When the web first got started (it seems so long ago, but we are only talking a few years), everyone was talking about Community. The notion was that having a place to hang your HTML would foster a sense of belonging or purpose as well as serve as a way to attract visitors to your site and keep them coming back for more. That was the idea, anyway.
But a very different kind of community is being used by some of the better web sites these days. Rather that create the electronic equivalent of a "be-in" (for those of you too young to remember, these were mass rallys of the 60's to increase awareness of The Issues), this new notion of community works from the outside in. Sites make extensive use of personalization and data-driven webs to attract and keep visitors. Here are three examples:
Those of you that have tried to price cellular plans know that it isn't easy: while it is nice to have choices, the market is far too confusing for anyone to make much sense of it all. I recently spent the better part of a morning to try to help my mother-in-law buy a phone and pick a plan. I limited myself to a single shopping mall in suburban Virginia -- there were no fewer than 10 different retail outlets to buy phones and sign up for service. The kicker for me was getting what I thought was the same carrier's brochure from two different stores -- only to find that the prices inside the brochure were different!
So wirelessdimension serves a good purpose by cutting through the confusion surrounding the different cellular options. It isn't perfect: they don't yet provide information on roaming areas nor do they list roaming surcharges (which can add up to quite a bit of dough if you travel), although the company assures me they are working on these enhancements.
The second site, Chemical Scorecard, also speaks towards reducing the data clutter. They help those of us concerned about what is being dumped into our backyards. In addition to searching the Superfund and other federal databases, the site has some nifty features where you can send form letters to the offending corporate officials.
Finally, IP xStream puts together a great deal of information about IP Telephony issues, including the progress of standards, listings of net-based resources, and various regulations around the world concerning voice over IP. The site also has a subscription service where visitors can sign up and receive the latest news via email, similar to my own modest efforts here with Web Informant.
All three sites are very different, but they accomplish some of the same goals: they allow visitors to quickly find information, and make it easy to do so in a way that is personal or speaks to one's particular circumstances. For example, if you want to search for a cellular plan or find out the largest local polluter, you can quickly focus in on a particular metropolitan area. The cellular site shows instantly the results of your criteria, so you can decide whether you have too few or too many choices to pick from, and you can compare service plans side by side on screen or print them out.
As I said earlier, this is a very different notion of community from what we were all predicting back in the early days of the web. Sure, there are plenty of sites that offer up chat rooms or discussion forums, and these have some attraction and draw. But being able to personalize a site and find the relevant information that meets your own needs is a powerful tool, and one that will motivate me to come back for further exploration.
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