Growing online communities

Submitted by Pamela Morris on November 26, 2007 to the On-line Interaction and Facilitation Seminar, Fall 2007, Purdue University, Dr. Sorin A. Matei via the I Think Blog (http://www.matei.org/ithink).

 “An (online) host is like a host at a party. You don’t automatically throw a great party by hiring a room and buying some beer. Someone needs to invite an interesting mix of people, greet people at the door, make introductions, start conversations, avert fisticuffs, encourage people to let their hair down and entertain each other.” (Rheingold, 1998)

The number of online places available on the Internet has exploded in recent years. There is a place to go for any interest, topic, or product. Not all of these places are considered communities by their participants, and many of them are not successful in the long run. It takes work to create a good community, and there are important principles you should follow when planting and growing an online community. This paper provides guidelines, rooted in social science theory and research, for planning, building, and maintaining a successful online community.

Planning community
“Communities can’t be manufactured, but you can design the conditions under which they are most likely to emerge, and encourage their growth when they do.” (Rheingold, 1998)

The importance of planning an online community cannot be overemphasized. Starting development without asking and answering the right questions in the planning phase can result in a community that does not meet the needs of its participants, cannot grow and change to sustain itself, and ultimately becomes a dead-end, lifeless Internet place. An online community is a mix of purpose, people, policies, and computer systems (Preece, 2000, p. 10). This is a helpful framework to follow for online community planning.

Define the purpose
The purpose for the community you are designing may have been handed to you by the stakeholder. However, it is vitally important to explore and thoroughly understand this purpose. Don’t accept this definition as complete and move right on to development. In order to ensure a clear and useful purpose statement for community design, you must ask insightful questions about it, clarify the terms used to describe it, carefully delineate the scope of the project, and plan ahead for the growth and evolution of the community. Some project managers find it helpful to conduct surveys of potential community members while generating and verifying purpose statements. The purpose is vital; it shapes the community’s culture and style, and establishes its “brand image”. Plant your community in fertile soil; a clear and strong purpose will create a stable community with less hostility (Preece, 2000, p. 81), and less potential for dramatic change (Preece, 2000, p. 91).

First, it is important to find out how the stakeholder defines community. There are many different kinds of online places that call themselves community, and there really is no one correct or definitive definition to be used. Communities range from something which mirrors a close-knit physical community to something which is simply a voluntary association of like-minded individuals. Don’t mold your community to fit someone else’s definition; evaluate a number of possible definitions and use what fits best, then champion this definition throughout the project. For example, some researchers suggest that a community needs “a sense of permanence and consistency, and a regular basis of participation” (Baym, 1998).

Second, plan for not only content, but also for social interaction in your community. The most common reason people go online is to find and exchange information, but the reason they stay online is frequently social (Baym, 1998). Information exchange is “arguably one of the primary reasons people go online and the original reason for which the Internet was created”; however, friendship and social support together account for one-third of the reasons people go online (Ridings & Gefen, 1994). It is of course important to build a website that has compelling and quality content, but to engage participants and keep them coming back, you also have to provide tools and features which enable people to develop relationships. Provide both public and private spaces for interaction; these could include email, chat, discussion boards, online web conferences, or even Skype conference calls.

Many online places today have “fewer and more superficial social interactions…which dilute the potency of the (community) concept” (Preece, 2000, p. 14). Your goal should be to enable participants to build strong ties that are similar to traditional offline relationships; such strong ties are characterized by frequent, companionable contact, mutual reciprocity, supportiveness, and longevity (Preece, 2000, p. 177). Your community should have enough social interaction to develop social capital, the currency of online community. Social capital is mutual value created among community members, and is made up of networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation, reciprocity, resolution of social dilemmas, and overall mutual benefit (Preece, 2000, p. 23).

Finally, formulate a concise statement of the community purpose and place it in a prominent location at the site. Especially when the community is new, potential participants need to be able to easily locate and understand the purpose so they form the right expectations about the community.

Define the people
In order to successfully create community, you need to know about and plan for the types of people that will be in the community, their roles, and their identities. Participants will come to the community with their own characteristics, environments, and expectations. An online community’s style will be shaped by such preexisting structures as external contexts, temporal structure, system infrastructure, group purposes, and participant characteristics (Baym, 1998). Participant styles are oriented around common social practices before they even go online, practices unlikely to be supplanted by computer mediation characteristics (Baym, 1998). Factor into the design information such as: how many participants the community will have, whether they already have any shared history, how much computer training they have, what the environment in which they have network access is like, and what strength and type of relationships they want. If possible, interview or survey potential community members to find out more about them.

Participants will also fit into and develop roles within the community. It is important to define roles as a part of community planning, because they can have a strong positive or negative effect on the community (Preece, 2000, p. 83). Community online, like offline, will also have hierarchy. How much hierarchy you proactively specify and how much you let naturally develop is an important decision for the design. Roles may include: moderators and mediators who guide discussions and arbitrate disputes, professional commentators who give opinions and guide discussions (for example, experts such as doctors on a medical site), participants, administrators, and lurkers (those who silently observe) (Preece, 2000, p. 83). Define the characteristics of each role, the needs and tasks for each role, and any policies needed to guide these roles. Recognize that all community members are not the same. They vary in technical expertise and personality; some are active and others are lurkers. Provide for their varied needs and include features for each of the roles.

Moderators (or whatever you choose to call them) are very important in a community. They are both watchdogs who head off potential problems and some of the most committed and active participants. As such they are excellent sources of feedback about the community. Moderators govern, ensure people behave reasonably, and enforce policy when necessary. They also guide discussion, perhaps sparking it to life when it quiesces or bringing those that have gone astray back on track. Moderators also act as managers and maintenance crews, archiving, deleting, and filtering posts (so-called “cybrarians”) (Rheingold, 1998). Sometimes, moderators can take on the role of technical support, or expert guides, answering questions about features and functions of the community site. Research has shown that community oversight by moderators increases both the quantity and quality of contributions, while reducing antisocial behavior (Cosely, et al., 2005). Define the moderator role and recruit them early to allow them input and buy-in to the community design.

An online community design must also carefully define identity, how closely a person’s real information is related to their online persona. The “connection between who we are and who we claim to be on the Internet is by no means obvious”, and the connection between the self and the self-presentation becomes mutable (Walther & Parks, 2002, p. 551). On one hand, online users have become accustomed to having the freedom and advantage of greater control afforded by selective self-presentation, such as to time self-revelations in ways that are not possible face to face (Walther & Parks, 2002, p. 541). Self-disclosure reciprocity can be a powerful trust builder online (Preece, 2000, p. 154). On the other hand, anonymity can lead to mistrust and misuse, and lack of responsibility for posted content. Therefore, even if you allow a great degree of anonymity, also provide clear avenues (such as custom person pages) where people can express and disclose themselves – it will be necessary as they choose to grow relationships on the site.

A second important role in your community is the core group of members that will help you launch and foster your young community. You should “seed” the community with members who are interested, interesting, engaging – and committed (Preece, 2000, p. 207). This core group will ensure the success of your community through content contributions, insightful discussion postings, and welcoming and mentoring of new community members. They are the stem or trunk of the community you will be growing; personally recruit and invite your core group, and treat them well. The success of the community depends heavily on them.

Define the policies
Policies for your community include assumptions, rituals, protocols, rules, or laws designed to guide interaction (Preece, 2000, p. 10). They are put in place to help members know how to behave (for example, what is accepted conduct), what to expect from one another, how to resolve differences, repercussions for violations, and legal protections for the stakeholders. You need enough policies to constrain inappropriate behavior, but not so many that the community cannot form, evolve, and grow. Above all, policies must be enforceable; if no one can or will enforce them, they are useless for the community.

Policies should clearly support the community’s purpose and be shaped by the desired style of the community. Initial policies are very important because the kind of rules established before a community is launched helps determine the kind of crowd that will be found there much later, and the early crowd has a strong impact on later arrivals (Rheingold, 1998). Further, communities in which accepted behavior is defined and monitored are safer places, thus trust develops more easily (Preece, 2000, p. 192). In time, participants will need the tools and opportunity to make their own rules and policies (Rheingold, 1998). Start out with basic guidelines, then encourage the community itself to evolve them; this promotes a sense of ownership. Eventually, monitoring and sanctioning can be carried out by the members themselves rather than something or someone they see as external to the community. Remember, dispute is okay; allowing the community room to resolve them on its own, using its own rules, further develops group cohesiveness.

Some policies to consider include: rules for joining and leaving, by-laws, codes of practice for communication, rules for moderation, issues of privacy and trust, practices for identifying professional (trusted, credible) content, rules for copyright, and rules for democracy and free speech (Preece, 2000, p. 96). Pay particular attention to the requirements for joining; a community may be open or closed. Creating some boundaries contributes importantly to the group’s identity, cohesiveness, and commitment. Explore the policies of other successful communities to get a feel for what should be included. In general, policies should “make newcomers feel welcomed, contributors valued, and recreational hasslers ignored” (Rheingold, 1998). Be sure policies are always easily accessible on the site.

Define the software and systems
The software and systems chosen for the community should support social interaction and foster a sense of togetherness. Often community designers think about feature richness without tying the features back to the community purpose or how they contribute to social interaction. Although technology alone cannot make a community a success, it is important as a framework that supports, reinforces, and helps shape the community toward the intended goal.

Usability is well-understood, and there are many excellent published guidelines you can use. Do be sure to choose qualified developers who have had usability training. When evaluating a design, keep in mind that good usability should result in an interface that is described by users as consistent, controllable, predictable, pleasant, and effective. The users should experience rapid learning, high skill retention, and low error rates (Preece, 2000, p. 8). Poor usability is one a reason users leave online communities and one that is straightforward to prevent. Also, do not forget to provide adequate tutorials.

Although researchers have admitted that online communication offers a number of advantages (for shy people, for example), and can result in strong interpersonal relationships, the fact is that the medium still lacks social cues. Cues are what give social context to text, and express “purpose, setting, decorum, roles, relative status, and affect” (Walther & Parks, 2002, p. 532). It is advantageous for the designer to provide as many types of cues as possible through a rich variety of software features which allow participants to express themselves. This can include anything from a variety of text sizes, fonts and colors, to emoticons and avatars (Walther & Parks, 2002, p. 530).

Social presence refers to the level of emotional expression, open communication, and group cohesion available within a particular medium. A medium’s level of social presence may be measured by the amount of interpersonal contact possible and is related to the amount of immediacy, emotion, and intimacy felt by users (Walther & Parks, 2002, p. 150-151, 531). Choose systems and software that afford the right level of social presence for your community. Some media and systems are more “rich” than others. Media richness, for example, may include multiplicity of cue systems, availability of immediate feedback, message personalization, and language variety (Walther & Parks, 2002, p. 533).

Maintaining community
“Communities don’t just happen automatically when you provide communication tools: under the right conditions, online communities grow. They are gardened.” (Rheingold, 1998)

Once you have launched your online community, your work as a community gardener is not complete. Community and its social meanings are emergent, and, like plants, grow and change over time, requiring weeding and feeding. Community is a process; communities develop and continually evolve as they grow (Preece, 2000, p. 26). In communities, “social organization emerges in a dynamic process …in which participants invoke structures to create meanings in ways that researchers or system designers may not forsee” (Baym, 1998). As they develop, some communities may require major adjustments or even partial redesign. Even successful and smoothly running communities need tuning and pruning from time to time.

Maintaining a community can be seen as a continuous process of recruitment, stickiness, and buy-in. Recruitment is an ongoing process; although you may begin with a large and active group of participants, communities experience member attrition. This may be due to a shift in purpose, the reduction of members’ need for the community, or changes in members’ priorities. Turnover need not be a negative aspect of community; new people bring new ideas and expertise. There is also a need for new core members form time to time. They may burn out, no longer have time, or no longer feel affinity with the community’s purpose as it evolves.

Once you recruit participants, you need to create stickiness. Stickiness is what draws people to, but more importantly, holds them to, a Web site (Preece, 2000, p. 17). It can be created through compelling content, outstanding emotional support, invigorating discussion, or a unique combination of these things. Use stickiness to reach and maintain critical mass; this is the number of people an online community needs to attract others, making it worth joining. This means sufficient people and activity to sustain interest and offer multiple perspectives, but not too much that the community becomes chaotic and impersonal (Preece, 2000, p. 171). A community must be active, not passive, to survive. Therefore, in addition to new people, new information must be generated and new conversations started. If the community falters, moderators and core members must be cued to propose new topics and post new content before participants begin to leave.

Finally, you need to create buy-in to keep members contributing long -term. Rating and reward systems can help promote buy-in. As the amount of content grows, participants need to be directed to the best, most relevant topics. Allowing the community the opportunity to rate content is one way to differentiate and identify high quality or popular content as well as encourage participation. Reward systems provide recognition for the most active or highest quality contributors. For example, a participant could earn special symbols to appear by their name, a position on a leader board, or be featured in an interview on the site. Rating systems can also be a form of recognition when the contributor of the rated content is identified. When effort and performance are linked to outcomes, people will be motivated (Cosley, et al., 2005). In addition, when rewards are linked to a person’s identity, participants can develop reputations, another reason they will keep coming back.

Evaluating Community
Early evaluations of community are often focused around validating the purpose, people and policies. They are also most often used to check usability and other software functions. It is the time that early course adjustments are made and bugs fixed. But evaluation does not end there. Throughout the life of the community, evaluations are used to monitor the health and evolution of the community. The purpose, people, policies and systems may change, either by the initiative of the stakeholder or through growth of the community. To determine when changes are needed – or when they are happening spontaneously – periodic checks are needed. In addition, evaluations can ensure you are maintaining a critical mass of people and information flow.

Many stakeholders identify key metrics that they want the community to meet, usually within a specified period of time. These may include demographics about users, the number of and frequency with which users visit the community, the amount of content or number of message posts, or general network and server traffic thresholds. These metrics may seem simple; they are usually automatically collected by server logs. However, any quantitative evaluation will require careful interpretation of numeric data. For example, a large number of users alone is not an indicator of a healthy community. More information about who these users are and how they are using the community is required to make a good evaluation; perhaps some users came to the site once and never returned. You can collect data about the quantity of posts or exchanges of information within your community, but the quality and content of these messages will tell more about the health of the community than numbers can. Do collect metrics, but be sure that you understand the limitations and explanations that come along with them – and teach your stakeholder these lessons too.

There are many ways to collect information for evaluation. They may include data logging, expert reviews, surveys, interviews, content analysis, and network analysis. Surveys, particularly when done online, can be an inexpensive way to poll participants about a variety of things. You can measure complex demographics, check satisfaction with certain features, determine what the most important aspects of the community are, and solicit suggestions for improvement. Do be sure that those who respond to your survey are representative of the whole community population. Interviews are a more thorough but time consuming way to gather information. Interactive interviewers often gain more insight than a survey, particularly from core members. During the course of an interview, issues are often brought up through anecdotes, issues that may not have been thought of during survey design.

Content analysis is a quantitative way to assess the content of a community. Some of the advantages of this method are the accuracy of data (vs. asking participants to recall message content) and the unobtrusiveness of its collection (no need to bother anyone for their time) (Baxter & Babbie, 2004, p. 231-232). In content analysis, text is coded into a meaningful set of categories in order to understand themes and quantify the frequency and distribution of words, thoughts, or ideas (Preece, 2000, p. 334). Because this method is repeatable, it is useful in comparing one community to another, or to track differences in one community over time. Identifying a developing “language” specific to a community can be used as a measure of its maturity, or find trends in the community – such is if it is going off-course (Baym, 1998).

Network analysis maps the relationships between people and between groups within the community. The aim is to describe how people communicate by identifying prominent patterns and tracing the flow of information (Preece, 2000, p. 183). Such an analysis can identify current core members (who have many ties in the map), and identify those who may need to be encouraged to contribute more (who have few ties in the map). It helps identify the range and variety of connectivity of the community. The data for network analysis can be collected using either automated means (such as logs of messages sent) or through survey or interview methods.

Conclusion
To successfully build an online community, you need to fully appreciate the planning, maintenance, and evaluation stages. Clear purpose, roles, policies and systems chosen with an eye for social interaction give the community a good framework on which to grow. Regular maintenance and evaluation guide the community along the desired path. Following good guidelines does not guarantee the success of a community. However, like a garden, communities planted in fertile, well-tilled soil, then nurtured and watched, are likely to result in a good harvest.

Works Cited

Baym, N. (1998). The emergence of on-line community. In S. Jones (Ed.), Cybersociety 2.0 (pp. 35-68). Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Baxter, L. A., & Babbie, E. (2004). The basics of communication research. Belmont, CA: Thompson/Wadsworth. Chapter 10: Quantitative text analysis.

Cosley, D., Frankowski, D., Kiesler, S., Terveen, L. and Riedl, J. (2005). How oversight improves member-maintained communities. Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems. Portland, Oregon, USA.

Preece, J. (2000). On-line Communities. Wiley.

Rheingold, H. (1998). The Art of Hosting Good Conversations Online. Retrieved from http://www.rheingold.com/texts/artonlinehost.html.

Ridings, C. & Gefen, D. (2004). Virtual Community Attraction: Why People Hang Out Online. JCMC 10(1), article 4. Retrieved from: http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol10/issue1/ridings_gefen.html.

Walther, J. B., & Parks, M. R. (2002). Cues filtered out, cues filtered in: Computer-mediated communication and relationships. In M. L. Knapp & J. A. Daly (Eds.), Handbook of interpersonal communication (3rd ed., pp. 529-563). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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