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My Uncle Harry, who is now 78, was raised in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Fort Smith was, I gather, a fairly typical small town. Dances on Friday nights. Kids working as soda jerks. An extended family of neighbors. Movie theaters as islands of fantasy and air conditioning. A gossip grapevine that could connect and strangle, all at once. In short, it was a real community.

For all of Fort Smith’s limitations, it offered a young boy and young man a rich public life. And the ties my Uncle Harry made back in grade school have endured. It was those ties that helped him land his first and second jobs. His second job was for a company called Humble Oil & Refining, which came to be known as Exxon. That second job lasted 35 years.

And his Fort Smith community ties helped him in a variety of other ways, as well, long after he took residence in Houston. The ties worked both ways, for sure. For whatever advantage those small-town ties have provided him over these many years, he has repaid in double and with interest. One could ask for no better friend or citizen. He’s the kind of guy who will lend money without a second thought. He’s gone back for funerals of distant cousins and old neighbors. And he still donates to the alumni association of his Catholic grade school.

Against this backdrop, I’m now looking at what the web calls “community” and, not too surprisingly, finding it woefully lacking. First, the very word itself is almost worn out from overuse. For a while there, it was the hottest of hot web concepts. Web site owners envied popular chat rooms where visitors (usually adolescents or 45-year-old men pretending to be) would linger for hours. At the time, you could almost overhear their loud thoughts: “Okay, here’s a pretty cheap way to get the traffic to stay awhile and keep ’em coming back for more. If they stay longer, that’ll increase the site’s value to our advertisers and/or give us a chance to push more of our wares. This is a beautiful thing.”

Good theory. And, in some cases, I’m sure it has proven true. But if some webmaster for an industrial valve manufacturer’s site just plops the word, “Community” onto his or her navigation bar – like a turd in a punch bowl – does that a community make? You click on it and find a threaded discussion with two moldy posts from the summer of 1997. So much for community.

Before even thinking about building community into your own web efforts, answer me this handy Yes or No “Caesar at the Rubicon” question: Do you secretly harbor the notion that community will directly result in new sales, i.e., the Amway-esque approach to community?

If Yes, you don’t have a snowball in Hell’s chance of building a viable web community, no matter how modest in size. Why? Because you are not thinking like a customer. You will not invest the requisite time and energy to learn exactly what your customer would consider to be a valuable or supportive community. You are showing very little respect for your customers; in essence, you are hoping to ensnare them. In short, you have envisioned fishing in a barrel, friend. And you will have the barrel, but no fish.

(One caveat. If you are planning a site devoted entirely to discussions of sexual positions and/or stocks and/or sports, my advice doesn’t apply. Some things are just too darned easy. Incidentally, I now have dibs on the URL Kidding.)

Did you answer No to my “Caesar at the Rubicon” question? Good. In most cases, it will be hard to tie your web community-building and community-serving efforts directly to sales. But, at least, you’re starting with what is, in my opinion, the right attitude.

But I’d like to ask more of you. Think about my Uncle Harry’s community. It was rich with possibilities, venues, and connections. The Friday night dances weren’t organized for somebody to make money. They were just facts of public life. The community in Fort Smith, even in times of great poverty, had, what I will call “embedded gifts.”

Now, imagine, what a wonder it would be if a site visitor came across the web version of “embedded gifts:” stories, opportunities, opt-in e-mail for “expert” articles, free services, free downloads, web events with real-time feedback, etc. And what if there were humor and other signs of people-hood? (Too often a web site just doesn’t look lived in. Companies act like guests in their own homes. There’s a difference between a site that is about a company, and a site that is the company.) And why not consider the web version of “ha-ha’s,” those unexpected turns, sudden drops, and proofs of whimsy in Victorian gardens?

And do not think of community in purely linear terms, i.e., “My company is selling insurance ergo our community must have lively debate about the merits of term vs. whole life.” The thing about community, in my opinion at least, is that, when it’s growing, it will grow in ways that you could not imagine. One example, drawn from that powerful triad of sex, stocks, and jocks, is the success of (Silicon Investor), arguably the world’s largest web investor community. At Silicon Investor, subscribers can, in a matter of moments, create their own discussion thread covering any topic they choose that doesn’t violate Terms of Service. And when you scan the day’s newest subjects, you’ll find threads created to discuss something from the news, poetry, jokes, and even tips on how to install a video card. Now, one could ask, what does any of this have to do with investing?

I have found hints of real community on the web. Last year, I asked a neurologist about possible new treatments for my brother’s post-polio and got a two-page answer in less than 30 minutes. I’ve “eavesdropped” on newsgroup discussions among new mothers. Visited sites where diabetics and arthritis sufferers and caregivers for Alzheimer’s patients shared their woes and lightened their burdens. And, earlier this year, a man whom I have never met except through an online investor thread, gave me a stock tip that has been my best investment in years. It was a gift, pure and simple.

The very sort of thing my Uncle Harry would do.

This Ebusiness article was written by Chris Maher on 3/18/2005