How to Destroy Your Online Community

Oooo… really, really lame move, TextAmerica. I understand why you feel the need to charge folks in order to meet your costs and turn a profit, but this ham-handed approach was bad, bad, bad. Charging $99/year is insane. It breaks down to $8.25/mo, which isn’t totally unreasonable. Offering no monthly payment option, however, will kill you, guaranteed, particularly when you have well-known competition (hello, Flickr) offering your basic services for free.

Back when I was still actively running FlockSmart (and wasn’t letting it go fallow like I am now) I had a lot of folks approach me with ideas to monetize my traffic. A large number of them involved charging my users for the service on some kind of subscription basis. I roundly defeated such suggestions without consideration. Simply put, when you have a community built on audience participation – which describes most of the Web 2.0 crowd – most users already pay in the form of supplying content. Asking them for money on top of that will more often than not chase away the exact folks you’re trying to attract, particularly when you started out offering the service for free.

One of the primary reasons FlockSmart went fallow is because I never did figure out a satisfactory way to make money off of it. It actually costs me money per month to leave it in its current state, but it’s not a significant amount and I do have plans to improve upon it. One thing I’ve been considering is offering some kind of “premium” subscription service that folks can pay to use. But turning around and suddenly requiring folks who already donated time and effort to a project to pay real money is just a bad idea. What many of these Web 2.0 folks don’t realize is that, despite the fact that they may have built the site, maintain the code, pay for server space, etc. their users feel like the owners. And why shouldn’t they? Flickr, for instance, is built entirely on the content freely uploaded by its users. The basic free account allows so many uploads per month. If you have huge and numerous images to upload, you’re free to purchase a premium account that loosens those restrictions. Seeing as you’re then taking up more space and are a more hardcore user, this may be worth it to you, and that makes sense.

TextAmerica, on the other hand, has declared that everyone – from the casual user to the phonecam addict – must all now pay the same price. Were it not for that fact that TA is essentially another photo sharing site, relying on user-created content to bring in eyeballs to view their paid ads and purchase their T-shirts, this would be fine. SmugMug is another photosharing site run by some friends of mine. There’s has always been a strictly pay model, but they offer high-quality photo hosting without restrictions, something worth paying for. Flickr remains a very specialized site that, ultimately, isn’t all that suitable for professional photographic hosting services. TextAmerica, which is almost strictly phonecam pics for moblogging purposes, is even more restrictive. Why in the world would I pay $99/yr for a service I can get for free from a site that doesn;t offer near as much as its nearest competitor?

Bottom line: if you’re going to charge your users, offer something worth paying for. Moblogging is a lot of fun and very useful for personal blogs, but not something worth paying that much for. Blogging would be nowhere were it not for the fact that the tools for it are mostly free and accessible. Place any kind of barrier up, whether it be technical or financial, and you slowly start to kill it. I don’t think TextAmerica’s charging for access will kill moblogging – MoblogUK, Flickr and other sites like it will give TA refugees plenty of more attractive options – but it does kill TA’s ability to further participate in the scene it helped create. I can immediately think of half a dozen ways this could have been handled better that wouldn;t alienate their thousands of users and hold their content hostage. I understand the need for a business to make money, but you shouldn’t kill the golden goose for its eggs.

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