The latest great "discovery" is that communities can be built on the Internet. On-line communities are not, however, a completely new thing. Usenet newsgroups have existed on-line as communities for years. Bulletin Board sites, such as The Well, have also built real though virtual communities. Employees of Digital Equipment Corporation built international communities of thousands of people using that companies internal network and a tool called VAX Notes. While the implementation details are different, there is much to be learned about building on-line communities from these precedents.
Successful on-line communities include a mix of people and types of contributions. Most of all they include large amounts of dialogue. Unanswered speeches, documents without discussion, and one way communication will not make a community. Discussion makes communities. The discussion must also be "safe." The participants must feel that they can express themselves. The most successful on-line communities also include an "in real life" component.
Types of People
Most on-line communities consist of a number of types of people. These people provide the give and take that builds community. While a community can exist with a subset the best (most interesting and stable) include all of them.
People who ask questions start things off. In some communities the questions they ask as purely informational. "Is it time to plant?" in a gardening community. Or "what should I buy?" in almost any community. In a political community, and many are even if not in the sense of election events, the questions relate to why things are, how they can be changed, or who's at fault. Questions start dialogue.
People who answer questions are the on-line communities single biggest asset. In many communities the person who answers questions is an expert. People come to learn from them. In "political" communities, the question answerer may just be the person with the most or the loudest or the most extreme opinions. In any case that person either attracts controversy or additional questions. Sometimes they attract both. Having several experts or opinionated people can really spark interesting discussions. Others will wade in from time to time and "stir the pot." Question Answerers generally really want to answer questions, or in non-technical communities state opinions. Their enthusiasm for the topic or topics under discussion adds to the energy level of the community.
People Who Disagree
People who disagree are often a variety of question answerers. They are also, occasionally, people who show up just to disagree with the community. Sometimes they do it for fun. Sometimes they are out to convert people. For what ever reason they speak out in disagreement with the majority of the community. Within reason these people actually help build community. The community rallies to defend itself. They support their resident experts. They fight back against an intruder. They can be the irritant that builds a pearl in a community. As long as the irritant is not too severe.
People Who Sit and Watch
Some would argue that "lurkers", those who read the on-line discussion but don't actively participate are not part of the community. I believe that they are. They may not seem to be actively building the community but they are a part of it. While some of them may never participate, many will. When the time is right, when they feel comfortable enough or when an issue really moves them, they will participate. And of course on the Internet, where readers mean as much in calculating advertising rates, they can not be overlooked. Keeping them interested in returning is important. At Digital tests we ran indicated that most on-line conferences had between 7 and 10 people who only read for every person who actually wrote to a conference.
Moderators perform several functions. in some cases they feed conversation. They add comments or ask questions. Sometimes they play the devil's advocate. But most often the watch and make sure the communities rules and mores are followed. A good moderator understands the community and it's expectations; they don't try and change a community. Rather they allow it to evolve in safe ways. These are the people with power and authority to enforce rules. They may remove participants or discussion comments. While some communities appear to function well without such people that generally means they are operating quietly and effectively.
Contributors feel safe in a good community. This does not mean that they don't expect to have people disagree with them. Rather it means that the level and type of disagreement will stay within known and tolerable limits. Such limits vary by community. In some disagreement may be hard and fast, flaming may be common. As long as these flames are expected and the recipient is prepared to take them the discussion may still be considered safe. In other communities the mores and expectations will be different. What the rules are or that they be written is not important. What is important is that the rules are known and enforced either by peer pressure or moderators.
In Real Life Meetings
The best on-line communities meet face to face from time to time. The Well had its Well Parties. Digital's VAX Notes communities had their Note's Parties. These face to face meetings built community though a combination of factors. One of course was the "high bandwidth" communication that they facilitated. But more important are the intangible effects of actually looking someone in the eye.
People who meet in a social context, be it a diner in a restaurant or a barbecue in someone's backyard, tend not to remain or become enemies. They come to a get together with preconceived notions, what someone looks like, or how their voice sounds, and invariably those notions are shattered. The 6' 6" giant one expects is only 5' 9". The Japanese person one expects to be short and skinny is actually 6' 4" and built like a linebacker. Expectations are seldom realized. One is forced to see, not a stereotype based on ideas and opinions but a real person.
The whole community does not need to meet for this to work. It is often enough if a few of the most vocal are involved. The best meetings often involve a few people who are local to each other who host one or two people who are normally very far away in geography. These sort of meetings bridge a gap that is more then just physical. It brings a psychological closeness to the group. It is tempting to believe that geography has no meaning to an on-line community. That would be a mistake. The effects of geography are there even if they normally do not effect the flow of conversation. Bridging that physical gap, even if only in part and for a subset of the community, work well to strengthen the community as a whole.
Starting a New Community
Communities do sometimes start accidentally. Sometimes they grow slowly from a couple of people to huge groups. I remember an electronic newsletter that started with one person in England emailing sports scores to a friend posted in the United States. The Vogon News Service, as it came to be called, developed into thousands of subscribers all over the world. It had a volunteer staff of as many as 5-6 people when I left the Digital, whose Intranet supported it. These days, people and organizations are trying to start and grow communities deliberately. There are a number of steps that I believe must be taken. The people, identified above, must be found and attracted to the community.
Members are attracted to a community by the quality of the answers and discussions and a good light to heat ratio. So getting qualified people to subscribe and participate as answerers is job one. Often the person or group looking to build the community fits that need. When a company is the hopeful community builder, some times someone can be assigned to answer questions. One can hope that good answerers will show up eventually but that is risky. Once a community has reached some point of critical mass the original answerer will, and this is a goal, not have to answer all or even most of the questions any more. Unfortunately if a lot of people ask unanswered questions the group will wither and die away.
Good answerers are knowledgeable, communicate well, and really want to answer questions. They either do it because they really want to help or because it is part of their job. The best way to find answerers is find some people who know the subject and who really want to help people. They may often be backed up with someone for the really tough questions. You are looking for a personality as much as technical knowledge. Someone who knows everything, never lets you forget it, and talks down to people is the wrong sort for this job.
Secondly, the membership must be attracted. On the Internet this happens several ways. One way is through postings to related lists, be they email listservers or Usenet news groups. One must be very careful that one understands the rules and mores of a list before posting an announcement however. Do not post an announcement where doing so would violate the standards of the existing community. It some cases, just including a pointer in a signature file maybe both polite and sufficient. When a company attempts to begin a new community, an email to people who have indicated interest in the company or its products can be helpful and appropriate. Thirdly, a web page may be created or adapted to make announcements. A properly constructed web site with appropriate meta-tags and links from major search engines will lead people to the new community.
Thirdly, the pump must be primed. One can not just open a listserver or discussion group, announce it to the world and expect conversation to start. That does not often work in the real world and it does not often work in the virtual world. Who would invite large numbers of total strangers to a party and not do something to help communication start? There are at very least introductions. On opening a new community, new members should be encouraged to introduce themselves. They should be asked to identify whom they are and what their interests, as they relate to the community, are. This should be done specifically in any welcoming message. It should also be done by a message to the whole group from time to time as the group grows.
The group may also be primed with specific questions. For a product related community, ask how long people have been using the product, how they like it, what they like, what they do not like, what they would like to see in it. Asking people about themselves or for their opinions are about the best way to get people talking in any situation.
Dialogue is important. People must feel safe and valued. But most important, the people in an on-line community must believe that they are a community. Then and only then does a living, growing and real community exist in the virtual reality of cyberspace.Note: If you found this essay interesting you may want to check out my Social Computing blog at Windows Live Spaces.
Copyright Alfred C Thompson II 2007