Tom Gerace, CEO of the Gather online publishing community, gave me an intro to their relaunched site recently. Gone is the cluttered and confusing array of controls and features from their front page, replaced by a vastly simpler and cleaner interface that highlights key conversations happening on Gather via its user-generated articles and comments. Instead of just highlighting an article, the Gather home page display highlights a snippet from the article and a key comment that takes up a contrasting position, all framed in Yahoo-esque graphics. This provides a long-needed focus for people visiting the Gather site and provides an anchor from which one can gaze at some of the featured tags, members and discussion groups available for perusing.
Gather is starting to accrue a broadening array of focused topic groups, many of which have been tweaked by their anchors into attractive sub-destinations. Many groups are anchored by users who kick things off with their own content, but the "Food Talk" topic group, anchored by Gather partner American Public Media, features a nice mix of content from both users and APM, with no real sense of "this is the 'real' media" dividing user contributions. This provides a much more conversational integration of professionally-produced media and invites comments and linking within the Gather community.
Gather has focused clearly on adults with kind of an artistic and literary orientation, steering towards people who like to express themselves through writing online and who enjoy building online networks of contacts with like interests that steer away from the more teen-oriented topics of sites like MySpace. While many of Gather's features and design are still a work in progress - the "My Gather" pages are a little sparse and it's still not easy to understand what's "hottest" at a glance - it's moving away from its first phase of development into a format that's likely to appeal to a broader audience. The main question for Gather, as with most community-driven publishing sites, is how to grow it beyond a particular set of like-minded people into a broader set of audiences. Gather has had strong page viewership but stagnating audience growth, as indicated by Alexa statistics - not unusual for this type of service.
Part of the answer would seem to be to extend the Gather metaphor to allow groups of users to define reference content and services that could provide answers in kind of a hybrid of Wikipedia and About.com - a string of expert-lead communities that build up more authoritative content over time that can attract higher search engine ranking to drive more incoming traffic. That's a stretch given Gather's current focus, but a next logical step. Social media is still in its very early days, with many experiments showing strength but also a lack of a mature model to drive both audience growth and focused interests of greatest value to advertisers. Gather is moving closer to that goal with its revamped site, but expect the experiments to continue at this and other social media sites.