CompuServe, Prodigy et al.: What Web 2.0 can learn from Online 1.0

These old-school online services may be shadows of their former selves, but they have a lot to teach today's online communities.

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Lessons learned

So what can the online services of old teach the online communities of today? Here are some truths universally acknowledged:

Give them something worth coming back for

In a 2008 USA Today interview, bSocial Network's Bill Eager identified about 850 active social networks and predicted there would be a quarter of a million within the year. With that kind of competition, it's inevitable that many of today's social networks will go the way of The Source and GEnie.

Tharon Howard, a professor at Clemson University who specializes in sustainable social communities, believes that to prevail, social networking sites must reward their members at a fundamental level. "People need to believe that they will obtain some return on the investment of their time and energy," says Howard. "Remuneration doesn't need to be financial; it needs to satisfy some basic, psychological or emotional need. With World of Warcraft [an online game played with thousands of other participants], entertainment is the reward. And don't underestimate the sense of achievement [users] get from filling LinkedIn's completion percentage bar."

Encourage true self expression

Right from its start in the mid-'80s, the online community known as the WELL had one of the best-defined policies about self expression, and it came in slogan form: You Own Your Own Words. YOYOW was a double-edged sword: There was no fear that the WELL would try to claim ownership over your intellectual property, but you were also responsible for what you said. On the WELL, anybody could trace your real name, so the iconic New Yorker cartoon "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog" didn't apply.

Howard Rheingold (an early WELL host) described the attraction of owning your own words from his first experience of the WELL in 1985: "Writing as a performing art! I was hooked in minutes." (As a counterpoint, Rheingold described his wife's reaction in his book The Virtual Community: "intelligent misfits...having a high old time." Both descriptions define the appeal of a successful online community.)

Too bad Facebook didn't follow the WELL's lead. In early 2009, Facebook angered users with its new terms of service that seemed to indicate that it owned users' content -- forever. Its reaction to the consumer backlash was an object lesson in damage control.

First, the company backed off the clauses that sparked the revolt, then it set up a group called Facebook Bill of Rights and Responsibilities to allow its members free and open discussion of the issue. A couple months later, Facebook agreed to let users help decide what the terms of service should be, and the new terms were voted in by Facebook users in April.

Use veto powers judiciously

If members of any community, online or otherwise, don't play nice, someone has to bring them into line. It's best if a community polices itself, but in every playground scuffle, the teacher has to get involved sooner or later.

AOL in particular got lambasted for overdoing it in the mid-1990s, which led subscriber David Cassel to spearhead a counter-AOL movement called, inevitably, AOL Sucks. "Your service can be revoked if you say certain words in public chat rooms," Cassel observed in a posting to the newsgroup in 1996. "Anyone seeing you use such a word can page an AOL Guide, who will appear in the room to monitor its content within 5 minutes. This has been used by ultra-conservatives that taunt gay users into using profanity, then summon a guide to get their access revoked."

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