Groups Commentary

Commenting on group technologies and services across the web

Does cross-posting make you angry?

Whether online forums such as Yahoo Groups like it or not, posting the same message across several groups is here to stay. Take for example this reference to cross-posting on the Shelbyville Times, Tennessee, where some author wants to advertise a Xbox 360 on a couple of freecycle groups. In this particular instance the blogger is questioning the merits of the post in question, asserting this actually may be a possible spammer. Whether they are or not, I would say it is common in announcement-styled groups – such as those that sell and give away items – often are subject to cross-posting.

I would also say that cross-posting can be very useful for items that have only a small audience. In the above example, I could see a great interest in an Xbox 360 and associated Wii devices. On the other hand if you want to dispose of, say a rather interesting, perhaps quirky bit of furniture then cross-posting is a critical way of finding that “one” person who likes that particular item and in whose home it will fit nicely.

Is OxfordFreecycle about to implode?

I am very interested to watch the expanding growth of OxfordFreecycle group. Right now it appears the be becoming the definitive group for freecycling around the globe. It recently broke the 20,000 member barrier and also recently broke the 5,000 posts per month barrier.

How long can growth continue. If experience is anything to go by then at some point dissatisfaction with saturation of posts will begin to hurt members and a greater percentage will become lurkers. This is what happened to London Freecycle group, which was perceived by its membership to be oversized and so related borough groups were created in a devolution process. Now it is difficult to join the London group – you have to know it exists. And therefore as an inevitable conclusion its membership and number of posts reduces over time. Just take a look at the group statistics of the number of posts on its home page.

But London’s Freecycle group never reached the dizzying heights that Oxford’s is achieving. Is this because Oxfordshire already had a strategy for devolution in place? That is it already had a Witney group, a group for Bicester and so forth. Thus people who like a big group can enjoy the benefits of that and if they don’t like it they can join a small group. In Oxfordshire many belong to both and even the contentious cross-posts are the norm on a daily basis by the “professional” poster.

What is interesting me most is how London freecyclers created a campaign voicing their opinions that the group was too large. Not so in Oxford.

My prediction is that Oxford will continue to grow. Perhaps it will break the 30,000 member barrier and perhaps it will go above the 6,000 posts per month. At the moment the brakes are off. Global interest in climate change issues will surely drive those numbers spiraling up.

Can other groups rise to this challenge, should they wish to? Other groups may be stagnating. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from the Oxford model.

Are group statistics valuable?

A posting on TechCrunch highlights a shootout between Grouply and Ning.  Grouply, as stated by its CEO Mark Robins is creating a social networking interface on top of Yahoo Groups, and in so doing is leveraging that existing huge userbase, and probably marginally attracting new members to yahoo groups.  Part of the value for this must be addressing the old-hat image of what Yahoo Groups is seen as.

Ning on the other hand provides a new platform for group activity.  The values here is that they can create new forms of networking for groups without any hindrance on old style interfaces.  So, for example, they can seamlessly add blogging into a group, whereas Grouply provides non of this “extension” functionality.

So which is better?  Surely that is the key question of anyone looking at statistics.  That is can one see a measurable that is a useful indicator of performance.

Both Ning and Grouply can be measured on site hits.  So perhaps that is one useful measure?  Well actually it isn’t.  The sad thing is that many Grouply users actually may use Grouply just the same way they use Yahoo Groups before Grouply.  That is they use it as an interface to their email system.  That is they may read about what is going on in their Yahoo Groups quite effectively without ever visiting the Grouply website, via the Grouply SmartDigest tool.  The SmartDigest is a daily summary of activity across all groups.

In total contrast to interact with Ning groups one must visit the Ning website.

How key is this point?  Well if you take ANY group, whether it be on Ning, Yahoo or Google Groups or whatever just take a look at the profile of active users versus passive members, otherwise known as lurkers.  Always in any substantial group lurkers will be in the majority.  As an example, I belong to one very active group with almost 20,000 members.  This group has around 5,000 posts per month.  So my question to you is does this activity level mean that 20,000 members are interacting?

The answer is patently no.  What is probably going on is that at any given moment there are around a couple of hundred people who are actively posting.  The rest are lurking

Does all this mean that either Ning or Grouply is far better?  Are bald site statistics helpful?  I would argue that statistics are in general a poor indicator.

Let me take a theoretical comparison elsewhere on the web.  Suppose you are a horse dealer attempting to trade high-value horses.  If each horse that you wish to trade is worth, say $100k then to make a substantial business you only need a few relevant visitors to your site every month.  They key question is are they the kind of people who are customers?  Having ten million or a hundred million hits on your website will do you little good since you can only sell the horses you have in your stables.

The key word in that paragraph is “relevant”.  As a final and annoying example just search google for something and you are likely to come across a website that is rubbish.  The website is just a list of other websites that may or may not be relevant to your search.  Often such a website address has a domain name that is long and descriptive.  We have all been there, we went to google to get an answer and all we got was links to possible answers, and often these “web pages” are just directories masking themselves as useful websites.  In my opinion they are spam since they often add no content at all and Google should block these pages out of its searches.

But Google does not block them.  And as such they get a lot of hits.  Lots of hits and useless.  You takes your choice.

What is a good group?

Many people think that a healthy group is a lot of members or perhaps a healthy group requires a lot of posts.  And some people believe both are needed.  But are they?

The website http://bestdiscussiongroups.com takes the above perspective and lists groups according to the bald statistics of number of members.  It also limits its focus on groups that are actively moderated.  This to me is a useful filter since generally unmoderated groups may be simply saturated with spammers or so-called “business opportunities.”

This brings me onto testhoopla, which is a web service that provides a paid service to analysing what it thinks are the best groups.  Sadly (imo) it seems to deem advertising groups as high-value groups.  Even if the ones it lists are not populated by spammers they, to me are very far from the best groups.

Understanding testhoopla’s strategy is quite useful, and I would certainly recommend anyone interested in group traffic analysis to learn from them, their good points and their mistakes.  On the good side their statistical theory seems comprehensively thought through and reasonably well documented.  On the bad side they have created a self-fulfilling prophesy.  That is they groups they think are good will in turn be good (by their definition).

What I mean by this is the kind of customers they seem to want are people who want to know where to advertise business opportunities, and lo-and-behold their top 10 groups just happen to be this kind of group.

So, it is all very well to criticise, but what is really good about a group.  Yes it is membership, yes it is a suitable number of posts.  But too many members means that many people end up being lurkers.

Lurkers are people who remain members but take no active part in the group.  Actually there are sub-groups of lurkers.  There are those who truly are just members and otherwise have nothing to do with the group.  Other lurkers may actually read some or all posts, but simply choose not to post.  Others may actively monitor the group for certain kind of messages.

Even if you are an active poster in a given group that does not mean that you positively contribute to the group.  Some active posters simply flame the group or its individuals.  And depending on the level of active  moderation and skill of moderators such flaming activity might go on for months.  I have seen otherwise healthy groups brought to their knees by such activity.

So a healthy group for me is neither full of lurkers, nor is it subject to serious flaming wars or floods of spam.  Also a good group is not dead.

Deadness is another aspect of group life that is not all it seems.  Group life goes through cycles.  That is periods of heavy activity and periods of quiescence.  Post-hurricane last year various groups were set up and ran effectively to support Katrina response.  Obviously that Hurricane is no more and so those groups are quiet.  Yet through that event various bondings occurred which may recur in future events.

And that to me is what good group activity is about.  It is more than the success of a particular group it is about society being supportive of some campaign or initiative.  It is a multitude of places where people can gather in large and small groups and discuss and hopefully inch forward the debate, finding common ground, agreeing to disagree.

What is a good group is a very nebulous thing.  Yes there are bald mathematical stats that can help.  But like with a “normal” website just getting traffic does not mean the website is good.  What matters in general is getting people there who appreciate what is going on and are prepared to stop by and contribute.  What matters to each person is to be able to effectively and efficiently participate in whichever way is possible, given personal time constraints.  What matters to group owners and moderators is keeping the group on an even keel and keeping it reasonably true to its roots but also allowing subtle changes of agenda over time.

Group types

“Not all groups are the same” is a total understatement.  Group owners can be very paranoid about the operation of their group, how it is configured, how it is used, and this covers aspects that are technically controllable and those that are only controlled via softer policies.

So for example, one can, as an owner, enforce most group technologies such that any new member applications have to be approved by you.  As an alternative, as an owner one could instead run a group where no such approval is necessary, excepting that the group is largely hidden from Internet searches (for example the Yahoo or Google Groups directory) and that new members are obtained via an invitation process.  As a further nuance that “invitation” could itself be distributed on the Internet for anyone, or specific target groups to access and use.
In operational matters also not all groups are identical.  For example some groups operate more as an announcement tool.  This is typically true of what may be considered as high-volume groups.  (By high-volume I mean the number of posts per day, month etc and to put some colour on that anything above say 100 posts per day should be considered as an initial ball-park for high volume, but we may come back to that subject later.)  An announcement group is one where posts are made but not generally discussed.  This may include groups where advertisements for items for sale (or for free) are made, or where perhaps press releases are made.

In contrast a discussion group truly makes use of the group as a debating forum.  This is when people perhaps openly ask a question, such as “does anyone know what happened last Wednesday at the court appearance of Joe Bloggs?”  Here there is an open invitation not only for people to comment on the facts at hand but also express opinions.  Further to that people often disagree about what is a fact and what is an opinion and so such debate can often escalate, even emotionally.

Welcome

Welcome to my Groups commentary. The world of groups is an ever expanding phenomenon.  I have not yet found a decent summary about the virtual communities, how they operate, why they exist and so on and so forth.  That is in part what I hope that this Groups Commentary will become. Over time I hope it will be seen as a resource for those interested in the subject, perhaps as background research, perhaps as a way of finding good resources on the subject, perhaps as a way for prospective owners to improve their skills or even justify the immense time they put into groups – for free.

Whatever this commentary becomes I hope it is not stagnant in its thinking.