Internet News Sources And The Internet’s ‘Community’ Effects

How do you get your Net news? And what does ‘Internet community’ mean?

By Erik J. Heels

First published 9/3/1997; Law Practice Management magazine, “nothing.but.net” column; American Bar Association

When I was a kid, I would periodically substitute for my best friend on his paper route. Our town was one of the few that had two daily papers – morning and evening. My friend delivered the evening paper, and we often completed the route together after school. It was, for all intents and purposes, our route. We knew each door, each client, each hill, each dog. Some clients were better than others. One used to pretend not to be home on collection day. And, on one of those days when I was soloing, I got bit pretty badly by one of those dogs. But the show went on. The news was delivered. Small fortunes earned. Baseball cards purchased. Such was news delivery in our community.

Now I inhabit a different community – the Internet community. And I don’t get my news from the local paperboy. In fact, I don’t recall the last time I saw a paperboy.

How do you get your Net news? And is your news delivery related to – or provided by – some sort of Internet community? What exactly is an Internet community? Is it possible to fill an entire paragraph with questions? I guess not. And now, the news.

I get much of my news from traditional sources – newspapers, magazines, television, and radio. When I first started looking for news on the Internet, I searched for Net-based versions of these traditional sources. Traditional news providers have been struggling with the Web as an alternative distribution channel for their news. To their credit, many have now come to realize that information has value in more than one medium. And people are willing to pay for the benefits afforded by each different medium.

For example, newspapers are current, comprehensive, and chuck full of community resources such as classified ads. In fact, classified advertising revenue is the lifeblood of many local newspapers. Magazines trade off frequency for more in-depth coverage. Radio is an excellent drive-time companion, especially when you want to know about upcoming traffic jams. And nothing can beat the experience of full-color instant replay of the local baseball team’s play of the day.

The Net, on the other hand, is good for searching and retrieving information. Usually for later use. Are people really reading online? Or are they browsing? Despite Netscape’s attempt to purge the word “browser” from its product line, replacing it instead with “Communicator,” the Net is best suited for browsing. How many bookmarks do you use when you’re reading a book? How many do you use on the Web?

If I read a useful story in Inc. magazine, I am likely to go to Inc.’s Web site and bookmark the article so that I can refer back to it later. The Internet supplements traditional news gathering, it does not supplant it.

Interestingly, none of my favorite Net-based news sources are from my local community. But I suppose that makes sense. I don’t necessarily have a great deal in common with my neighbors. We just happen to live on the same street. On the Net, however, I do feel a sense of community. Online I can interact with college friends, law school friends, and professional acquaintances who share the same interests. My college experience was a community. We lived, worked, and played together. So too with law school and work. When I speak of the Internet as a community, I am often referring to the Net’s ability to extend relationships formed in physical communities.

The Net also has the ability to generate friendships and professional relationships that otherwise could not have started. I have had the good fortune to “meet” many friend from the legal Internet community on the Net. Through the years, I have met nearly all of these net.friends in person. And to those that I haven’t met yet, I can only say: come on down to an ABA Law Practice Management Section meeting!

So what is the state of the Internet community? And where is it headed?

I searched for domain names with the word “community” or “communities” in them and found about 400 matches. I used Thomson & Thomson’s Web site (http://www.thomson-thomson.com/) for this. Their search software supports wildcards, so a search of “*communit*” will return all of them (at least those in the major top-level domains and in Canada’s top-level domain “.ca”). Online communities are being formed for various professions and, interestingly enough, for towns. I think the former have a greater chance of success, because it is a community’s common interests that bind it together. People who live in towns often share no more than the same zip code. When a natural disaster strikes, it gives similarly zip-coded people a common interest – battling the disaster – that binds the community together.

The legal profession has been on the Net for many years. Listserv lists and Usenet newsgroups allowed for give-and-take long before there were Web sites. The challenge for would-be community builders is to leverage the strengths of the old technologies while incorporating the new. At the same time, community builders need to be aware of the Net’s ability to extend existing relationships and to build new ones. A successful Internet community will employ old technologies and new, and will foster old friendships and new.

Counsel Connect is the oldest and most established online community for the legal profession. Its recent transition from a proprietary online service to a Web-based community with Internet e-mail will extend its reach. The biggest challenge facing Counsel Connect is its struggle with profitability. This community must ultimately answer to a parent corporation with shareholders.

But why should an online community be profitable? Large corporations frequently donate to the arts and other charitable organizations for the betterment of the local community (and for the tax deductions). And my home town was not run for profit. Should an online community be built by one company? Or by a community of companies and other entities?

Consider the community theater, which is like an online community in many ways. Only a few take center stage, and when they do, they tend to overact. The majority of the participants simply pay a flat fee to see and hear the action. Those in the spotlight often participate not for the money but for the love of the cause. The local theater – like the local Internet Service Provider – will break even or make a small profit from the active and passive participants. The sponsors who underwrite the whole affair (think banner ads) always make money. Actors, audience, venue, sponsors. These are the elements of community theater. Maybe, just maybe, the model translates to Internet communities.

The Internet community’s equivalent of the paperboy is “push” technology. Content that is delivered to you without your having to go out and get it. You may have to subscribe to initiate the push, but I guess that’s what distinguishes push from spam. And I suppose net.newsboys will develop better solutions for dealing with clients who pretend not to be home when the bill comes due. At least they won’t have to deal with dog bites.

My search for community-related domain names produced some other interesting results. Lexis-Nexis has registered the domain names legalcommunity.com, connected-community.com, connectedcommunities.com, and connected-communities.com. So something is brewing.

Online communities are in their infancy. An good online community should contain elements of real communities – including news delivery and interaction. Interaction that builds on past relationships and fosters new ones. Some of my best memories of my childhood relate to my experiences on that paper route and in community theater. But each paper route could support only one paperboy. And each town could support only one community theater. In fact, the community theater in which I participated was 30 miles away. If our town had tried to start one, only one of the two would have survived.

Those building the legal Internet communities of the future may stand a greater chance of success if they work together. Lease a venue, sign up sponsors, enlist volunteer actors, produce a good show, and the audience will come. Or maybe what we need is a tax-deductible legal community to encourage corporate charity. Is the future lexiscounselconnect.org? Stay tuned.

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