In the comments to Fred Wilson’s post about his Stack Overflow investment, Dan Lewis, former VP of Wikia, wrote about his lessons learned at Wikia:
That said, here are some things I learned which may apply: . . .
2) Ownership matters to a lot of people. Having *my* baseball Q&A site is different from participating in a community one, and a lot of the “mys” can create an effective one better than a follower. (Imagine, for example, if you, Fred, created a VC Q&A site under the avc.com banner.) You’ll cross that bridge at some point, so keep it in mind.
3) Someone is always in control of the community. The myth that a community runs itself is just that — a myth. There’s always a leader, be it an individual or a group. The leader may change based on the issue or the week. One community leader’s style and mindset is different from another’s. Any change you make will be met with complaints, which is expected. What you’ll not expect? The type, tone, and intensity of a lot of the complaints. Take some Tums before you announce.
I agree that there’s got to be an owner for a community to be successful. Someone has to be at the top, leading the group, setting the rules, and putting in way beyond the contributions of a typical participant in order to make it run well. Now for that community to succeed, the owner needs to serve the community. A dictatorial owner will fail in creating a thriving community. But someone needs to be running the show.
This is why I think that the “mega-communities” like Digg, Facebook, etc. can only go so far (and thus way USV et al is making a good investment). The Internet & technology are making content and media ever more fragmented and niche. Digg can work for some high level topics. The Digg employees are the “owners” of this community. But it’s tough for it to get down to the niche topic level and still have empowered owners that know that domain. A community about kayaking needs to be run by someone who knows kayaking. And they won’t put their soul into it (the effort needed for it to succeed) unless they can own it.
The plan for StackOverflow seems to be white labeling their service, and this approach–to put their technology in the hands of domain expert owners for each topic–is the right one.