Perhaps the most durable of social media types is the forum. The precursor to the Internet, the various bulletin board systems that ran on 1200 baud dial up modems, had very much the same structure as existing forums today, albeit usually with "images" rendered as blocky character graphics. For a while, as the Internet expanded, the dominant form of the forum came as part of the NNTP newsgroup architecture and Usenet, most especially it's extensive alt.* news groups (reaching its apex - or perhaps its nadir - with the now legendary alt.barney.die.die.die newsgroup).
Forums have become an integral part of many communities over the years - as a webmaster on a number of different social sites, I found that the sites tended to live or die on the strength of their forums more than on any other component of the site. They provide a way for people to express their feelings, to communicate with one another, to explore deep concepts (and silly ones) and to learn, and as such they often form the vibrant backbone of communities regardless of the subject matter expressed.
Those of you who have been regular visitors to O'Reilly.com or its various subordinate sites have doubtless noted a significant shift in focus of our topical coverage over the last nine months or so. This shift was brought about first by a meeting that the O'Reilly online editors had with CEO Tim O'Reilly in March of 2008. The strategy that he laid out was elegant but fairly simple.
For the past several years, O'Reilly has been focusing on technology, and most specifically computing technology, because that was where some of the most significant innovation was taking place. Yet computing itself has changed, focusing increasingly not on the how but on the why. In 1995, the average O'Reilly was a programmer who wanted to know more about the intricacies of Perl syntax. By 2008, the average O'Reilly reader was a teacher trying to build a community web portal for her school, or was an engineer trying to use a new Amazon service, or was a photographer looking to push the technical envelope with the camera that he used.
Moreover, the needs for those computing skills were also changing. In 2004, the big story was social computing - blogging, My Space, FaceBook. By 2008, however, the dark clouds of significant economic, environmental and political turmoil were becoming seriously bleak, and with it came the realization that it was time for O'Reilly to shift its focus.
To that end, the new O'Reilly Community focus was created and O'Reilly Broadcast became a formal group, under the leadership of Allen Noren, Vice President of Online & Digital Initiatives, and the enigmatic chromatic, Managing Editor for O'Reilly Online. The editors were tasked to look at the issues through the prism of social need as well as social want, and to ask the fundamental question: how can the technologies that have developed over the last twenty five years be used to solve many of the problems that have become increasingly dangerous to our society? There was stil to be a focus on technical news and on the technology itself, but the emphasis is now changing to one of how to help problem solvers - you - tackle the biggest problems, the biggest challenges that have confronted humanity in some time.
This has become the guiding principle that influences our weekly editorial meetings, has given us the courage to confront issues (and sometimes, with regret, to alienate some readers) that need to be asked. This year has been a challenge on the environmental front with the drama of Hurricane Ike, and on the economic and political fronts, and both Radar and Broadcast are now asking serious questions and seeking serious answers from people who are not just part of the technology community but from people who have the ability or the need to work with that community to solve some desperate problems.
Yet ultimately, such a solution requires feedback from you. This is where O'Reilly Forums come in. The forums were initially established as a way for authors to communicate with their readers and vice versa, and its been moderately successful in that vein. However, with the change in our mandate, the need to be able to communicate with you has reached a much broader imperative.
To that end, we are establishing a number of new forums, ones that will focus on the issues confronting us today and trying to establish not only what those problems are (something every good programmer must do with a client or project manager) but also in trying to actually solve those problems, to communicate with one another and hopefully make things happen.
Women in Technology focuses on the issues that women have working in technology, working with technology and shaping that technology, and is meant to be a forum to address many of the most substantial and challenge problems that women professionals have dealing with what has long been perceived as a tosterone-driven alpha-geek world. It is moderated by Sarah Kim, O'Reilly's Online Community Manager.
The Money and Economics Forum focuses on the economics of technology and the technology of economics. It will deal with everything from governmental economic policy to the state of the IT market to surviving layoffs and furthering your career. It will also provide a forum to ask some tough questions about what roles and responsibilities that the development community has with regards to the economy, and hopefully also provides resources and news that's relevant to helping technology companies and technologists themselves succeed in what is emerging as a truly new economic landscape. For now, this forum will be moderated by Kurt Cagle (me).
These will not be the only forums created - others that deal with the issues that are becoming the touchstones for O'Reilly - Energy and Green Technology, Health Tech, Education, Publishing, Social Networking, Cloud Computing and more, are also on top once we work the bugs out. We will also, once we get things worked out, be establishing the more traditionally technical forums as well, probably early in 2009. Additionally, we will be continuing the book and digital media forums.
Please, check out the forums - feel free to respond to topic threads or to pose your own conundrums, and please let us know how you feel about the new direction and focus that O'Reilly is taking.
Kurt Cagle is online editor for O'Reilly Media.