Journal Community — a case study on how not to launch social space?

The Wall Street Journal is famous for being one of the few newspapers to have successfully charged for online content from the very beginning of their web presence.  I can recall downloading the personal journal over a dial-up line back in the early 90’s, and still, even in now, in 2008, when mountains of decent financial writing is available for free, the good stuff at commands a premium behind a subscriber wall. Clearly, these folks know something about about providing value on the web.wsj

So I was interested to see how WSJ’s new social networking space, Journal Community, launched in mid-September, is faring. One of the choices they’ve made which I thought sounded very promising is the requirement that members participate under their real names. Holding users personally accountable for their behavior generally greatly increases the quality of contributions. This policy also tends to inhibit users from saying anything that their families or employers might find objectionable, so it tends to be a tradeoff between quantity and quality.

Journal Community is attractive. It’s got a nice, clean look, a bit like  the spaces at, but without the clutter.  Creating a profile is straightforward process, and gratifyingly, many members have chosen to upload either a photo or an avatar, so discussions with activity look invitingly full of real people.

Sadly though, this initiative is off to a very slow start. The “Featured groups” include one called outdoorbase, which has but 1 member and no topics for discussion.  Information Technology, the other featured group, on the other hand, has garnered 281 members, 3 topics of discussion, 1 with no replies, 1 with a single reply, and another with 10.  Apparently, WSJ has not seen fit to staff even featured groups with hosts who might goose the conversation along by making sure that first responders don’t feel as if they are alone in a room. The guy who is “owner” for the conversation with 10 replies, which took off on its own, waltzed in over a week after the first post and offered as his contribution a “welcome” post which did not acknowledge any of the prior contributions

A topic called “What is your impression of the Journal Community?” is located, oddly, in the discussion category, garnered exactly one post back in mid-September, which is 14 days ago by this writing, and has received not a single reply, not even from “John Moderator” the discussion’s owner, which suggests that there has not been a staff member assigned to this discussion. Kind of odd, since this sort of feedback would be valuable.

Part of the problem is that there are 187 groups, all with multiple discussions, to choose from. It’s hard NOT to have the Second Life effect (whole lotta space, not a lot of people in it) when the landscape is so broad from the very beginning.  It’s difficult for moderators to cover such a landscape, especially if staffing is lean to begin with.

It’s surprising WSJ would make such an error, as they are not new to discussion forums. is thriving—it has discussions going back to September 2006. Today’s Question of the Day “Should the House have approved the $700 Billion Bailout plan has 206 replies at midday, and last Tuesday’s question “Should Obama and McCain debate Friday evening?” garnered 1393 replies.

Of course moving users into the new space is part of their challenge. I note that the “Are you looking for the Forums?” question which used to inhabit the community home page has disappeared, as have other links to the forum site.  But if they hope to shepherd folks into the new space, they really need to organize a welcoming committee.wsj