Thursday, April 15, 2010

Enabling a Mobile Friendly Community

With the help of an extremely talented team of designer, web architect, community visionary and marketing gurus, I've introduced J-Net community members to a new mobile UI from Lithium. It's certainly very encouraging to see a large number of positive comments and praises from our community members. To me, the enthusiasm we saw really validated the media convergence movement to the "three screen and a cloud" vision. As a community manager, it is extremely satisfying to roll out a well received feature that truly helps our community members engage and collaborate more, with a "cool factor" to boot.

The advantages to having a mobile enabled community are fairly obvious, but the consequences of making the wrong mobile decision can have long term negative effects. After all, we have *one* opportunity to do it right when it comes to gaining time share on the second screen folks look at the most. A problematic deployment would have discouraged users from accessing our community via mobile device, and it will be difficult to gain trust and momentum with a second attempt. The new Lithium mobile platforms offers quite a few bells and whistles, but following are two primary reasons why I think Lithium's "got it" when it comes to community mobile UI:

1. Clearly, device agnostic solutions are the wave of the future. While we could have taken the app store route and developed a community app for the most popular mobile device, we would have ended up with a large number of disappointed users complaining about cross platform support. Developing an app for multiple mobile platforms and maintaining multiple versions of the app would've certainly been an unwise investment and a capital drain. Granted, mobile apps have their places in this world. However, there is already a powerful application that takes online discussion data from a community databases and render them according to device screen/capabilities: it's the mobile web browser. Lithium's device detection feature renders outputs according to device/browser sizes and capabilities, and it is a much more scalable solution compared to custom apps.

2. Simplicity and functionality. Lithium's UI designers have created a page layout that is light yet functional. There are no excessive images and codes to load, yet most key functions are available. With the mobile UI, we are allowing our community members to gain productivity with pockets of time previously wasted (waiting in line for coffee, train and bus rides...etc). It's not aimed at replacing or competing with PC screens (not with the current generation of smart phones anyway). Lithium's implementation has the right balance between functionality and simplicity. This elegant solution allows our community members to participate in forums and blogs, while saving some of the less frequently accessed features for the desktop UI.

We are now on the 4th day after the mobile UI launch, so far everything seems to be working fairly smoothly. Is this mobile UI perfect? Of course not. As with all new technology implementations, there are always a few minor glitches. The key is that these minor issues do not degrade user experience, and I am confident they will be patched in future releases. We've ran a few contests soliciting user comments as well as screenshots/photos, and the response has been very enthusiastic. Although I sincerely appreciate all of the positive praises, my favorite user comment cuts to the chase, and it really gave me a good chuckle:

Ain't that the truth in today's hyper connected world ;-)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

From Online Anarchy to Online Censorship - On Engadget's Comment Firestorm

You've heard the mantra beaten to death by almost all social media experts, scholars and practitioners: transparency, transparency, and even more transparency. After all, the holy grail of social media in the business world is to let your customers and partners voice their real concerns and opinions, right? We've been told by all the social media revolutionaries that censorship is old school stupidity, and opening the floodgate for the digital comment assault is what an "enlightened" business professional would do.

A few days ago, a coworker IMed me this url and snickered "so much for transparency!". Looks like Engadget finally couldn't take any more of this wonderful transparency preached by every social media visionary. Is Engadget finally caving into the dark side? Are they now just steps away from communism and complete social media fail? After all, if you take all of the "transparency" advise very literally, you may think it's a netizen's God given right to speak their mind freely, no matter how abusive the language. A quick look at some of the media outlet comment threads and Fortune 500 companies' social media properties reveals that this "hands off" approach to online conversation is widely practiced. Comments that would get one fired from a corporate job are regularly posted in YouTube and Facebook comment threads.

So just exactly what is the right way to look at online conversation moderation? Is the complete hands off approach the way to go? In the real world, although we are free to say almost anything we want, social consequences prevent us from having a completely unfiltered stream of consciousness coming out of our mouth. Once we move to the online world, however, the "online disinhibition effect" can drastically change how many of us behave. While this could empower one to express true opinions without the fear of social retribution, it could also lead to a deterioration in communication, resulting in emotionally charged rants filled with noise. Online communities managers have known this for decades, and the approach to handling this problem has varied widely since the days of dial-up BBS. Despite the differences in approach, I think one thing all seasoned community managers can agree on is the danger of the "broken window" theory. If you leave a virtual community unattended, there's a good chance that it will soon be overrun by trolls, potentially even establishing a rogue social hierarchy, transferring control of the community to rogue members.

So did Engadget do the right thing by turning off comment? Personally I believe something had to be done, but the jury may still be out on the best approach to online conversation moderation. Gary Marshall from did a great write-up on the complete story of what had happened to Engadget. Is community based moderation (comment voting/rating practiced by & YouTube) the answer? Or do businesses need to control the directions of the conversations with very active moderating teams? What ever the answer may be, one thing is for sure: as we rely more and more on social networks and online forums to communicate, the Engadget user comment issue (in effect, a community management issue) is only tip of the iceberg for the number of online community challenges businesses will face in the near future.