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Let’s Go Shopping

So, you say you’ve got a clear vision of what you want, and you’re ready to find the perfect backend? Okay. Buckle up. Let’s go shopping.

There are hundreds of different tools out there for hundreds of different sites. But in my experience in the web community biz, I’ve categorized four different genres of community tools. Here they are, cheapskates first.

Web-based: Just add people!

There are some really powerful web-based tools out there to jumpstart a community. On the positive side, these sites enable you to sign up and have some powerful community features at your fingertips in minutes. And usually, they’re absolutely free.

Take a look at CommunityZero (communityzero.com), for example. There you can set up a community area in five minutes flat. You can choose from a wide assortment of features (polls, message board, chat, file uploads), set user privileges individually or as a group, and even set the access level for your community (open to the public, invitation only, or closed).

CommunityZero does a good job of interlinking content and community, too. For example, you can upload a document and associate a specific discussion with it. And when you retire a poll, you can automatically start a thread to discuss the findings. Very smart.

And, best of all, it’s free. There’s a limit to how much server space you can take up, and if you exceed it, you’ve got to start paying. But it’s possible to run a small community there for months and come nowhere near the limit.

But, like any web-based tool, there are limitations. The biggest of which is that, essentially, you’re creating a site out of a cookie-cutter mold. CommunityZero is very good at making a certain kind of site that looks and works a certain way. The tool allows for very little deviation from that norm.

So, while you can change the color of the bar on the left and upload a custom photo to the top of it, that bar will always be there. The navigation will always be in the same spot. And you have almost no control over the presentation of the content itself.

Finally, if your goal is to have a community feature that integrates with an existing site, the closest you’ll come to that here is linking from one to the other. CommunityZero sites exist only on the CommunityZero server, so it will always be separate from the rest of your site.

I used CommunityZero while writing this book to create an interim community site and had mixed results. While the tools were powerful, I was frustrated by the lack of customizability. And since the sites were set up to host many conversations on many subjects, each thread was several clicks away from the home page—nested in a folder that you couldn’t get rid of. There was also no way to view more than one post on a page, so it became laborious to click though a whole conversation. Finally, since the site is frames-based, and uses obfuscated URLs for the pages, it was impossible to link from a page on my site to a specific thread in the community. That meant I had to break one of my own cardinal rules—I couldn’t interlink content and community.

The CommunityZero-powered Design for Community community (communityzero.com/dfc).

As a result of all these things, I found that conversations tended to die out quickly or continue on without focus. So, while the tools were powerful, the implementation and lack of customizability were a turnoff. I recommend sites like this and Yahoo Groups (groups.yahoo.com) as training-wheel community sites. They’re great to experiment with and learn what works and what doesn’t, without having to install any software or spend any money. But for long-term community building, I suggest looking elsewhere.

A free lunch (and other bedtime stories)

Another genre of community tools to consider is the open source, shareware, or freeware that’s all over the web. Some of these programs are truly works of genius, hacked on and perfected by programmers all over the world, using the Net to work in concert. And some are aborted first-attempts or worse.

This genre is alluring because the software itself is free. You can download it, tweak it, put it on your server, and use it absolutely free (some open source projects have conditions, though). What is not included, however, is installation, customization, support, or maintenance.

So, while you may save some money in purchasing the software, don’t think that these free options are without cost. The costs are just different.

That aside, there are some incredibly powerful programs out there. Slashdot (a great community site, described in more detail in Chapter 6) has open sourced its engine, called Slash. It’s free to download and use.

What that means is that, if you want a site that looks and acts like Slashdot, that’s easy to make with Slash. But, again, if you want your site to depart from that model, you’ll either have to hire a programmer to hack the program to make it do what you want, or keep shopping for another tool.

The Net is littered with other free software tools, so I suggest taking a spin on your favorite search engine looking for “free discussion tools”—you never know what you might find.

Cheap and cheerful

If the web-based options weren’t for you, and the free lunch options looked too spicy for your taste, maybe it’s time to consider going with a member of the next genre: low-cost tools. These are programs that cost a few hundred bucks to set up and use, and have pretty good functionality. And since the companies are actually making a little money on them, chances are, they’ll continue to be developed.

The leader in this space is Infopop (infopop.com), the creators of one of the bellwethers of community tools, the Ultimate Bulletin Board (or UBB for short). UBB-driven sites are everywhere, from personal homepages to professional sites. Infopop also makes UBB’s younger, more expensive cousin, OpenTopic. Pricing and specifics run the gamut between the two of them, from hosted versions to installed ones, from a couple hundred bucks for a lifetime license, to thousands a year, depending on the features you want and the size of your organization.

Two UBB-powered sites. See the structural similarities?

UBB is the leader in the cheap and cheerful category, because it’s all over the web. In fact, it’s so common, its interface has become a kind of de facto standard. The only problem is that the look and feel of UBB is so distinctive and so hard to change. The standard UBB look is boxes upon boxes. So, if you had a boxy design in mind from the beginning, you’re in luck. But if you had something else in mind, too bad.

Personally, I find UBB extremely hard to use. The standard navigation elements are hard to find, and when a conversation thread reaches the point where it splits into multiple pages, the secondary pages are a pain to get to. Worse, the administration features are placed in plain view of everyone in the forum. (Why crowd the interface for everyone when only administrators are able to use the feature?) Finally, the design variations are very limited, so every UBB-powered site looks remarkably like every other one, which is bad if you’re trying to differentiate yourself from a crowded market. Though I know people who swear by the system, many of whom are even mentioned as great examples in this book, to me, as a designer, it just feels clunky.

In the end, if you want a system you can really customize, you’re going to have to pay for the privilege.

Swimming with the pros

Ready to get in with the likes of the New York Times? Got some cash to throw around? Welcome to the world of the big fish.

Two Prospero-powered sites. They have distinct colors, but the differences end there.

Companies such as Prospero Technologies and Web Crossing power some of the biggest community sites online. Prospero Technologies (prospero.com), itself the combination of old-school community software makers Delphi Forums and Well Engaged, can claim many newspaper sites, several record companies, as well as CBS and FOX broadcasters. Web Crossing (webcrossing.com) has been around for years and can take the blame for Salon, CNN, and the New York Times’ discussion areas.

Packages like this run into the thousands and can do almost everything you could ask for, although sophisticated web-based discussion is still their bread and butter.

Yet the same rule still applies to the big fish—each technology begets a site that looks and acts like every other site with that backend. A thread at the New York Times looks very similar to a thread at Salon, because they’re both powered by Web Crossing. Sites powered by Prospero have strikingly similar looks to them. So if your goal is to really integrate your community functionality with the content of your site (which is what I strongly recommend), even the big fish aren’t completely up to the task.

Salon’s “Table Talk” (tabletalk.salon.com) and the New York Times’ Forums (forums.nytimes.com) are both powered by Web Crossing. Again, note the similarities in the structure of these thread pages.

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