Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Bringing the Village Commons Online

At my first arrival to I wasn't quite sure of the website's focus. A venture into the site's About page explains that its "name comes from the idea of a village commons, a place for news, talk, debate, and some entertainment, too, that's open to everyone." I believe the idea of a physical village commons has dissolved in the age of Internet where information is always at the click of a finger; however, the concept of reviving this traditional outlet sparked my interest. I thought I would find lively debates about political candidates, discussions of recent performances at the Overture, and a place to engage with community members about Madison- or neighborhood-specific issues. While this appears to be the ideal of MadisonCommons, it is lacking in multiple areas that prevent it from reaching these goals. Regardless, the website still holds promise--especially with its pending renovations.

For example, the incorporation of social media could drastically change this site. Firstly, the ability to share content through different social media outlets would not only increase the visibility of MadisonCommons but would likely draw more traffic to the site. Currently the site only supports sharing blogs or stories via Digg. While this is a good start, incorporating sharing options for the social media titans Facebook and Twitter would instantly bring the site into the Web 2.0 age. Without these sharing options, community members are unlikely to stumble upon--another good sharing option by the way--the website on their own. That is not to say that the site doesn't already appear in Google searches. In fact, one comment on a blog post about "Woodman's commercials" explained that the user was directed to MadisonCommons through a Google search.

Secondly, setting up a Facebook page for MadisonCommons would provide a gateway directing community members to the site. Also, Facebook's newest Groups feature--released today--could be utilized to increase community interaction by allowing community members to instantly interact with their neighbors through posts on the group wall as well as through the new group IM capabilities. For instance, if you wanted to know if anyone in your community would be interested in a neighborhood yard sale you could easily Facebook IM everyone in the community to see if they would want to participate. MadisonCommons could even create separate Groups for each neighborhood for this function if enough people from each neighborhood participated.

Thirdly, sharing new blog posts or news items via a Twitter account would allow interested parties to keep up with MadisonCommons and other active community members.

While MadisonCommons current Maps are a gem in their website--everything from gas prices by location to a Universe of interactive keywords--incorporating Foursquare could improve the site's reach. Using Foursquare's "add this place to my Foursquare" to suggest important places to visit in Madison would be useful for Foursquare users. Also, the MadStubs could incorporate this function for its location-based blog posts.

Finally, I noticed a distinct lack of video on the site. While posting videos to accompany stories may be too time-consuming for some community members or even the staff, they would be another gateway to the website and an entertaining reason to stay. Even a weekly video blog by one of the contributors could make a big difference.

Another major issue I had with the site was its commenting system. Commenters on the blogs were not required to login. While this was most likely an active choice by the creators of the site to encourage more participation, it may in fact have the exact opposite effect. The lack of accountability to an anonymous post could spark more freedom in the commenter's speech but at what cost? One of the major concepts of the village commons was always direct accountability for speech. If you had something to say, you said it and everyone knew how you stood on the issue. This allows for a feeling of community because you feel responsible to be respectful of other ideas even though they might not align with your own. I believe that if MadisonCommons hopes to bring this community feel to its online commons it has to require commenters to log in. Moreover, requiring log-in would encourage more interaction and information sharing with the site in general.

[On a side note, it is odd and confusing that the newest comments to rise to the top of the comments list because it blocks interaction by confusing users as to how the discussion on a certain blog post developed.]

Two commenters on one specific blog post criticize the site for its failure to monitor "accuracy and content" and its unmoderated forum. If the commons hopes to address such concerns it might need to more clearly establish itself as a community project and open "wiki"-like collaborative effort. On the other hand, if the journalistic clarity of the site's reporting ranks more important to the site creators they might increase monitoring efforts.

While it might seem I completely dismantled and disliked all of the MadisonCommons, that could not be further from the truth. Let's look at some of the great things that MadisonCommons is already doing such as the terrific CommonsMaps I've already mentioned.

Even though the site lacks interactivity through outside social media outlets, it does a great job of offering interactivity within the site. For example, the poll on the lefthand sidebar of the site engages community members with an important issue and allows them to see how their feelings compare to other community members' feelings. Also the site's CommonQuiz draws users to test their knowledge of the Madison community while encouraging them to learn about the community in the process. Offering the reward of making it on the Commons Quiz Honor Roll is another enticing/challenging for users to participate.

Although I previously bashed the site's lack of ability to keep community member up-to-date with community content (read: lack of social media), the site does offer visiters the opportunity to have updates sent to them via RSS feed. Twitter might be the RSS of the site's possible younger audience, but many people rely on RSS feeds via email for their daily news.

A comment on one of the blog posts regarding a spray paint artist demonstrates the possibilities for establishing connections with community members. The blog poster mentioned the artist's work in passing and the artist commented with his thanks as well as a way interested community members could contact him. I believe that this ability to connect with other community members is a main goal of this site, and while it was only met on a small scale, I think that the site holds great potential in this regard.

Another promising area of the site is its issues discussions. If more people participated by sharing their opinions regarding community problems such as the adoption of city bus wraps, this area would be an ideal place for community leaders to gauge public sentiment and organize proper petitions or social movements to effect change.

Lastly, the site does a great job of uniting people with a general love of Madison and its community. The words of one blogger writing her goodbye to Madison honors this sentiment best:

Dear Madison,

It's not you... it's me...

Now don’t get jealous of New York, or D.C. or Minneapolis. You and I know that what we have had together can never be replaced. They can never be what you were to me.
But I must move on. It will be scary for both of us, but we can get through it. Don’t call. It will just make things harder. I will come back when I am ready.
Please don’t forget about me . . . don't forget about us.

I love you, xoxoxox

What do you think? Could these changes save the MadisonCommons? Would the site be something you would participate in regularly? Is it really Nancy or was she just trying to let Madison down easy?


  1. I think that new media would greatly enhance this website. When I went to the website, I was immediately confused and a little bored. There seemed to be a lot of text going on in all different places mixed with boring colors and a seemingly juvenile template and I kind of immediately lost interest. However, I think you're right in saying that adding social media would enhance this site greatly. It would make it more interactive and vibrant, which I don't get out of it now. I might be more likely to stumble upon it as I live in Madison and learn what it can do for me. It would greatly increase its traffic but also increase the time spent on the website. If there was a better way for me to spend my time on the website, rather than reading articles only then to comment if I want or vote in a poll, I might be more likely to visit and use the website.

  2. I agree with a lot of Jesse's feedback. Using social media could greatly improve the sites ability to connect and interact with people in the Madison area. Before that can be a successful addition though, MadisonCommons must post new content more often. While perusing the site, I immediately wanted to read about my neighborhood. I clicked "Isthmus" on the top left sidebar, then "UW Campus." To my disappointment, all of the articles were from 2007 except for two, one from 2008 and one from 2009. This is a huge turn off for me - if I'm going to use this site for information, I want to know that the information I'm reading is current. I checked around some of the other neighborhoods and they also had old content.

    If I had found MadisonCommons on my own, I may have stopped there. But for the purpose of this class, I kept searching. I clicked on some of the issues in the middle of the left sidebar. They too had information primarily from 2007 and 2008. If MadisonCommons wants to provide people with news and information, they should make sure that content is being updated on a regular basis. If not, maybe instead of it being news/blog style with dates, it could be (as Jesse suggested) Wiki-style and content/information based without the dated "story/post" format.

  3. I certainly agree that social media is the key to MadisonCommon's success. In this day and age, if you are not on a social networking site, you're probably not on the Internet. Social networking is the ultimate channel for user generated content and holds the potential for growth than any other content on the web. Our media ecosystem has certainly changed and today's model is more collaborative, customized, and shared. If MadisonCommon's site appears to be so outdated, it certainly needs more help from users. I think a log in would be a great idea so that the site doesn't become flooded with junk, but that's not to say that users don't have the ability to provide informational and important news. Just look at Twitter. While it's not even structured to be a news source, the article we read in class revealed that some people have even stopped tapping into real news sites because Twitter users post everything they need to know from world news to regional happenings. They get everything they need to know about the world and society from their friends online. So many social networking possibilities are out there — from adding wiki, to Facebook, to blog posts, to Linkedin, to OpenSocial, and many, many more. Content sharing is also critical because it is another way to stimulate interactivity. Though Flickr didn't seem to work out for MadisonCommons, they could attempt to share content using other sources such as Youtube, allowing users to upload videos easily. Widgets have also become popular because users can pass widgets onto their friends. Seem's like social networking isn't child's play anymore, and it has become a key to driving online success. If theres no activity, the site becomes as passive as television. But if MadisonCommons can really create a custom online community with unique assets, polls, quizzes, contests, and games, (the site seems to be moving in this direction) more users will participate and pass along this content.