I'm involved in more groups than you can shake a stick at--in a leadership capacity in most of them. Being a web guy, I've always been struck with how poor the offerings are for managing groups--particularly within other social networks. LinkedIn, MySpace and Facebook groups do little to encourage engagement within the application beyond the join. Most are pretty inactive--a lot of missed potential if you ask me.
Why, though? Why is it that no one's been able to come out with really great group software?
Thinking about the groups I'm in gives me an answer.
Let's start with nextNY. For one, we wanted a strong brand identity, which meant the ability to control look and feel, and live at our own domain. That's pretty much why we didn't go with a Meetup group. On top of that, when we first started, we also wanted both a website and a listserv, and no site actually offered that functionality. Now, Meetup does, which is great. Still, Meetup doesn't offer the ability to post blogs from the group, which nextNY didn't even want at first. Then we realized what we really wanted wasn't just a blog, but a way to aggregate the blog posts of our members that were already being posted. Perhaps its better that Meetup didn't offer that, because offering a full fledged blogging platform when others exists seems like a waste of resources--especially to a bunch of geeks who were bent on using Wordpress anyway. Perhaps that would make more sense for a Grandmothers Meetup group in Des Moines.
We thought we wanted several types of aggregation--to aggregate events, Flickr photos, Twitter messages, links, etc. Then, we realized that the group had gotten so big that some of those things weren't as relevant. Just because someone is in the group of 1700+, doesn't necessarily mean I want their del.icio.us links or to see their Tweets. What if they're a hardcore C++ programmer? That's not so interesting to me. Well, so maybe we don't want that much aggregation.
You seeing a pattern yet? Different groups want different things.
The group of Downtown Boathouse volunteers I belong to does not want or need a discussion listserv. Most of the members already belong to paddling listservs elsewhere--no need to reinvent the wheel.
At the same time, my sports teams--also groups--need some really kick ass scheduling tools, with smart RSVPs to tell everyone when a critical mass of people has not been achieved for a game.
My group at work uses Chatterous. We love it. It's a really simple way of doing group chat where each person can have their own input mechanism. I can text from my phone or e-mail while others use Jabber--kind of like how Twitter works, but closed for a group. Does my ZogSports softball team need that, not at all?
There's a company called Wild Apricot that has a cool web service for associations and professional societies--and yet even with a targeted audience, the entrepreneur behind it told me that they have a feature request list as long as your arm.
The point is, every group is different, so the idea of one particular group software solving everyone's problem is never going to work. However, I do think there are a few things that most groups would want out of a web service:
- A customizable site to call their own, even if it just has information as to what the group does and how to sign up.
- A way to communicate internally, via a one-way or two-way listserv, depending on the group.
- A way to do RSVPs for events.
Right now, only Meetup has all those features for general kinds of groups. Sportsvite has that for sports teams. However, I'll tell you that most groups do just fine by using Eventbrite to do RSVPs and a combo of a blog or site for their group and a Google Groups or Yahoo Groups listserv for communication. It's not that hard, and besides, it's the web. Your users are going to use lots of different tools for lots of different tasks--you can't solve all of their problems, nor should you attempt to.
Still, it is sort of bewildering that functionality in Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn groups is so lacking. If any one of those companies improved their group tools, I think that could be very powerful, because they already have the networks built in.