Can you buy a community?

The question may seem a bit odd, but it’s certainly valid, as I’m seeing people try.

But the answer, it seems, is ‘no’.


Marketing people tell me that online communities are a great opportunity. That money is to be made by creating them around a product. By manipulating them, too.


But communities, especially online ones, are fickle little things. They can form very fast round causes, websites, games, and they can die in a matter of weeks. In the communities I know best a number of people come together around their common obsession: little pixel people called sims. They share and download creations, help out with tips, debate and make fun of each other, and form a sort of internet friendships with each other. It’s pretty unique, I think, in that it’s a gaming community with a lot of people in it that don’t really play games, apart from one: The Sims 2. It also has a disproportionate amount of women for gaming community standards.


The Sims community, being what it is, is extremely polarized about a number of issues. It is also populated by quite a lot of crazy people and rife with enough drama and gossip to almost reach the heights of the Harry Potter Fanfic community (in my eyes one of the most emotion- and gossip-filled communities out there). Let’s be honest, at times it’s very much like a high school playground in which even the adults act like very small children.

I say this lovingly. I’m very much part of a clique myself. I have participated in a number of debates and lapped up every tidbit of embarrassing information.


But back to the issue at hand. This community, at least the English speaking part, is centered round about ten forums and a large number of downloading sites. After three years, the owners of those sites, and the admins on the forums are well known. People feel familiar with each other, they speak of their preferred forum as ‘home’.


So what happens if the owners of one forum, one ‘community’ sell their site to some random marketer and disappear? And if you buy a community site, a forum on which people host their creations, what do you buy? The clicks of the people in the forum, mostly. They click to view forum threads and participate in discussions. They click to download creations that other people share.


But those clicks are fickle. The downloads are owned by the people that made them. The discussions exist because people feel at home on a forum, and talk to their friends. None of it is tangible. All of it can disappear quite fast.


And that’s what I see happening. New guy comes in, and makes some epic communication errors. He mentions he bought this site, this ‘home’ to some, as an investment, talks about changes he wants to make, and how he thinks the site will make him money.


And all hell broke loose.


One of the first things I noticed happening, is that several forums are flooded with threads on this news. As I said, this is a drama-loving community.

The reactions ranged from xenophobia. (‘How can you run a community site here if you’re not one of us?’) to indignant rage (‘How dare you plan to profit from us and our hard work?’). While the marketing people will tell me this is a perfectly legitimate business model, in a lot of gaming communities it’s simply not done.


What I’m seeing now, is the death of a site.

It’s really rather awful to watch, but it’s like a train wreck. You can’t look away.

People are jumping ship, creators take their uploads and find new places to host them. What’s left is nothing but long threads of insults to the new and old owners. What was once a community (400.000 members, according to some figures), is now gone. In a matter of six days.

Sure, the people will find new places to go. They always do. But the train wreck is worth repeating.

A community of 400.000 members

Gone in six days.

That’s miscommunication of epic proportions. So if marketing people tell you to buy a community, instead of starting one, don’t listen to them.