Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Democracies and Dictators

It has been interesting to watch the widely divergent approaches of two web sites launched by the founder of eBay (Pierre Omidyar) and eBay's first president (Jeff Skoll) via their foundations.

Omidyar.net has puzzled many people since its creation. If you go to www.omidyar.net, for example, you can't figure out how to enter into the community. (Someone - presumably an existing community member - has to tell you to go to http://www.Omidyar.net/home). Further, especially at the beginning, no one was sure exactly what the community was FOR.

All the landing page says is:

We believe every individual has the power to make a difference.
We exist for one single purpose:
So that more and more people discover their own
power to make good things happen.

Once you log in, you can start a discussion about anything. But there is no real moderator or guiding hand. There is a rating system for members and posts similar to Slashdot, with the front page content determined by users' preferences and ratings. It is all very emergent.

By contrast, the Skoll Foundation's Social Edge is much more structured. Its tag line is "By Social Entrepreneurs. For Social Entrepreneurs." The site has a wide variety of news stories, blogs, indexes, interviews, polls, discussion groups, etc. Although SocialEdge depends heavily on users for content, it also clearly has an editor who sets the agenda and decides what goes on the homepage.

Last week, the editor of SocialEdge, Victor D'Allant, was in town for a series of presentations and discussions. When asked the difference between the two sites, he said it is like the difference between a benevolent dictatorship (with himself as the dictator!) and a pure democracy. Both have pros and cons - in fact they serve different purposes. In my experience, Omidyar.net is more about relationships and personalities, while SocialEdge is more about concepts and viewpoints.

The interesting thing - and a point made by Victor - is that it takes a while for communities to gain critical mass and a "personality." I joined both when they were lauched a couple of years ago, but I used them only occasionally at the beginning. Suddenly in the past few months they have both reached some sort of tipping point of usefulness, and I find myself visiting both much more often.