I've had an online presence since December, 1990, when, late one night, I used a PCs Ltd. 286 and a 2400 baud modem to call a phone number in Sausalito, CA and sign up for an account on The Well. I'd heard about the Well a few years before while hanging around at The Other Change of Hobbitt bookstore in Berkeley, when Mike Farren told me there were a lot of good discussions there on different subjects of interest to me.
The Well was not the first online community; both CompuServe and The Source predated it, and in the late 80s and early 90s there were plenty of local bulletin boards running on no-name computers in people's living rooms, reachable by dial-up modem.
The Well was - and is - a general-purpose discussion system organized around conferences, which have focus areas such as Books, Politics, Legal, etc., etc. Within each conference, there are topics. Anyone can open or post in a topic. The Well, unlike a lot of what you see now, doesn't allow anonymity. You have to sign up using your real name, with very rare exceptions, and you can't conceal who you are when you post. A brief experiment, the Anonymous conference, died very quickly because, well, too many people decided to make fun of a few target individuals. The Well has had plenty of flame wars and scandals; people have married; others have gotten ill and died, including a few who were early adopters; members' children have been born, grown up, and graduated from college. That six-year-old I remember from a long-ago Well office party? She graduated from Stanford and we're now co-workers.
I still hang around on the Well, even though the World Wide Web has, in many senses, left it in the dust. It uses an antiquated command-line conferencing system called PicoSpan, which while not fancy or loaded with graphics is fast, flexible, and highly searchable. The conversation is superb, the members a varied and literate group. It's not the huge adventure it was in 1990, but the Well is still the first place I go for the answers to particular types of questions. Yes, there's Google, but sometimes I want information filtered through human opinion. Google can tell me the location of every car repair place in the Oakland/Berkeley area, but the Well can tell me who gives good service. And I've known most members for so long that I can calibrate their credibility easily enough. You could think of this aspect of Well membership as Yelp 1.0.
About a decade ago, when the Web had reached sufficient critical mass that businesses were taking it seriously, and it wasn't just hobbyists putting up static web pages about their own obsessions, there was a period when "online community" was a big thing. Every darn business launched its own 'community," whether it made sense or not, trying to replicate the kind of energy and sense of place that arose on the Well. I spent a couple of months moderating forums part-time for a prescription drug site called Planet Rx. The forums were health-related and a bunch of people I knew had been recruited to moderate, many of them from the Well.
I wound up resigning from the moderator position pretty quickly, for reasons having to do with management at Planet Rx. The original version of this posting said it didn't last, but I just checked, and what do you know? It's still in business, which surprises me. You might remember WebVan and the online site for buying pet food, businesses that couldn't make it on the web.
At the moment, it seems like everybody and their brothers are trying to jump on the Web 2.0 bandwagon, whether it makes sense for their business or not. Social networking sites are blooming all over the place, all hoping to either be the next Facebook or Twitter, or to pull in more interest in their business. San Francisco Classical Voice, for which I review, has launched its own discussion forums, and says on the site that it aims to be "the go-to place for classical music in the Bay Area." I bet there are discussion boards at KDFC, the immensely-popular, piss-poor classical-pops station we have to make do with around here.
So this morning's email brings word that San Francisco Symphony has started its own social networking site. You can see it at http://community.sfsymphony.org. I strolled over and took a look, and it's about what you'd expect: places to post videos, discussion forums, Ask a Musician, Alexander Barantschik talks about his famous violin, the David, etc. There aren't too many comments up in the discussion forums, and I recognize the names of pretty much everyone who has commented. (Note to SFS: get some audience members to post before the director of public relations.)
I'm just not sure what use single-organization social networking sites. In the arts world, I can see organizing around a high-passion art form like opera more readily than around a particular opera company or symphony orchestra. (See parterre box, for example, with its heady mix of technical discussion, diva-worship, and lurid gossip.)
Does SFS think that hundreds or thousands of its audience members have the time and energy to post in its forums and consume the content on the site? Will the social-networking site increase ticket sales? Does it make more sense to just have a major presence on Facebook or MySpace? Do organizations have any idea how much moderation is likely to be necessary to keep discussions focussed and nonlibelous? What breadth of commentary will be allowed? Has anyone bothered to look at the comments at the NY Times web site? They vary from smart at Paul Krugman's blog to compassionate and experience-based at The New Old Age blog to ghastly in other political commentary or whenever the words autism and vaccination appear.
I rather think that what we're seeing is the second wave of the web, and it will shake out just like the Web 1.0 flurry of community sites did. Some social networking sites with take off and thrive; most will collapse or be abandoned or semi-abandoned. Organizations will invest tons of money but won't necessarily see a lot of return. For one thing, they're a little late to the party, and many heavy web users are already overloaded. I can't keep up with reading all the worthwhile classical music blogs; I haven't touched Twitter; and I certainly haven't got time to read social networking sites for every arts organization I care about.