Could Niche Web Communities Come Back?


There’s an adage that says everything is cyclical. You can see examples of it everywhere. Things like fashion, music, and books all come back into the mainstream after some time away.

The web is finally old enough to see the return of some trends. Brutalist design is a prime example. Web designers spent years building increasingly complex layouts. But many have gone back to the basics in recent times.

I’m wondering if we’ll see the same thing happen with online communities. Years ago, we built niche sites that catered to a specific group. We installed forums (shout out to phpBB), opened our blogs to comments, and tried to stake out a little corner of cyberspace.

Social media changed all of that. Communities began moving to larger, proprietary platforms. The likes of Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit have become places to meet and discuss hot topics.

The move made sense at the time. Access to powerful servers, globalized networks, and providers that handled moderation (to a degree, anyway). Why would we ever go back to the way it was?

Well, recent events have made me long for those good old days. Here’s why I’d like to see a return of niche web communities. That is, with some modern conveniences.

We’re Subject to the Whims of Companies

Everything is great on social media – until it isn’t. Social media companies can change policies (or, ahem, ownership) at any time. And too bad if you don’t like the results. Users have zero control.

Twitter has become the poster child for what can go wrong. The reduction of content moderation staff means slower responses to harmful behavior. Meanwhile, the platform’s user verification policies have been turned on their head.

And Facebook causes its share of headaches as well. Algorithm changes have made it harder to see posts from Groups in your main feed. Plus, I believe that the Groups feature is becoming more cumbersome to use. The service shows what it thinks I want to see. It rarely guesses correctly.

Sadly, users appear to be low on the priority list. Shareholders and overzealous billionaires get top billing. The rest of us are an afterthought.

A web-based niche community can put users first. Stakeholders may not have complete control of the experience. Much depends on the platform being used. But there’s a better chance for stability and sustainability.

Social media platforms can change their policies at any time.

Users Don’t Have an Ownership Stake

Let’s say that you’ve decided to leave Twitter. Good for you! But what happens to your tweets?

You can’t simply import them to Mastodon or a similar service. You’ll have to start from scratch. That’s especially painful if you value any of the content or interactions you had.

But open-source tools like WordPress don’t lock you in. You own the content you post. And the site’s data is portable.

This means that you can move to a new host or redesign your website without losing anything. In addition, you’re not reliant on finicky APIs that can go down or start charging money at any time.

Proprietary social platforms can lock you in.

How Does a Modern Web Community Look?

There’s a reason why so many people abandoned the idea of web-based communities. Social media was easier. It did much of the dirty work for us. All we had to do was show up and start making connections.

At the same time, building and managing community-based websites was not easy in the 2000s. The tools at our disposal lacked cohesiveness. You could have, say, a website and a forum. But tying them together wasn’t a simple process.

That’s no longer the case. New tools and protocols can solve many of the previous generation’s pain points. With that, here’s how a modern web community could look:

It Runs on a Single Platform

It’s now possible to provide a more unified experience. Membership sites have become mainstream. Several plugins exist that make setup a breeze. You don’t need to invest a lot of money or know how to code.

In addition, other functionality can be added to suit your needs. The community can be open to the public or invite-only. Membership can be monetized or remain free. Content moderation and spam prevention tools are vastly improved.

A single WordPress login is all a user needs. They can use it to access their profile, communicate with other members, and register for events.

WordPress isn’t the only option, of course. There are plenty of platforms for community builders. But it is a natural fit for this type of site. You no longer have to cobble together a collection of unrelated tools.

It Ties in With the Fediverse

What’s the opposite of a corporately-owned platform? A decentralized network of services that can communicate with each other.

That’s what the Fediverse is all about. It encompasses larger services like Mastodon. But individual websites can also join in via the ActivityPub protocol.

Install the ActivityPub WordPress plugin, and you can automatically publish from your site to connected services. It’s like using Twitter’s API to auto-publish. But you’re not limited to that singular walled garden. Your content could go to social networks, websites (via the Friends plugin), or anywhere else that supports the protocol.

Communication is also two-way. So, when someone replies to your post on a federated service, it could also become a comment on your blog.

It sounds complex. But the result is that communities can more easily curate like-minded content. In that way, your community expands beyond your website. People can interact where they are rather than being limited to specific channels.

Mastodon is an open social media network.

It Still Uses (But Doesn’t Rely On) Social Media

None of this is to say that social media is dead. It’s still an important way to reach people. But it doesn’t have to serve as a community hub, either.

Instead, these platforms can be used to drive traffic to your website. Posting content to Facebook, Twitter, etc., increases visibility. That can help attract new members.

One positive of this approach is that you’re being self-reliant. You won’t have to depend on social’s APIs or infrastructure. Yes, you’re still beholden to their algorithms. But they’ll have a much smaller impact on your community’s day-to-day operations.

Big social networks can be used as an enhancement rather than a foundation. This allows you to take advantage of what they do best.

The Web Can Benefit Communities

Building a web-based community used to be difficult. The technical challenges of time prevented some groups from reaching their potential.

Meanwhile, the advent of social media brought renewed hope to community wranglers. But the landscape is in a constant state of upheaval. That makes it harder to maintain stability and growth.

Thus, a move back to the web makes sense. Tools like WordPress have grown by leaps and bounds. And they offer more flexibility when it comes to design and functionality.

Is this the wave of the future? We’ll see. But it’s exciting to think about what’s possible. Online communities may find a new home in a familiar place.

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