Three months ago we started the Building a Better Blog Ning network. After three weeks I was still enamored with the community. Things were going well, we had a lot of new members. All was right with our little corner of the digital world.
Then we hit a wall, which I blogged about a few weeks ago. Site activity was way down and we began struggling with ways to continue to maintain the community and attract new members. We're still working on that, but now I think I see more clearly why we've hit the wall, so to speak. It's because we're an egocentric network, not an object centric network.
Egocentric and Object Centric Networks
This was actually a new one to me, that I stumbled across while reading this article from Fred Stutzman. In it he explains that egocentric networks are places like Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn. They develop around the profiles of the people who join them. Object centric networks, on the other hand, develop around interactions over digital artifacts--like Flickr, which has formed communities around photo-sharing and del.icio.us, which focuses on sharing links.
In Will Flickr and YouTube outlast Facebook and MySpace?, Josh Porter elaborates on Fred's thinking:
Fred has a lot wrapped up in here. First, the cleavage on the lines of ego vs. object. Social networking sites are ego-centric. Object-centric social sites, like Flickr, YouTube, Del.icio.us, place something else at the nodes of the network (admittedly, though, Flickr is a tough one). I have previously called this the primary pivot. The way to ascertain what type of network you’re looking at is to look at what gets the URLs…what is the primary thing being shown at the URL? In ego-centric sites it’s a profile. In object-centric sites it’s the object…
Fred also suggests, and this is one of the best ways I’ve heard this described, that this is why migration away from ego-centric sites is easier than object-centric sites. It’s because we’re not storing anything other than our identity, which we feel like we take with us when we move to a new site, right? (even though all of the info we’ve submitted to the site is lost!) But we never feel like we’re taking our photos with us when we leave…they are obviously objects we possess.
Josh concludes that our ability to handle egocentric networks is finite--we can handle only so many people in our lives. But our ability to manage object centered networks is infinite, especially when it's so easy to share digital pieces of information.
So basically what we're saying here is that when people are interacting about an object (like a photo or a video), they tend to visit and revisit the site to add more of these objects and find new ones. In an egocentric site, though, once you've put up your identity, then what do you do? Eventually you will probably get tired and move on (unless you're someone who has endless amounts of online time, like teens who are happy to spend hours on Facebook).
In thinking about our Ning network, I think that the fact that we formed the network around a common interest puts us in a funny in-between position between an object-centered network and an egocentric network. The common interest of better blogging is to some extent like an "object" for us--it pulls us together around a central theme more than might happen in a more general network. But at the same time, our profiles are a much bigger part of the community interaction than we might find in a place like Flickr. And there isn't the reason to go there to add objects that you have with a YouTube kind of network.
Another aspect of this "egocentricity" at Ning is that you have to have a network creator. In this case it was me and what I've found is that most people feel like I "own" the community somehow. Part of that is because I have the network controls, so that means I'm the one with the capability to make the most changes to the site and to send broadcast messages. But part of it is because every time you visit, there are signs everywhere that say "this network created by Michele Martin." Kind of hard to feel like the place belongs to the community when you see that plastered everywhere. And I know that I even add to this--when I first wrote this post, the first sentence started "Three months ago I started. . " not "we started"!
I'm not sure that this takes me any closer to answers about what to do, but it does explain a lot about why we're facing the challenges that we are. What thoughts on this do you have? Does it ring true?