Not every web site is going to be (or needs to be) a hub. Sites can exist in a state where they are sustained by transient users. I typically refer to this kind of environment as a tide pool because it is reinvigorated by people passing by and enriching the experience by interacting with it. Sometimes, the barrier to interacting with these sites is set really high compared to the value users get from the site. Even a simple registration process may be too heavy for some users. Joshua Porter has a great blog entry on how users evolve from one stage of engagement to the next by crossing “hurdles”. What isn’t immediately clear from the picture is that in certain environments, people may stay a long time at one of these stages (or never get over the next hurdle). However, people are connected in interesting ways, and these connections may cause people in their social networks move from one stage to the next.
Recently, I had to find a remote control code for my universal remote provided by my cable company. I’m no expert on remote controls, but I know there are people who are. I also know that the community of cable company remote control users is large. So, I searched for a while and found several communities that track remote control codes for various remote control/TV combinations. Eventually, I found a user-contributed code that worked for me, but it was listed for a similar (not identical) TV model. Feeling a natural need to contribute back to the community that helped me, I tried to post back with my TV model to try to help someone who might be running a similar search. The site required me to create an account, give my email address, real name, etc. I just stopped right there. I came across this site via a search, and I had no relationship with the site (and, frankly, didn’t want to start a relationship). It’s a shame that the rest of the community would never benefit from this new knowledge.
My experience illustrates the need for “identity agnostic” services on the Web. What this means to me is that a site or service should not always care that they know everything about me, but instead should accept a “pointer” to an identity that they can use in certain situations, such as if someone responds to a post that I make (either a question about something I contributed or an answer to a question I asked, for example).
Emerging technologies like OpenID and OAuth, along with an easy way to integrate these services into niche web sites, will help the Web realize this kind of potential. Combined with social technologies, this kind of experience can really be engaging for casual users and can help site owners tap into the potential of the casual user’s social network. Not only would users be able to pose questions or post information to these “tide pool” communities, but they would drag along their entire social network. In my example, lots of my friends are local, and lots have the same cable service that I do. Besides potential answering a latent question that many of my friend might have, I can arm them with the knowledge that there is a niche site out there than could answer questions like this in the future, moving them from “Unaware” to, possibly, “Interested”.