to-one interactivity the Web can offer, they seem like half-hearted attempts.

One of my early opinions was that if Sight were to be considered a success, I would need to build a loyal following of repeat visitors. I wanted to foster a sense of community, so that Sight viewers would feel part ownership in the product. My catch phrase was, "the first visit is easy. It's the second visit that really counts." Key to building this connection was getting audience members to interact with Sight, I felt. After a few months, it is too early to tell if any momentum is building, but there have been several interesting occurrences along the way.

I would not call myself a pioneer -- I'm in the second wave of Internet explorers at best. However, I did feel the sense of discovery, like an entomologist finding a new insect or a dancer trying out a new step when I put up a link and began receiving some e-mail from you out there. It was a feeling of power and connectivity. It has proved to be addictive: the possibility for instant feedback creates a constant need for someone to appreciate your efforts. And I'm still amazed when I receive a message from the other side of the world.

I responded to every one of those first e-mails, thanking people for visiting and inviting them back. The e-mail link was a crude but personal way to form ties with visitors. Polite interest in people's comments lead to my discovering some interesting photography being done.

In early November, I became the proud owner of my first bit of programming. Alan at Global Image put up a guest book for Sight. The idea behind the guest book was to start gathering some information about the people who visited Sight. In comparison to the plain e-mail link, however, the guest book is impersonal. This is in part because of the mechanics of how it works: I receive an e-mail with the results of each visitor's response, but because the mail comes from the server, not the visitor, it is no longer a matter of simply hitting the reply button if I want to get back to someone. Instead, I have to manually enter their name in my address book, then respond. This tends to prevent me from responding in most cases, unless someone has asked a question or said something particularly interesting. In some ways, this guest book, which by most accounts is an improvement in sophistication and interactivity, serves to create a separation between myself and my visitors.

I did make one change in the guest book early on, which was minor, but seemed to create more interesting responses. The first version of the guest book had a question asking people asking for their comments about Sight, but it was getting little response. Instead, I chanced to question to also request some personal information about the respondent. This led to much more gratifying and informational answers. Many people choose not to say anything, but I have also learned facts about people and their interests that I might not have been able to solicit otherwise.

When I set out to remake Sight into a magazine, one of my main goals was to get viewer involvement. I felt that the photographers on Sight were giving people some wonderful work to look at, but I was not satisfied with the passivity of the experience. Many of the people who visit Sight are themselves photographers, and so I needed a vehicle to allow them to submit work. Not everyone has a collection of photos of the quality of a Will Mosgrove or Dan White. However, even most amateur photographers have a shot or two they can be proud of. This was the reasoning behind the department Time & Place: that if given the opportunity, people would be eager to show off a photograph. The response has not been overwhelming. I have steered several people toward Time & Place and some colleagues have volunteered photos, but no one has sent a picture specifically for inclusion there.

I was similarly puzzled by the lack of response to the feature Talk. It was an area suggesting people post their ideas on various topics. It was a presumption on part, and I still think it is valid, that people interested in photography would have a lot to say about various aspects of this complex field. Certainly there are several very active listservs on photography. Perhaps the crudeness of Talk doomed it: it was simply an e-mail link. After receiving only one response in a month, I took it down.

Now, because of Neil Johnson's idea about having an opening for his Island exhibit, we have a much more sophisticated way of encouraging people to talk. He wanted to be able to invite people to the debut of his show and play host, engaging in typical opening night chat. I explained that "real time" chat is not that viable on the Web, and instead offered to ask the server administrators about bulletin board type software. The result was the institution on Sight of a fully automated set of scripts called NetForum, that makes it easy for people to post topics and respond to them.

Neil's opening was a modest success. It showed that once people figured it out, the software was a pretty effective way to talk. Neil himself remarked what an odd feeling it was to be sitting alone in his studio, yet to still have a connection with a number of people. This momentary feeling, even if it was with a few people for a couple of hours, is really what it is all about for me. The Web is only the physical connection between people. Through technology, we can make it easier for people to share ideas, but it takes some more basic spark to make the emotional or intellectual connections happen.

Perhaps it is a more general and subtle question that refers back to building a sense of community. You certainly can't force people to feel comfortable and at home enough to instigate or take part in discussions. It's a chicken or the egg problem. What comes first, the dialogue or the community?

April 20, 1996
Neil Johnson sent these thoughts about the topic of getting people involved:

"One of the things I really like about Sight (or any magazine for that matter) is the ruminations of the editor about behind-the-scenes issues of creating what we are reading or viewing. It makes the "publication" more personal--real--human.

After reading your "Building a Community" chapter of your diary, I felt a need to respond to one fairly important point brought up there. It has to do with responses to the dropped "Talk" section and to responses in general.

I strongly believe that, despite what schools are attempting to do, we are becoming, more than ever, a visual society. Hence, the use of WRITING skills is being given less and less emphasis in our post-school lives. It is infinitley easier to pick up a telephone and voice a compliment or complaint than it is to type a well-composed message that--God forbid--someone will then be able to make a hard copy and do a sentence diagram of the words.

The incredible growth of the wonderful e-mail system may mean that writing skills may improve in some of the people who use it, but the fact remains that GOOD writing, like any other skill, takes a great deal of practice and effort to achieve. I'm talking years of practice here --not a few messages every week. It also takes years of READING good writing.

My point here is that, although, many people use e-mail, it is really more like conversation between two friends. Who cares about sentence structure and proper punctuation? It is the message that is important and whether or not the message is communicated successfully.

With a letter to the editor posted for all the world to read, is a very different matter. Very few people want to go out on this limb. Why? I think most people don't have the time or don't care to take the time to put forth the EFFORT of composing a message that just might make them look ignorant, confused, misguided--you pick the adjective. These people aren't stupid. They know that to communicate publicly with words takes a knowledge of words. To put their words into a public forum is far more than simply typing in thoughts. It takes TIME and it takes EFFORT--two things that a great majority of folks are short on. In other words, they know a public message has got to be written at a much higher skill level than an e-mail message. Some never achieved that skill level. Some could do it but don't want to. Most simply want to consume images and words and have no interest in sharing their thoughts and feelings.

There will, of course, always be folks who respond to issues, publicly and in writing. But these folks are in the vast minority compared to those who read or view the subject to which the writers have responded.

That's the way it is. Blame it on television. But blame it more on all the technology that makes it easier and easier to diseminate information.

Is this bad?

It is to writing."

-Neil Johnson

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