For years, I have heard that the web is becoming a platform, where one can easily use a website as a tool box. Community sites installed just with a few clicks and knowledge sharing communities are on their way. But as in most cases, there is always a hard point, and in this case is to get people involved. Although technology plays a less important role, it is still a critical factor whether people like to join and engage. Many ready-made-website fail to deliver the most important thing: To help people find stuff and help them exchange.
Technology constraints vs. user needs
Of course there are examples of simplified websites, which focus on user needs such as Gmail or Flickr. But knowledge sharing in a community is often way more complex if you have to combine different forms of media, a library of existing resources and so forth. I have tested numerous platforms and until today I have just been disappointed because each time I had certain needs and always had to put these under technology constraints. Although it should be the other way around and technology should help me make it better and easier.
Professional circles vs. passion driven communities
One big differentiation is important. I am talking here about professional communities, where people exchange about their work. These communities are much more difficult to establish. If people have a real desire to exchange ideas, for example, about their hobbies, a bizarre designed forum could work perfectly and would be more dynamic. There are many examples of dynamic communities that existed way before they were named Web2.0 or social media. To me, work related communities focus a lot on the knowledge management principle: Find the right information where and when it is needed.
Information seeking vs. engagement
I have less time. Nowadays, I can engage in so many communities, mostly when I am not even online. Why should I also join in your community? Perhaps because this community gives me the information I need: quick, easy and maybe even in high quality. From this perspective, for example, a Ning website is a disaster. Flashy, blinky things focus on a personal presentation instead of orientation, coherence and relevance. Have you ever tried to find something on a Ning website? How many communities are really active on Ning? Okay, to be fair, technology and a user centered website is one factor, but let me raise some more points:
Most of these social network websites are features loaded and focus very little on plain people to people exchange.
Although you have as a webmaster a set of options to change your network, it is not enough. You need to be able to tweak in detail to make a platform user-centered. Listen to your members and make changes according to them.
Facebook, Linkedin, etc. are great tools to network and to mobilize, but offer almost no flexibility to build a community of practice. It is the Facebook way or no way. More important these big platforms have no interest in real exchange and learning. It is not their business concept.
A questionable approach are widgets, where content is distributed all over the place. Photos here, documents there. A RSS feed is easily another information stream with little relevance.
Each community has its own culture of exchange and different requirements. It is so difficult to find the right platform for that. Instead one needs to squeeze requirements to technology constraints.
Confidentiality. Latest from Facebook, it is always a risk to give your data to such a platform. Also other platforms have a clear exit strategy for their users. You can leave easily and take your data with you.
Community develop over time. It is impossible to foresee what is needed and what not for your platform in the future. Often a wonderful list of features is tempting, but so much is not really needed later on.
If you want to make information finding for users the easiest possible way, the whole information structure behind a site becomes easily complex. The more is done through intelligently tagging in the background, the easier it becomes for users to find something.
Either you are lucky to find a service that offers you what you need or you opt for the usual stony way to build your own website. I know it is not a great alternative, but I believe we have to realize that so many web technologies are still in its infancy and we have just started to focus on the users as the center point of such technologies. I know it is not the best to shot at Ning as an example alone, but their latest turn in their payment policy shows a typical dilemma. Nobody knows where such providers are in a few years time.