Creating a sustainable community at Scienceblogs

community by D’Arcy Norman

I wrote this in response to a comment left by David Croty – who is one of the guys at the great site, The Scholarly Kitchen – at my previous post on the blowup at Scienceblogs.

The inherent problem is that the best interests of the company running the social network often are in direct opposition to the users of that social network. In the case of Facebook, their profits are going to be reliant on selling out the privacy of their users. In the case of ScienceBlogs, commercialization alienated the strongly anti-business, anti-industry members of their community and threatened their perceptions of themselves as an elite and well-respected group of experts.

One can, as you suggest, focus instead on serving those users but that’s a mighty difficult thing to monetize. If you’re a corporation with investors who would like to be paid back (like Seed Media), you need some way to make money. Perhaps running social networks will fall out of fashion as a profit-making enterprise due to these conflicts.

It was getting pretty long so I made it a post.

David, That is part of what I am trying to delineate. Scienceblogs went and created this community of blogs, hoping it would drive more traffic to their magazine and its website. But the magazine failed and the magazine website is not making nearly the inroads as the Scienceblogs are.

Seed Media simply did not realize that Scienceblogs had become this community – any group that can decide to strike is a community of people – with an focus independent of Seed..

Its business model for these blogs simply is not sustainable, even if it was full of pro-business, pro-industry people. Seed as looking for a bunch of well-written, independent voices. They got those in spades. The writers are always going to be independent, to the detriment of Seed when their motives conflict. Which it is almost bound to do because Seed’s focus was on getting advertising money, not on servicing the community created by the bloggers. A similar problem is seen in newspapers.

A better business model would be to find ways for the Scienceblogs to be sustainable in themselves, I can think of a couple of ways but it requires an organization quite different from something like Seed, which seems to be still trapped in the era of magazines and print.

Frankly, it is extremely difficult to monetize any sort of social community that is digital and open. It is not only too easy to create an ad hoc social community but, in the era of Web 2.0, it is too easy for members of the social network to leave and create another ad hoc community. The community want to support the community’s needs and wants, not necessarily the needs of the founding institution. Something Facebook would do well to consider.

So, where to make money? Well, if you have the right niche, you might make it by charging admission online. Essentially, the WSJ and science journals, such as Protocols, can do this and survive. They fulfill a need for a specific sort of information – which the community realizes costs money and is hard to create – and do not need the same network effects (think Metcalfe’s law) as Facebook to be successful.

Not so for Facebook and Scienceblogs. The content is easier to create and costs less to produce but it also harder to make sticky, holding onto readers in a way to make much money. So, how to create a sustainable business? Well, one way would be to make money on the things that can not be digitized – the human angle.

Thus, whoever takes control of nurturing the Scienceblogs community makes a business out of that by servicing the community it creates. How, and still make some money? Off the top of my head – have a yearly conference where they bring together their bloggers with the people who follow them. Perhaps take some of them out on tour. Looking at the successful nature of w00tstock, this can be a pretty interesting model. They could even host a scientific/non-scientific conference. Or a TED-like symposium. Or one on how to communicate science. Or one on atheism vs. religion. Or one on evolution. I would pay to see PZ and others. The bloggers could receive compensation for this and I would imagine the meetings could become quite popular.

And also realize that the community also encompasses all those that read these blogs. So, if people pay a yearly fee, they can get reduced prices to attend the symposia/meetings. Or maybe a special edition of The Best of Scienceblogs.

The point is that many of the creators of these blogs write about going to meetings or panels or debates. And many of the readers of these blogs would love first-hand contact with the bloggers. How about a business model where sponsoring these events is a money-making opportunity?

O’Reilly has a similar sort of model where it publishes specialized books for a variety of high tech communities but also puts on a set of conferences that bring together the various members of its communities. These are quite highly attended. The conferences drive book sales and the books drive the conferences.

Of course, this would require a very different organization than Seed currently occupies and may not be as interesting to some investors.

But, if a different set of investors wanted to produce a real organization that serviced the community it created (and probably have many more creative ideas that I can come up with), I think it could be sustainable.

I agree with you that organizations that simply make their money by online social networks will have a hard time because the profit motive often goes against the community’s wants. When that happens, the community may very well migrate somewhere else. To survive, Facebook and others may need to figure out ways to monetize servicing the community, not the advertisers.

8 thoughts on “Creating a sustainable community at Scienceblogs”

  1. I think you’re pretty much spot-on in your analysis. The “Star Trek Convention” business model is an interesting one. First, you could run that business completely separately from the social networks. Set up a business where you identify communities, come to them with your expertise, which is setting up conventions, offer them a cut of the profits. That offers you all the benefits without any of the headaches of creating and managing the network.

    On the downside, it’s only an attractive business model for networks that can attract a big following. There are lots of small communities that would be well served by having their own online network, but that aren’t likely to be able to drive a big profitable convention.

    The ScienceBlogs community does have a yearly meeting, by the way.

    But I think another possibility to consider is that these sorts of networks aren’t commercial products, aren’t commercially exploitable. As publishers and scientific societies, perhaps we’ve been sold a bill of goods here. We’ve been told that we need to invest heavily in these technologies, but the business plan is remarkably like the famous one from South Park:
    1. Build a social network
    2. ?????
    3. Profit
    If there’s no clear-cut business model, is it worth the investment? Many have built big networks in hopes of having them catch on, with the idea of figuring out a way to monetize them later on down the line. I still think Mark Cuban is the only one with a successful business model for Web 2.0: build a site, hype it and make it popular, then sell it off to the highest bidder. Buy an island or a sports franchise and let some other sucker worry about monetization.

    For the communities themselves, they’re also likely better off in the long run controlling their own fates. ScienceBlogs does offer some great advantages, visibility, tremendously successful promotional efforts, no worries about maintenance and a small level of payment. But many have clearly decided that those advantages weren’t worth the trade-off required. If you don’t want your community held hostage to someone else’s business model, then run it yourself.

    The Scholarly Kitchen, as I understand it, has an operating budget of $35 per year (plus the occasional round of drinks when we’re together in person). Perhaps that’s as much of a business model as is needed or appropriate here. All this talk of “servicing the community” misses the point–for a business, the community, the bloggers are not the customers, they’re the product. And there’s no point in spending a lot of money developing and coddling a product that you can’t sell.

  2. I thought that Scienceonline2010 and previous ones were more a project that Bora was a driver of rather than an official Scienceblogs community project. I could not find anything at the convention website indicating that Seed was directly involved at all – not as a sponsor or an organizer. But that is an example of the sorts of offerings it should be organizing. It should be part of its business model.

    Projects such as The Open Laboratory should also have been an official Seed/Scienceblogs project. But that was something else Bora was involved in.

    It seems that Bora actually had a better idea of how to provide extra value than Seed did. And he is no longer a part of Scienceblogs. That seems like a real loss to them but helps explain partly why so many of the other Sciencebloggers looked to him for leadership.

    I guess what I meant by service is that the business (Seed) needs to focus its attention on the bloggers rather than on the advertisers for a source of revenue. The real value to Seed of Scienceblogs lies in the network/community that it put together, demonstrating something like Metcalfe’s law.

    The potential is like the CwF + RtB model for a network/community rather than individual artists. In a recent example, Amanda Plummer used this model to make $15,000 in 3 minutes.

    The hard part in this model for the individual is to have a large enough base of fans for support. Scienceblogs had already accomplished this for the bloggers so it could have used this approach to create a revenue stream.

    It still could but it has lost a lot of good-will in the latest debacle and will have to work hard to get that back. But it will require a very different organization to carry this off now.

  3. The problem is that for most networks, there’s nothing obvious to sell. Celebrity still seems to carry a cache, so Amanda Palmer can apparently sell off garbage from her apartment for a profit. I’m not sure a lot of science bloggers inspire the same level of fandom (and very few of them are able to ride the coattails of a famous fiance with an even more rabid following). There’s clearly a difference between a community of equals and a star’s fan club.

    If the strategy is to see the network/bloggers as customers rather than as product, you need something compelling enough for them to buy to support your efforts. Is this really a crowd looking to buy things or are they just there to read and chat with one another? We know that if you charge for access, they’re likely to abandon your site for the free one next door. Do any of those meetings or book collections from the science blogging community actually turn a profit or are they just vanity projects? It gets to the fundamental question of whether these sorts of community networks are commercially exploitable. If I start a network for people studying zebrafish axon guidance, how many t-shirts and cd’s am I likely to sell? Enough to pay for the network? Enough to feed my family? There are likely networks capable of supporting a big commercial investment. I’m not sure many scientific communities can do so, and I’m also not sure that it’s in the community’s best interests to do so.

  4. Agreed. Not every network or blog will be a livelihood. Most of the sciencebloggers are making money doing something else. There will always be real jobs that need to get done.

    This is just an additional business model for organizations such as Seed that I think has more viability today than putting out a magazine. Perhaps by ‘aggregating’ a group of bloggers, there is a novel business opportunity.

    As in W00tstock. Wil Wheaton by himself may not be a big draw. But combine him with several others and a viable show can be created, one that can go on the road.

    And it could create a business model for others to make a living. The bloggers are still free to get some money from other avenues, even from other full-time jobs.

    It is a possible avenue for some to take. Some could make it a more full time job – marketing their abilities – while it remains a hobby for others.

    It is Seed that has lost the opportunity here. It could still get it back, I think, with some diligence.

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