Presenters and attendees at this year’s O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing conference spent a discussing the topics of social reading and community. One constant question was are these spaces that Amazon or Google will own? A week after the fact, and drawing on my experiences with online community at kodak​.com, I’ve come up with the following assessment:

In this area, Amazon’s further ahead than Google, but I’m not sure that either is really in the right place (or could be the right service) for this to work. The reasons for this is that they’re fundamentally in the same business:

Connecting people with content

The sustainable community model is:

Connecting people through content

Amazon is arguably further along because they’ve fore fronted the approach of “Connecting people with content through other people.” Amazon makes you aware of other people asynchronously browsing the
content (with things like reviews and other people like you have bought). But there’s no concerted effort to connect you with those people. For example, you can submit reviews, but you’re not necessarily encouraged to engage in a discussion of reviews (though a threaded system of some sort). Likewise you can create lists, but not comment on lists. And while Amazon has discussion boards, they’re buried well below the fold line of the page (and beneath all the relevant content).

In Google’s case, those other people and what they do are a hidden aspect of the algorithm. Using Google is currently (gmail, gtalk, and latitude excluded) a solitary experience. While everyone is using it, you are not made aware of them (this concelment of the everpresent other is perhaps why Google can get away with more privacy things than Facebook).

Now all that said, as we learned at Kodak​.com, its far easier to get people to discuss a given topic a a site organized around that topic than it is to get them to talk about a topic at a site organized around the medium that enables that topic. In plain language, people are far more likely to talk about photos of their baby at babies​.com rather than in a “babies” forum/​community at kodak​.com.

Just as the photo was just a medium for the content (the baby) that connected, so to is the book another medium for the content that connects people. This is definitely an area where publisher and genre sites have an immediate advantage (provided they have to tools to do it).

None of this is to suggest that google or Amazon couldn’t overcome this. But it would take a lot more work than is immediately apparent (and take them outside of their current business models).