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Lonely Planet blog

Behind the scenes • Community

Thorn Tree and beyond: networking travellers

By admin   9 January 2009 3:37pm Europe/London

Hello world.

I’m the Community Manager for Lonely Planet’s diverse and ever-evolving online community (communitIES, really) – a vibrant, challenging, tendrillar creature!

I’m based here in Melbourne with Matt, Vivek, Adam, Nigel, Chris and crew, and I manage a satellite Community team of moderator-liaisons in other international locations.

Through the year I’ll be blogging about what goes on in our community, give you some insights about the way we manage our traveller interactions and let you know about stuff in the works.

I’ll also be asking for your feedback. My team and I are always on Thorn Tree and around lonelyplanet.com talking to users about what’s working, what’s not, and what they’d like to see done or done differently. We pride ourselves on having one of the most transparent and open communities on the web, and we embrace the bad with the good (as tricky as it is sometimes, we believe it’s pretty much the point). Of course, having a open door means we have to develop shrewd ways to cope with spammers, touts, trolls, flamers, and other folks with competing agendas that aren’t in the community interest (more on those in later posts).

[A warning now: I'm a chatterbox (which is one of the many reasons I've got this job), so grab a cuppa' something to curl up with my posts]

Here’s a digest version of our community history for the uninitiated (pop on by and chat to some of our longtime members for the unabridged version!)

Lonely Planet had an online community before the term was popularised. In some corners of the world, the Thorn Tree travel forum is more recognised than Lonely Planet itself. It’s one of the oldest bulletin boards on the web and takes its name from the Nairobi café where travellers would tack messages about their journeys around the trunk of a large thorn tree. 

Our information crossroads was born in 1996 as a newsgroup and gradually morphed into a forum. As the site grew in popularity, spammers and trolls sallied forth, so we introduced formalised registration, gave things more shape and clearer goals and guidelines.

Each year or so we’ve had various updates and upgrades. In 2007 we introduced a new software platform that gave us important foundational maturity, but added features (and bugs) that drove our users justifiably insane. Among the lessons learned – get out there and listen! To that end, Lonely Planet recognised a need for dedicated community custodians – and here we are, doing our best to ensure our travellers remain at the centre of our universe.

Thorn Tree is split into categories which cover destinations, interests and the stuff of life in between. Every day over half a million residents log on from Tonga to Tajikistan to trade tips, talk about the price of bread, or just hang about. There are roughly 100,000 active threads at any given moment and a new post goes up around every 12 secs. It’s crazytown, and we love it.

Long before Twitter, Thorn Tree was a source of raw, real-time and in situ updates around news or issues that affected travellers. This tradition continues, with Thorn Tree finding itself an important virtual signpost for the travel community and journalists during the attacks in Mumbai, political conflict in Thailand and the Middle East and several natural disasters.

Our community also regularly show off their proactive savvy. We’re chuffed they’ve earned a reputation for helping out travellers (and the media) by outing scams and travel traps. Then there are the controversies that involve the media itself. Take a recent incident, when our members noticed some suspicious conversation on the Australian branch of Thorn Tree. A new user asks a question about traveller safety in Alice Springs… and the same user helpfully responds with a confirmation of their general concerns? Internet baiting gone awry? Thorn Tree-ers then noted the comment was used as a primary source for a newspaper article.

Coincidence or not, the reporter seems to ignore the rest of the conversation, which debunks the original post with customary aplomb.

While we’re very happy to work with journalists or reseachers who recognise that Thorn Tree is a haven for compelling stories, we community custodians were surprised at this one.  So,  good community. Bad poster. Gotta love the web.

What next for LP community?

What next for LP community?

In 2009 our community architecture is going to transform in ways subtle and substantial. For the first time, it’ll be more than just Thorn Tree (we’ve already begun this work reaching out to developers and bloggers who share our passion for travel)… but the forum will remain a beating heart of our universe.

When the website relaunched last year we introduced new profiles for our users – these are the building blocks for new tools and applications that will allow people to connect in different ways, create more of their own content, and share that content with us and the rest of the web.

And Thorn Tree itself will get a long overdue shave and a haircut as we work with the community to make the most of all that shared wisdom.

We’re taking our cues from you, so make sure you get in on the action and express yourself.

One more thing. We’ve let creeping featurism bog us down before (too much pretty, not enough practicality), and our New Year resolution is to make stuff (and help the community make stuff) that is useful, relevant and fun. All three at once, hopefully.

If you want to chat about community-shaped things, you can pop an email to community@lonelyplanet.com, or send me a direct message via Thorn Tree (VenessaP).

See you out and about!

~ Venessa