I’ve been a member of online communities since before most people had heard of the internet. Before internet access had reached the masses, bulletin board systems (BBSes) allowed computers to connect, one-on-one, and form local, small versions of what we’re all now apart of.
One element of this has been the evolution of online communities, where people meet up online and interact with one another. BBSes would have message forums, which looked quite a bit like USENET, which looks quite a bit like Google / Yahoo Groups, which looks quite a bit like Reddit and its ilk. People posted, responded to posts, got angry at one another, got into flame wars, got roughly moderated, then repeated. In a previous post I talked about the inherent issues with this style of communication, which boils down to there being too many people trying to interact with one another.
A phenomena I’ve been seeing in recent years is where commercial ventures masquerade as organic, grass-roots communities. The participants will enthusiastically promote the community and post about how great it is, while a commercial interest lurks behind it trying to build value that they will eventually monetize.
I don’t have any problem with the commercial nature of such enterprises, but the deception bothers me. Selling themselves as a bunch of enthusiasts, while biding their time before opening the floodgates to advertising seems disingenuous. Users are far more willing to promote a community that they feel a shared ownership in, rather than providing free advertising for a business venture.
The real estate investing and self publishing communities each have a website that is the first thing newbies get pointed to when they’re looking for information (if you’ve spent any time in either of these communities you’ve heard of it – I’m not naming either since boosters delight in attacking anyone who critizes them). These communities encourages users to pat one another on the back and cheer about how supportive they are towards one another. The strictest policing on these is anyone who mentions an off-site resource, no mater how relevant it is. Immediately such mentions are removed and often the offender is banned. The only resources that are allowed to be mentioned are those that have paid the community owners and those owners own books, conferences, courses and other paid materials.
It’s surprising to me that the typical user in these sorts of communities don’t realize they’re in a sales channel.
Blogs and YouTube channels have similarly presented the feel of a community, while being money-making enterprises for most people who start them. I wrote for a personal finance blog years ago, and at the time most bloggers were writing just to engage with people and explore the topic they were interested in. Eventually it became clear that there was money to be made from blogging, and the nature of the community changed. Originally bloggers would happily link to one another and have discussions across their sites. As monetization became the primary focus, they expected payment for any such interactions and sites viewed one another as competitors.
My wife and I watch travel YouTubers and one channel had the goal of travelling to 100 countries. After they achieved their goal, they released a paid documentary talking about their travels and reaching their 100th country. Their viewership went insane! The YouTubers released a deeply apologetic video, but ever since there have been devoted haters who spend tons of time denouncing them online. On the one hand, I feel like they had every right to release their content however they wanted and there’s nothing wrong with a paid documentary at the conclusion. It also seems weird when people devote themselves to endlessly critizing someone, it seems like strange obsession. On the other hand, viewers clearly felt they were more than potential customers. They felt a part of the community and a connection with the content creators, and were outraged when the economic basis of their relationship was made explicit.
Ultimately, I don’t think there’s anything that should be illegal about pretending a sales channel is a group of friends. I also understand that people don’t like it when they realize they’ve been tricked. It feels like a friend wanting to meet up for coffee who suddenly pitches you on a multi-level marketing scheme.