John C. Dvorak, the often controversial and flamboyant columnist at the PC magazine had an interesting post, related to the problems with virtual on-line communities.
The problem with on-line communities has been the lack of an identity infrastructure and other word-of-mouth mechanisms typically available in real-world communities. In real world communities like a church group or a professional group, word-of-mouth mechanisms provide a strong incentive to all participants to contribute positively to the shared interest of the group. In the virtual communities, where there is no physical presence required and there are no costs of joining new communities, none of these identify or word-of-mouth mechanisms that provide incentives for positive participation, exist. As a result most of the web conversation degenerate into a series of venting or spamming entries. So is it impossible to have a workable virtual community?
One of the communities John looked at in the article is Slashdot. Slashdot is a very successful community (over 100K members) that a number of my techie friends swear by. Slashdot replaces the real-world word-of-mouth mechanisms with its Karma/reputation scores in order to provide incentives to all members to contribute positively to the community. A lot of what Slashdot does is manual member-driven management of the moderation and meta-moderation system but the results are a vibrant community that provides a lot of value to its members. The takeaway then is that if one can provide the right incentives for positive participation along with a reliable identity mechanism, it is possible to have a vibrant on-line community. Now who is up to that challenge :-).