A couple of posts ago, I wrote about how Yelp, Slashdot and Wikipedia reward their members for contributing good content with stars, karma points, and increased status, all benefits reserved just for their registered members. All three communities, however, share the benefits of what they do with the general public. You don’t have to contribute a single edit to a Wikipedia entry to read all the entries you want. You don’t have to register to read Yelp reviews, nor to read Slashdot news. For Wikipedia and Slashdot, you don’t even have to register to edit/make a comment. You can do it anonymously.
In other communities, however, those who want to benefit from the community must also give back to the community.
Credit unions, for example, have benefits for their members and their members only. Credit unions and banks offer a lot of the same services – accounts, mortgages, and other loans – but they often do so on better terms than banks do. However, while a bank will offer a mortgage to a person who does not have an account at that bank, a credit union will provide services only to credit union members.
It is a quid pro quo deal – the credit union member opens an account and the credit union provides services in return.
A more particular example is the Park Slope Food Coop, a cooperative grocery store to which I belong. Many food coops operate on multiple levels of access and benefits. Non-members can shop, but may not get as big a discount as members. Those who want to be members can choose to pay a fee or to volunteer their time. The Park Slope Food Coop eliminates all those choices – you have to be a member to shop, and you have to work to be a member. Every member of the Coop is required to work 2 hours and 45 minutes every 4 weeks. The exact requirement can vary depending on the type of work you sign up for, and the kind of work schedule you have, but that work requirement exists for every single adult member of the Coop. In return, you get access to the Coop’s very fresh and varied produce and goods, often of higher quality and at lower prices than other local stores.
Again, it’s quid pro quo, members work and they get access to food in return.
This is not to suggest that the arrangement members of credit unions and the Coop are acting in a mercenary way. Quid pro quo doesn’t just mean “you scratch my back, I scratch yours.” It means you do something and get something of equal value in return.
There are some real advantages to limiting benefits for community members and community members only.
The incentive to join is clear. The community is often more tight-knit. Most of all, there is no conflict of interest between what’s good for the community and what’s good for the members. A bank serves its customers but it has an incentive to make money that goes beyond protecting its customers. Credit unions were not untouched by the financial crisis, but they were certainly not as entangled as commercial banks and are considered good places still to get loans if you have good credit.
There are also real disadvantages.
As both examples make clear, such communities tend to be small and local. The Coop has more than 12,000 members, a lot for a physically small space, but nowhere close to the numbers that visit large supermarkets. Credit unions boast that they serve 186 million people worldwide, but any particular credit union is much smaller. Even the credit union associated with an employer as large as Microsoft is nowhere near as large as a national bank. It’s difficult to scale the benefits of a credit union up.
Even if the group is kept small, the costs of monitoring this kind of community are obviously high. In an organization like the Coop, someone needs to make sure everyone is doing their fair share of the work. Stories about being suspended, applying for “amnesty,” and trying to hide spouses and partners abound. The Coop is the grocery store non-members love to hate and a favorite subject in local media, with stories popping up every couple of years with headlines like, “Won’t Work for Food: Horror Stories of the World’s Largest Member-Owned Cooperative Grocery Store” and “Flunking Out at the Coop.”
Personally, I think the Coop functions surprisingly well, proven by its relative longevity among cooperative endeavors, but it’s certainly not a utopian grocery store where people hold hands and sing “Kumbaya” over artichokes.
Notably, both examples are also communities that mainly operate offline. The Internet with its ethos of openness generally doesn’t favor sites that limit access only to members. Registered users may need to log on to view their personal accounts, but few sites really limit the benefits of the site to members alone.
So is there any online community that limits the benefits of the community as strictly to members as my two offline examples?
The first example I could come up with was Facebook, and it’s actually a terrible one. Facebook’s been all over the news for the changes that make its users’ information more publicly available, and new sites like Openbook are making obvious how public that information is. At the same time, though, that public-ness is still not that obvious to the average Facebook user. Information is primarily being accessed by third party partners (like Pandora), other sites using Facebook’s Open Graph, and other Facebook users (Community Pages, Like buttons across the Internet). Facebook profiles can show up in public search results, but when you go to facebook.com, the first thing you see is a wall. If you register, you can use Facebook. If not, you can’t.
Facebook is perhaps most accurately an example of a community that looks closed but isn’t. As danah boyd points out,
If Facebook wanted radical transparency, they could communicate to users every single person and entity who can see their content…When people think “friends-of-friends” they don’t think about all of the types of people that their friends might link to; they think of the people that their friends would bring to a dinner party if they were to host it. When they think of everyone, they think of individual people who might have an interest in them, not 3rd party services who want to monetize or redistribute their data. Users have no sense of how their data is being used and Facebook is not radically transparent about what that data is used for. Quite the opposite. Convolution works. It keeps the press out.
In a way, it shouldn’t surprise us that Facebook is pushing information public. Its whole economic model is based on information, not on providing a service to its users.
Which leads me to the one good example of an online community where you really have to join to benefit — online dating sites. Match.com, eHarmony, OKCupid — none of them let you look at other members’ profiles before you join. OkCupid is free, but the others rely on an economic model of subscriptions, not advertising.
It seems dating is in that narrow realm of things people are willing to pay for on the Internet.
So I’m left wondering, is it possible to set up a free, large-scale, online community where benefits are limited to its members? What are the other costs and benefits of a community where you have to give to get? Closed versus open? And do the benefits outweigh the costs?