POLITICS OF PORTALS
TEMPLATE ONLINE BUILDERS vs STANDALONE SITES
My view on community-based web presence
Black, 23 October 2001
a great deal of attention being given to community-based web development
in Australia, and rightly so. The web has the potential to empower
communities in a way never before possible. What I'm not so thrilled
about, though, is the way it's being done. The rapid proliferation
of centrally-controlled online-building type templated portals
is of deep concern to me. Millions of dollars of public funding
has gone into the development of such online communities, some
of which have already ceased to be, taking the "sites"
built on them into the black hole of dead cyberspace with them.
I am fully supportive of what the academics call "endogenous
development" - to the rest of, let's call it community-driven
development. I'm all for empowering communities to build their
own websites. My issue is that I feel passionately that they should
also CONTROL those sites, in every sense of the word. This is
simply not the case in most examples of "community portals"
- even though it's certainly possible.
the core, one of the main issues is the fundamental conflict between
private enterprise and public interest. In the case of IT development,
the rate of change has been so fast that the mechanics of public
service is struggling to keep up, and as a result has no option
but to partner with private enterprise. From the private company's
point of view, maintaining control of the sub-sites is essential
to protecting their business interests.
model I support is one of an overall portal linking to self-contained
and locally-controlled websites. For the sake of consistency,
I think it's essential to develop guidelines for "member"
sites - in terms of navigation, functionality and even style.
Beyond those guidelines, however, I think that the building and
control of the site should be in the hands of those responsible
for the content.
know that some online-building sites HAVE been developed by local
communities, and with the very best intentions. Their goal was
to make building a website as simple as possible, in order to
be inclusive of people whose web-building skills were minimal.
Since the development of WYSIWYG software, though, building a
good website has had nothing to do with programming ability -
the significant issues in my opinion are factors that a "simple"
online sitebuilder doesn't make any easier. For example, how to
treat graphics appropriately to make them small and fast-loading,
but without affecting the quality.
not suggesting that making a good, functional site is an easy
matter - there are a lot of issues to consider and skills to learn.
With the rate of development of the web, keeping up to date also
needs an investment of time. To me, any community considering
developing a web presence cannot escape these requirements, though,
regardless of HOW they build the site.
as being able to use Word Processing Software doesn't mean you
can write a good book, being able to use Web Authoring Software
doesn't mean you can make a good website. We need mechanisms to
establish a standard for sites within a community group. The group
needs to identify and define just what makes a good site, appropriate
to the needs of their communities.
keen to develop online resources to empower people to learn how
to build good sites; mentoring systems so that people can share
skills as they acquire them; agreed guidelines on the characteristics
of their communities' sites.
from that most important issue of actual control of each site
being with the community and not the "parent" portal,
there are other advantages to communities developing real, stand-alone
site has it's own identity.
It can be promoted individually in the wider web community,
not just within the context of the portal/group in which they're
established. This means that the community can promote it's
own site as much as it wishes - the more effort they put in,
the more traffic they're likely to receive. This onus to promote
and market their own community is fundamental to the whole
movement towards endogenous development. That's not to say
the "parent" portal can't also be marketing the
communities as a group, but that would be with a different
(albeit complementary) strategy. A local site could even be
a member of multiple "parent" portals - for example,
being linked directly from both a general regional portal
and a statewide tourism portal.
Locally-controlled sites, somewhat ironically, are less likely
to be threatened by political and economic factors. Both dot-com
companies and government-funded projects have shown the tendancy
to disappear overnight. If a change in government policy or
an international economic downturn means that a parent portal
ceases to be, stand-alone sites can continue on regardless
- whereas dependant sub-sites would die with the parent. Perhaps
the communities may suddenly have to pay their own hosting
costs and for updating the site if their sponsor disappears,
but those issues are within the means of small communities.
skills required to build a good site are marketable.
If people in local communities become competent web-builders,
they'll become an asset to their community. Just about any
business or community group can benefit from a web presence,
and so the more people who can build (good) sites, the better
for the community. With e-working, those skills could even
be marketed outside the local community, thus having the potential
to bring extra resources into an area.
tend to value things more if they've invested in them personally.
they're just "given" a website, for example a simple
template that they just drop in a few details, then there
is little sense of ownership. I recently saw an example of
this where a local community's sub-site on a government-run
templated portal contained text such as "you put information
about your local community here" and "you put information
about your training courses here".
skills-gap between the city and rural or remote areas can
by moving the responsibility for sites to local communities,
instead of having those skills centralised as is the tendancy
with large integrated web projects. To me, this is an important
socio-political issue. There's a degree of chicken-and-egg
about skills development, and at first it could well need
city-based consultants to get the ball rolling - but if there's
an incentive and opportunity to develop such skills, the potential
ability is certainly there in the bush.
it simple keeps down costs.
companies often convince clients that a complex, dynamic site
is essential in all cases. The maintenance costs on such sites
can turn out to be far more than intended. Functions can cease
to work inexplicably, often involving expensive diagnostics
in addition to the programming costs required to actually
fix the problem. The more simple a site is functionally, the
less likely it is to have problems and the easier any problems
will be to rectify. Call me cynical, but maintenance work
is how a considerable proportion of IT companies' income is
generated, so is it really in their interest to provide simple,
A true community-based website should be a reflection of the
community it represents. To me, generic templated sites will
always be struggling to convey that sense of community. Although
there should be a degree of consistency within a group of
sites covered by one parent portal, the criteria should allow
enough scope for the uniqueness of the communities to show.
A site developed locally can be more responsive and involve
the community on a much deeper level than a simple templated
site. For example, an art competition could be held to design
graphics for the site; special-interest groups could develop
their own subsites from the local community site; mentoring
relationships could be developed within the local community
to spread the skills developed.