First, a story
(Which has nothing to do with the $100 Business Forum, but bear with me, because it will.)
I’ll never forget when my family loaded up our VW bus and drove across the SF Bay to move me into the UC Berkeley dorms for the first time.
Because I was a Regents’ Scholar, Cal would have paid full freight if I’d had financial need, but I only qualified for a merit check of something like $500 a year. However, the scholarship gave me something that was even more valuable than the $$ and the free pass into the graduate stacks in the library: a low lottery number for Cal’s impacted dorms.
In fact, I got assigned a room in what was sometimes lovingly, and sometimes enviously called “the country club on the hill,” a former school for the deaf and blind that had only recently been bought by Cal and converted into (very posh) dorms.
My brother, who’d suffered through 2 years of cinderblock living at Brown by this point, took one look at my very sweet suite (2 double bedrooms, huge bathroom, furnished living/dining room, full-sized kitchen [sans fridge, stove or oven]) and exclaimed:
“She gets to have this as a freshman? That is so unfair!”
I just beamed smugly as I shlepped my stereo and clothes into my new abode.
Sweet, yes? But the funny thing was that I spent most of my time in another building a few minutes away, where students lived in more typical dorm accommodations: rooms along a long hallway with a unisex bathroom at one end and a social room at the other.
Why? One word: community.
Architecture affects community
My building, which was made up of self-contained suites, had a much weaker sense of community than the building where everyone bumped into each other on the way to the bathroom, and where if you wanted to watch TV you had to trudge down the hall to the community room.
When people are essentially required to interact, it turns out, they do so much more (and hence build tighter bonds) than when interaction is a choice, or (even more so) requires jumping through hoops.
(I got further validation of how architecture affects social interactions during my senior year, when I was in an honors thesis group with a woman who was researching college student sexuality. Some of the colleges she studied offered no communal meeting place on the dorm floor, which meant the only place for visiting friends to sit down was the hard desk chair, the floor, or the bed.
Can you guess what this led to?
When forced to entertain in your bedroom, on your bed, the entertaining tends to lead in certain directions…
And then colleges complain that students are too sexually active. Right.)
What this has to do with the $100 Business Forum
When I signed up for the May $100 Business Forum, a 28-day internet course facilitated by Chris Guillebeau and Pam Slim, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I had visions of developing a community of fellow “lifestyle entrepreneurs.”
The course, which is half-way through as I write this, has been filled with excellent info for starting and growing a small business. Every day, either Pam or Chris put a specific lesson up on the board, sometimes with an accompanying video or mp3, and usually with a series of steps for participants to think and write about. There are live coaching calls with Pam (worth more than the $100 alone, especially if you’re one of the question-askers!), and we’re invited to share our thoughts in writing on the forum, and to reply to others’ posts.
All of this is great, and I’m getting excellent value for my $100. If you’re looking to build or grow a business, are looking for some group “coaching” with an opportunity to interact a bit with some very savvy coaches who are themselves online business people, you’ll get a lot from this course. I give it four 4 1/2 stars out of 5.
In fact, the only reason I’m not giving the $100 Business Forum a full 5 stars is nothing to do with the course itself — which is outstanding — but with the architecture. In this case it’s not physical buildings, but rather the platform on which the $100 Biz Forum is hosted: Ning.com.
Pam and Chris acknowledged in a video in the first week of the course that Ning has its pros and cons. I don’t know why they decided to go with this platform rather than an actual forum, with threaded comments, but presumably they had good reasons, because these two are sharp cookies, and have built their reputations on the excellent value they offer with their courses and products.
However, I have found it fascinating that Ning’s features (or lack thereof) have affected social interaction of participants of the course, in much the same way that my college dorm affected the social interactions of the residents.
How unthreaded comments are like a sweet suite
Let me be clear: the daily lessons are excellent. My complaints do not take away from the outstanding value the $100 Business Forum offers. I’m very glad I bought this course, and if you could use a little guidance in starting or growing your own business, the $100 Business Forum is a great place to start.
The information that Pam and Chris share is top notch (and the bonus interviews with guests Jonathan Fields and Charlie Gilkey were fantastic, as were Pam’s coaching calls). These two are generous and knowledgeable, and getting a chance to learn from them is worth way more than the $100 I paid.
However, I have to admit it’s been more challenging than I expected to develop the community I was hoping for, due to the simple fact that comments are not threaded.
What does this mean? It means that responses to any given topic or topic reply are scattered all over the site.
It means that if your reply to a topic shows up on page 1, my reply to your reply may not appear until page 6. Or 15. Or 21.
It means that if you want to follow a topic thread, you have to spend hours searching through hundreds of posts to find any responses.
It means that if someone responds to you, unless you search every page of every topic, you may never know.
It’s a lot like living in a self-contained suite at the “country club dorm on the hill” rather than a “bathroom down the hall” dorm: rubbing elbows with other residents requires a lot more work.
If I had unlimited time to spend on the $100 Business Forum, this would be less of a problem (though still annoying). But of course, like most people taking the course, I don’t have unlimited time. And it’s just enough of a hassle to find specific posts and replies that I’m not participating as much as I would have liked.
Accepting responsibility… but still whining a bit
Ultimately, I take full responsibility for this: I’m the one choosing not to spend my time wading through unthreaded posts. But if I had my druthers, the $100 Business Forum would be hosted on a venue that made things easier.
Yes, you can set your email filters to notify you of replies to any particular topic or reply, but the notification emails just tell you that So-and-So replied to Such-and-Such topic, not what is in the reply, nor whether they replied to you, so you have to click through to read it. Eye-rollingly annoying.
(Not to mention the fact that with notifications on, your daily $100 Biz Forum emails will spiral into double or triple digits very quickly. Yikes!)
Does all of this mean that a $100 Business Forum participant can’t still build a community? No, absolutely not! I’ve made a few connections that I’m really excited about. It just requires jumping through more hoops, and spending more time, than I expected. (Imagine: there are 150 participants in this course, plus Chris and Pam, and everyone is encouraged to post and reply to others’ posts every day. Even if there were threaded comments, that’s a lot of reading, and without a way to efficiently follow threads it’s kind of overhwelming.)
Chris and Pam suggest spending 20 minutes a day on the Forum. With the vast number of responses to each daily lesson (plus the community bulletin board posts, which are also not threaded), 20 minutes barely scratches the surface, and unfortunately there’s no good way to skim in order to find the messages that might be of most interest. (At least none that I’ve discovered. Perhaps someone whose neurons fire in a way more compatible with the Ning system would have better luck. Anyone?)
Again, the Ning platform is really my only complaint in what is a well thought-out, thorough and excellently presented online course for anyone interested in starting or growing a small business (especially an online one).
Lessons learned: the human laziness factor
The $100 Business Forum was the first Unconventional Guides purchase that I made. Chris and Pam clearly put a lot of time and effort into creating a very valuable course. I’m glad I signed up and I’m getting a ton out of it. However, the frustrating non-threaded-comments interface has reminded me of some interesting aspects of human nature.
The upshot: water flows downhill. People are pretty much the same: unless there’s a good reason to do otherwise, we’ll almost always take the path of least resistance. If you want people to behave in a certain way, you need systems that make it easy for them to do so (and not easy for them to not do so.) As I design products, courses, websites, and my life, this is something to think about!
Make things hard for people, even just a little bit, and you may lose them. Make things easy for people (easy to find what they want, easy to get a solution to their problem, easy to pay you), however, and you’re way ahead of the game.
PS – Serendipity: right after publishing this post an email landed in my box from web marketing expert, Katherine Andes, with a variation on the same theme.
[Update 5/26/10: I found a personal note and a 100% refund from Chris in my email box this morning. Totally unexpected, and the refund was totally unnecessary, as I feel like I’m getting HUGE value from the $100 Biz Forum, despite my frustrations with Ning. But a clear example of his excellent customer service, and why I’ll be a Chris Guillebeau fan for life. Thank you Chris!]
*Disclosure: If you buy a product or course through any of the links in this post, I’ll get some affiliate income, and will be forever grateful. If you don’t buy at all, or you buy through another link, I’ll never know, so don’t lose sleep over it.