Is This Happening?

I've been thinking about last week's feature on ThisIsHappening, the local site that has done a nice job of aggregating and distributing information about cool stuff going on around Pittsburgh. (Here's the link to thisishappening.com) The bit that I wasn't aware of before I read the story -- though it's relatively easy to figure out, if you think about the site a bit -- is the plan to convert what is currently a free service to a paid subscription service.

My reaction is mixed. On the one hand, kudos to Jason Simmons (the promoter of thisishappening) and to his investors for taking the initiative to put the site together. If he can figure out a way to make some money, and if that enables the site to get bigger and better, more power to him. Pittsburgh needs more than its share of energetic entrepreneurs. On the other hand, I have this nagging sense that this is the sort of thing that really shouldn't be part of just-another-tech-startup. Really great independent bookstores have community bulletin boards that anyone can post to; if you really want to know about the great stuff happening in town, you check the board. Sure, the board wouldn't exist without the bookstore, and the bookstore needs to make money. But the bookstore makes money by selling books, not by selling access to the bulletin board. Functionally, the board is a free, shared, volunteer-based resource. That's how I think of thisishappening.com and its cousins (PittsburghBuzz and element 5).

Can thisishappening.com be a a virtual community center and a profit center all at the same time? Or is there -- dreaded word ahead -- a "business model" that would keep the listings free and finance the site in other ways? I know, for example, that Jason can sell data about people who register at the site to event promoters -- anonymized data, not names. Maybe the site architecture can be licensed for use in other cities. There's always advertising -- and if there's more content (how about thisishappening.com bloggers?), there's more traffic.

Enough early Internet idealism, right? We'll see. I'll leave the questions this way: If Jason does convert the site to a subscription model, will it still be as popular? Or will charging for information kill it? And which does Pittsburgh need more? A successful but limited tech startup, or a popular and broadly useful -- but money-losing -- community site?

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

All opinions expressed at Pittsblog 2.0 are those of their respective authors and of no one (and no thing) else, least of all the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.

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