The story of drillship chief mate and early Digg.com superuser who set up the mother of maritime forums
By Ryan Skinner (email)
gCaptain.com doesn't sell tiself as a new paradigm, but that's just what it is. The role newspapers once played - that of tying together a community and giving it voice and dialogue and debate and discussion - is being usurped. Online forums simply do the job better; and, for the community of mariners, gCaptain.com is a perfect example.
gCaptain did not stumble over this position. The guy behind gCaptain, Captain John Konrad, tasted the big-time of online web 2.0 over five years ago. Some friends were developing a little application that allowed people surfing the web to "like" an article. The more people who liked an article, the more attention it got and on and on.
"It was perfect for me. When you go out to sea, you get the news but you miss the conversation, the context. I felt disconnected. With this, you could see what people were talking about. I latched on to it, and became an early superuser," said Konrad.
The little application was digg.com. It was the first and most successful of a series of social bookmarking sites. Konrad chose not to invest early in digg.com, a regret, but he had learned a lesson from this experience: the power of groups.
When Konrad started on his own online projects, he wanted to tap into this power. gCaptain has been able to do just that for mariners in the states. The site's grown quickly and broadly. Today, as he puts it, they're killing the giants of the industry for online traffic.
"When Pasha Bulker ran aground in Australia in June 2007, mainstream media was struggling to get the story. They lacked background. All the papers and magazines had given up on the good, old maritime beat. So we were able to provide unique access to information and viewpoints," said Konrad.
"Then the COSCO Busan incident in San Francisco Bay put us on the front-page of some major American newspapers, and our insight into the Maersk Alabama incident got us quoted by the Wall Street Journal. This boosted our traffic tremendously. And people stuck with it. We give everyone a seat at the captain's table - that's what we say."
One powerful element in the community hosted by gCaptain is a legion of mariner bloggers. gCaptain gave them a place to congregate. "Our Maritime Monday weekly feature is at the heart of this. It's a lot of work, but it's worth it. This material then gets shared heavily on facebook, twitter...it all balls together," said Konrad.
On the question of whether new technology, and particularly more prevalent use of fleet broadband and other strong ship-to-shore connections, will drive mariner participation up even further, Konrad is bullish. "We're at a tipping point. I think more and more ships are getting it, but access for average mariners hasn't been all that great. First, shipping companies need to see the financial motivation of it, and, second, there's a fear to it. They think, what if there's an accident and mariners are beaming photos and video to shore? It's not as straightforward as one thinks."
I asked Konrad if any companies have gotten active in the site to market their wares. "The US Coast Guard has gotten all over it. If you ask a question about licenses on gCaptain, chances are a senior member of the Coast Guard will respond personally. Otherwise, it's been mostly press releases. Now, if you're on a ship for a few months, well, press releases just don't stick. They get negative feedback. It requires some more finesse. Brand names get thrown around all over the forums. They could be on there, monitoring this, interacting..."
Konrad describes three powerful assets to gCaptain: the community, the search engine optimization and the longevity of the content. "Journalists' products die quickly. They appear in a magazine, then they get filed away. Only some journalism student is likely to see it again. On gCaptain, some of our most popular stories were started three years ago. They're alive and well and getting more and more attention online," he said.
That attention is part and parcel of gCaptain, a growing community, and the new paradigm for news (also in the shipping industry).