This is the seventh of a weekly series of posts on various aspects of social software design I find interesting, here is the full list. Each of these posts are written over the course of a few hours in a straight shot. Contents may be mildly idiosyncratic. Fair warning: This one happens to be especially idiosyncratic and full of obscure, uncited references.

In the fashion industry, clothing can either be made bespoke, made to measure or off the rack. Bespoke clothing is custom made to the individual, fit with meticulous care, godawful expensive and, as a result, a tiny niche of the market. Made to measure clothing involves some degree of measurement but the patterns are standardized with carefully designed in room for modification. It’s still a tiny niche of the market but much more affordable. Finally, off the rack is the clothes you and I actually buy. We go into a retailer, try something on, find the best fit we can and accept that this is the price you pay for stupid cheap clothing.

Online communities can also be thought of as bespoke, made to measure or off the rack. Bespoke communities such as Quora, Reddit or Kickstarter are custom built, one at a time, for a single community for which they are designed to serve. They are distinguished by having the designers of the code also being the designers of the community.

Made to measure communities are ones which the owner of the community obtain the basic software from elsewhere but then make modifications to suit their purposes. This blog is an example of a made to measure community. It’s based of a stock wordpress installation by with many plugins & custom modifications involved. Similarly, many of the forums I’ve participated in over the years have modified their software to suit the community. Made to measure communities are distinguished by their community owners having limited control over the software environment based on what extension capabilities were built into the software.

Finally, the ready to wear communities are ones in which a completely stock version of community software is used as-is. Blogger, Skype & Facebook Groups are all examples of ready to wear software. They’re distinguished by performing all of their customization of the social experience from within the social layer since the community owners have no ability to access the technology layer.

The comparisons between online communities can be illuminating, especially in relation to how fashion houses manage the complex mix between the three categories and what implications this has for web companies trying to do the same.

A short and mostly remembered history of online communities on the web

The web was social from the very beginning. The entire point of connecting computers together was to allow for rapid communication and a simple, cobbled together version of email was one of the first programs ever written for networked computers. This early phase of the web was hand crafted, in the same way that all of early clothing was hand crafted. People largely cobbled together their own software system from the original source code and every user was also a maker.

The first waves of serious communities happened via Usenet, BBSes & MUDs; ready to wear, made to measure and bespoke respectively. These three systems provide us a view in just how these three different economic models affected the eventual social systems. Usenet was a mass market system (well, as mass market as you could get back then). It was the global commons which provided the most basic infrastructure around conversation and not much more. The endless groups had the same cheerful austerity that you find in low-income housing, where individual neighbors desperately tart up their apartments in order to hide the dreary sameness.

BBSes, on the other hand, were the wonderfully quirky community hangout spots. Each one was run by an individual, according to their own tastes and going into one was like entering into the living room of the sysop who ran it.

Finally, MUDs or Multi-User Dungeons (Think World of Warcraft, only 100% text) were more like artistic experiments, designed to push boundaries and explore radical issues related to this brave new frontier. It’s no co-incidence that many of the studies of radical issues such as gender-bending, online rape or radical libertarianism happened within the context of these game spaces as the custom built nature of them allowed them to go further and faster than most.

The next phase came from the development and subsequent domination of the web as the primary way that internet was consumed. IMHO, the web was actually a pretty big step back for social technologies as the fundamental underpinnings of HTTP do not mesh well with the needs of social systems (only now are we starting to see abstraction layers like the LiveNode system that Quora runs which rectifies a lot of these deficiencies).

Once we finally managed to figure out how to hook up dynamic, database backed websites into the a system designed for viewing static documents, we started to see the holy trifecta of online communities start to take shape: blogs, forums & chat. This was later joined by Wikis to make what were almost regarded as the platonic solids of the community space. It’s hard to remember for many people now but this was the era when “community management” was the hot buzz term and there was almost a Lord Kelvinesque attitude that “there is nothing new to discover, all that remains is more precise measurement”.

This is what I term the “social winter” that ran from approximately 2000 to 2005. With a couple of notable exceptions such as Slashdot, bespoke social software had virtually disappeared from the scene and everyone was fiddling around with some variation of blog/forum/wiki/chat, only innovating in terms of what made to measure plugins could be retrofitted into those basic paradigms.

I place the creation of Digg & Reddit as the first resurgence in interest in online communities again and some serious fresh blood coming into the field. Social news was a completely different beast from the blogforumwikichat and demonstrated convincingly that more social primitives were left to be explored. Since then, we’ve seen a number of notable bespoke communities, all exploring different facets of this space. Aardvark, Stack Overflow, Quora each represent intriguing experiments and even blogs got revitalized with Posterous and Tumblr both providing fresh spins on the concept.

I had originally planned for this to be a piece investigating how the fashion strategy of diffusion lines apply to shifting bespoke designs “downmarket” into more mass friendly designs but it ended up veering into a completely different tangent and this seems like a discussion for another day. I’m going to end this essay here and hopefully take it back up another week to provide a more conclusive conclusion. I’m tired and it’s time for bed, gnight.