In my day job, I've been working with a Silicon Valley start-up, eCairn, which provides a tool for mapping online communities. You feed in some information about the type of community you want to map (biotech, cloud computing, "mommy bloggers," film fans, etc.), and they chart the connections among members of this community.
The proof, in this case, is in the picture: among other kinds of output, eCairn provides a social networking diagram of the community. Normally, the community breaks down into clusters around particular topics or especially influential sites. For example, while software developers might be interested in a lot of topics, social media sites about software development clump together around open source, Agile development, user experience (UX), and other topics. (Click the thumbnail to the right if you want to see the bigger version of the network diagram for that community.) If you're part of the Agile sub-community, you might be one of many people who link to Alistair Cockburn's personal site, since he's a well known and highly respected Agile thinker and practitioner.
Communities vary in their "network topology." Some may cluster more, on average, around influential people. Others don't. Some may have lots of clusters of sub-communities, while others may only have two or three. But it's rare to see a community in which one site is truly central. The boardgame community is that exception.
"Degrees of separation" shapes network topology. What I've shown you so far is a picture of the boardgame community, including up to three degrees of separation among sites. Normally, when communities break down into clusters, ratcheting down the connections leads to a much different landscape. The clusters become more distinct, and the threads connecting them shrink. If, for example, I'm a Java developer, I might link to a person who links to a person who's a Microsoft .Net developer, but you won't see that connection at all if I limit the picture to one degree of separation.
The only thing this type of diagram lacks is the quality of connections. Does someone mention another site in passing, or are they linking to it on a daily basis? This information exists in a separate report, and once again, BGG appears central. People talk about BGG a lot, and link to content on it at a much higher rate than to other sites.
WHY CONSIMWORLD ISN'T A HUB
The network diagram is equally interesting for what doesn't appear in it. For example, there are plenty of sites about wargames, but Consimworld, a community site dedicated to wargames, isn't a hub like BGG. Consimworld antedates BGG, and it has a very active community within the confines of its site. However, it doesn't appear to have a larger presence outside its own boundaries.
Here's my seat-of-the-pants analysis of why that's the case:
- Usability. I've heard people defend CW's usability, and frankly, I'm not convinced. BGG organizes content in a clear way, including discussion threads. CW packs all discussions about a particular game, or game company, or type of game into one continuous thread, often containing thousands of posts. Consequently, CW doesn't attract new users as readily as BGG.
- Linkability. CW's amorphous structure makes it difficult to link to any content in it. Almost by definition, therefore, you won't find the same network of connections between it and other sites.
- Insularity. CW's value depends on how much you're willing to invest in using the site on a regular basis. While BGG may have its share of trolls (see practically any negative review of a game published by Fantasy Flight), the structure of CW makes it unattractive to new or casual users, even when everyone is being nice. There's a wee bit of cliquishness that creeps into discussions there, too. (Something that, several years ago, made me stop following the ASL forum on CW.)
- User-generated content. BGG is not only a place for discussions, but also for user-generated content about boardgames. They're easy to spot, right there in the files section, where you can take your pick of player aids, rules summaries, tutorials, add-ons, and other valuable content that other BGG users have uploaded. CW doesn't serve that function.
I know that fans of CW will take issue with my characterization of the site, but I'm hardly the only person to have this reaction to CW. In fact, the defenders of CW almost make the very point that the critics sometimes make: If you're willing to invest the time hanging around the site, you'll probably get some value out of it. However, BGG rewards both casual and dedicated users.
Covering the spread of users is important, if you want your site to increase in prominence. In my day job, we've done a lot of work at Forrester Research on the different ways in which people use social media, for both personal and business reasons. Some people are pre-disposed to be "joiners," who get big psychic or career benefits from connecting to other people and hanging around on the same electronic street corner together. Others who may be voracious consumers of social media, or producers of social media content, aren't necessarily joiners.
You don't have to be a joiner to create a sense of investment in a social media site like BGG or CW. People normally treat blogs, community sites, and social networking sites as a framework for discussions. However, they're also a forum for both creating and consuming other things of value. While usability issues certainly impair CW, this sense of investment is another reason why BGG has been the more successful site. CW is like a local bar, where you have to get to know the regulars to strike up an interesting conversation. BGG is more like a flea market, where you can both offer and receive items of value, that also has an area for eating, drinking, and conversation in the middle of it. And because it appears more open, people who are not there at the moment are more willing to steer someone in its direction.
Of course, the regulars at CW feel as though the site is a success -- which is true, in the very compartmentalized model of community on which CW is based. However, CW is never going to be a hub for the larger boardgaming community, or even the larger wargaming community, in the way that BGG is.