WordPress Multi User and ad hoc communities

May 30, 2009 | 4 comments

The emerging news out of WordCamp 2009 in San Francisco is that WordPress and its Multi User cousin are to merge into one product (further discussion). This makes a ton of sense, and makes it even easier to create a community of blogs. I’m looking forward to this – I could keep my main blog at benwerd.com focused on technology, as it is now, but start a separate blog about my hometown at oxford.benwerd.com, using the same installation. Not a bad deal.

Of course, Automattic also own Andy Peatling’s BuddyPress, which is fast becoming a solid competitor in the open source social networking market. I’ve seen people have some installation difficulties with it (it’s apparently been simplified to a 13 step process), so it would make some sense to include it as an optional piece of functionality out of the box. But most importantly, I think there’s a change in progress, illustrated by the Google Wave announcement yesterday but not represented in this announcement.

Communities are forming around users, not users around communities.

In the web application model we’ve been using for the last fifteen years or so, you would install a piece of facilitative software in order to create a web community. That might be forum software or Microsoft Sharepoint depending on needs and context, but they’re both centralized communities. The user visits them to log in and participate; users swarm around a single community access point.

However, consider Skype. It’s not a web tool, but it’s often considered to be one of the new breed of applications. When you want to share something here, a community is automatically created between users, who can then have text discussions, call each other and share files – not dissimilar activities to those you might find on centralized communities like Sharepoint, but with the following advantages:

  • It’s transient: there’s no need for the community to exist for longer than it has to.
  • There’s no effort involved. Once you’re done with a community, you simply close the communication (but a backup is typically kept, so you can come back and reference the activity).
  • It’s private: it’s very hard to share activity with the wrong people.
  • It’s decentralized: the community is physically hosted between all the involved parties.

Google Wave also shares all these characteristics, and we’re going to see similar functionality crop up in a host of applications over the next year or two. The reason is simple: it’s a better way to communicate communally.

Of course, blogs are usually public entities, and in that sense WordPress Multi User does its job. But it’s tough keeping track of comment discussions, and there’s no elegant way to have a private, communal blog – something that intranet software needs and that tools like Elgg have done very well for years (disclaimer: I co-founded it). But even that sticks to a centralized model, and eventually, those ad hoc, transient communities are going to be everywhere. It’s going to be interesting to see how tools like WordPress evolve to cope.