Fragmentation and the Failure of the Web

What makes an on-line community?  In the past two weeks I have received announcements of three new “communities” all interested in using open-source software to retrieve, share, and analyze data from or about governments.  Most of these announcements say the same thing: “A lot people seem to be working on this, but they aren’t talking to each other.”  Each group has a slightly different slant, but in my mind I lump them all under the heading “Semantic Government,” i.e. building the semantic web for government data.

I started casting out a few search queries, and quickly compiled a list of eight different mailing lists and/or wikis devoted to this subject.  That doesn’t include for-profits like Justia.com or larger non-profits like the Sunlight Foundation.

This is a problem.  Not only do I have to subscribe to half a dozen mailing lists to keep abreast of what others are doing, I also have to cross-post to several lists when I want to announce something myself.  So far, nothing I have posted to these lists has garnered as much response as private emails sent directly to people whom I know are subscribed to the lists.

Perhaps the very idea of a “web-based community” has become a victim of its own success.  Back in the olden days, when I was still learning how to type, creating an on-line community was hard.  You had to wrangle with BBS software, mailing list managers, or content management systems.  It took dedicated individuals willing to invest considerable time and money.  Now?  Just go to Google / Yahoo / Facebook / whatever flavor-of-the-month service, type in the name of your group and presto, you’re a “community.”

The problem is that it’s now easier to start a group than to join one.  Every project wants to be the center of its own community, but what most projects actually get is a lonely soapbox in the wilderness from which to cry, “Announcing version 0.x…”

I’m equally guilty in this trend, having founded one of the sites I referred to above (LawCommons) and built a wiki for another (IGOTF).  Once you’ve started a site it’s easier to leave it there than to formally announce “I am shutting down X and throwing my lot in with Y.”  It’s also a hedge against the (very likely) possibility that group Y won’t be around in a year.  But I worry that a broad movement (Semantic Government) fragmented into so many tiny sub-groups will never gather enough momentum to succeed.  The very thing we all want — to share information better — is lost through the scattered efforts to achieve it.

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