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Indie Communities and Making Your Audience Known

It sounds ludicrous now, but back in 2014, when I cofounded Known as a startup, a lot of people were questioning whether a business even needed a website. Pockets of people - for example in the indieweb community, which I enthusiastically joined - were pointing out how short-sighted this was, but it was a minority opinion. There was Facebook and Twitter! Why would you want to have any kind of property that you fully controlled on the internet?

Fast forward to today, and most companies have seen the flaws in that argument. If your digital presence is how most of your customers find and interact with you, giving it over to some third party company with its own agenda is not going to serve you well. This morning, CNN's digital chief Meredith Artley says as much in an interview with Kara Swisher: going where your users are was a counterproductive startegy. You have to reach out to them and make spaces that they want to visit.

But my hypothesis with Known wasn't just that people would want to own their own websites again, and that we should make it as easy to publish on their own site as it is to publish on social media. It was part of it, but I had something bigger in mind.

Anyone who's building any kind of business - whether it's a media property, a brick and mortar store, a startup, or a food truck - knows that you have to understand your customers and meet their needs if you want to be successful. For most people, that means talking to them, again and again. When the New York Times first went online as part of AOL - before it even launched a website - the team took the opportunity to sit in the chat rooms and talk to people. The internet is a conversation, not a one-way broadcast medium, which the Cluetrain Manifesto tried to tell us 20 years ago. And businesses all over the world are doing their best to talk to people on social media.

But the same ownership principle applies. Just as companies realized that they need to own their online presence, they will begin realizing that the conversations they're having on third party social media platforms are templated for the benefit of those platforms. If they want to have deeper conversations, build trust and loyalty, and have a greater influence over the form of the discussion, then they need to own the conversation spaces, too. (And there's a lot to be said for not giving companies like Facebook all that insight data.)

Tools that allow companies to build their own social spaces as easily as they can build their own websites are important. It's something I learned when I built Elgg, although that platform is very bound in the desktop-based MySpace era. Anyone should be able to start a space to have a social conversation in 5 minutes, in a way that they own the data and can customize it for their needs. But while existing tools like Mighty Networks (and Slack) or forum tools like Discourse are great for what they do, there aren't any great platforms that let people actually build a site that directly fits the community they want to build. All online communities tend to look the same. If we know that the form of a converation influences its content - and it does - then it becomes clear how counter-productive a one size fits all approach really is.

And then the bigger picture is that if this idea is successful, moving from one monopolistic social network to lots of smaller communities loosely joined will make for a healthier internet.

That was the vision for Known: to let anyone build easy to use social spaces that they control, and liberate online conversation in the process. First as a startup, and now as an open source project. We were a little early, and made some (recoverable) mistakes. But it's still a mission I believe in.