Creating Online Community: Critical Issues and Practical Guidelines

Submitted by Colleen E. Brown on November 26 to the On-line Interaction and Facilitation Seminar, Fall 2007, Purdue University,
Dr. Sorin A. Matei via the I Think Blog

The need for group membership, social support, and information gathering are part of the human condition. Millions of people turn to the internet to fulfill such needs. Online communities are becoming an increasingly important part of people’s communicatiave lives. People are motivated to form communities of interest, of practice, and of learning. Whatever the reason for forming an online community, good design that speaks to both social and technical concerns is critical in attracting people to the community and enticing them to stay. Design that puts the needs of the community first is essential. Practical guidelines for good design that are based on established social scientific principles simply makes sense. Therefore, a process for online community development is presented and the main principles that should direct the building and maintenance of successful online communities are addressed.

Definitions and Core Attributes
The great community debate, virtual or otherwise, is alive and well, though it will not be visited here. Consequently, settling on a definition is important. Preece (2000) proposed a working definition of an online community that is particularly useful because it provides a conceptual framework through which developers can make operational decisions. According to Preece (2000, p. 10), an online community consists of:

Shared purpose, such as an interest, need, information exchange, or service that provides a reason for the community.

People, who interact socially as they strive to satisfy their own needs or perform special roles, such as leading or moderating.

Policies, in the form of tacit assumptions, rituals, protocols, rules, and laws that guide people’s interactions.

Computer systems, to support and mediate social interaction and facilitate a sense of togetherness.

Several of the major components of her definition grew out of a set of core characteristics developed by a multidisciplinary group of human-computer interaction professionals. These researchers identified the following as core attributes of an online community (Whitaker, Issacs, & O’Day, 1997, p. 137):

Members have a shared goal, interest, need, or activity that provides the primary reason for belonging to the community.

Members engage in repeated, active participation; often, intense interactions, strong emotional ties, and shared activities occur among participants.

Members have access to shared resources, and policies determine the access to those resources.

Reciprocity of information, support, and services among members is important.

There is shared context of social conventions, language, and protocols.

The brainstorming sessions also generated several other non-core attributes that have been found to impact online interactions: different roles and the reputations of people in those roles, awareness of membership boundaries and group identity, initiation criteria for joining, community history and duration of existence, and notable events or rituals (Whitaker et al., 1997, p. 137). It is the job of developers to create opportunities for these core attributes to emerge through the social and technical choices they make.

These core attributes give rise to two essential ideas in community formation and maintenance: social interaction and evolution. First, the issues surrounding online community formation and maintenance are largely social organization/interaction issues, not technical issues. There is no doubt that technical aspects such as navigation, software selection, site appearance, and access issues are essential and one should not diminish their importance. However, technical decisions are inextricably bound to decisions about the social structure of an online community. The notion of planning for social interaction and developing social policies is known as sociability (Preece, 2000) and the technical aspects of executing good design that allows people to perform tasks intuitively and easily is known as usability. As Preece (2000) succinctly points out, developers should plan for sociability and design for usability. Second, an examination of the core attributes invokes a feeling of evolution. It is critical to understand the notion that online community is not an entity; it is a process (Fernback, 1999). The most successful online communities incorporate the idea of evolving social practices into development and design from the very beginning.

Taking into account the idea of process and evolution, Kim (1999), an online community consultant and developer, identified three basic online community design principles. First, design for growth and change. A critical mistake made by many developers is over-designing the community upfront. Kim (1999) notes that the most successful communities often start out small, simple, and focused, and then grow organically over time based on the changing needs of members and the changing conditions of the environment. Second, create and maintain feedback loops (Kim, 1999). Closely related to the first principle, designers of successful online communities manage this co-evolution by keeping in touch with members and allowing their input to guide social, and by extension, technical decisions. Third, empower members over time (Kim, 1999). Initially, it is up to developers to define the purpose of the community, to choose the platforms and software that supports the overall purpose, and to set the tone of the community through initial governance decisions and policies. As the community matures, it is essential that members play a progressively larger role in building, adjusting, and maintaining the community culture (Kim, 1999). These three design principles place community members/users squarely in the center of the initial design process and keeps them there throughout the life span of the community.

Given these three basic design principles, developers have employed a variety of frameworks to ensure that user needs are the central focus and that user feedback is incorporated into the evolving character of the community. Building on the research and practical principles of user-centered design (Norman, 1986) and participatory design (Schuler & Namioka, 1993), Preece (2000) proposed a community-centered development process where users work with developers throughout the entire process of community formation. This iterative process involves continuous develop-test-retest cycles and is a useful foundation for guiding online community development decisions. The five stages of this process are (Preece, 2000, p. 210):

1. Assessing community needs and analyzing user tasks

2. Selecting technology and planning sociability

3. Designing, implementing, and testing prototypes

4. Refining and tuning sociability and usability

5. Welcoming and nurturing the community

Stages 1 and 2 are the most important and labor intensive stages in the community centered design process. Accordingly, the first two stages will be covered in detail in order to ferret out the main principles, practices, and critical issues surrounding the building and maintenance of online communities. Toward these ends, the goal of this paper is to identify the social arrangements, developer decisions, and human interaction issues that are relevant to these two planning stages.

Identifying Purpose, Assessing Needs, and Analyzing User Tasks
Stage 1 involves answering the following questions: what type of community is being developed, why it is being developed, and who it is being developed for (Kim, 1999). This stage involves identifying and clearly articulating the community’s purpose(s) and goal(s), identifying and understanding the needs of the community, identifying and examining potential participants, and identifying the tasks and activities the community participants will engage in. Each of these areas will be examined individually, however it is important to realize that purpose, goals, needs, people, and tasks are interrelated. Decisions in one area directly impact the outcomes in another area.

Examining a case study is useful for illustrating the cyclical nature of purpose, goals, needs, people, and tasks. A parent of a child with Down Syndrome (DS) wanted to create a community for the purpose of supporting research into the condition (Preece, 2000). A loosely organized website created by parents of children with DS already existed and several other parents moderated an AOL chat room dedicated to the issue. Researchers from the University of Maryland acted as community developers and worked closely with these parents to create the Down Syndrome Research Online Advocacy Group (DSROAG). The first step in assessing community needs was to talk to potential community members and find out what was important to them. Developers interviewed the parents already active online and attended several community events dedicated to the issue. From these resources, the developers compiled a list of email addresses and sent out a survey in order to better assess community goals and participant needs. Based on responses to this survey, a more finely tuned list of purposes and goals was produced that spoke directly to the needs of potential community participants. In order of user-identified importance, the DSROAG was founded with the purposes and goals of (Preece, 2000):

Supporting interaction among parents of children with DS in the form of providing and receiving emotional support

Organizing and disseminating the most current information about medical issues and educational opportunities for children with DS

Bridging the gap between the research community and parents of children with DS by supporting interaction between scientists and parents

Informing visitors to the community of the process by which funding is allocated by US lawmakers and to provide links to legitimate channels of fund raising

These clearly stated purposes and goals for the site guided social interaction decisions and helped define the culture of the site before any technical decisions were made. For example, given the sensitive nature of the topic, the developers decided that registration should be required to discourage casual visitors who may disrupt the supportive environment the community members hoped to create (sociability issue). The technical decisions regarding site design and user tasks grow logically from the clearly stated purposes, goals, and needs of the community. Developers knew that the site must provide the following user tasks (usability issues): login and registration, posting and reading of information, message sending and receiving in the form of bulletin boards and a listserv, and search mechanisms to aid members in finding desired information. The case study will be revisited in a moment. Let’s first examine some practical implications of defining purpose and assessing user needs more closely.

As stated earlier, the community’s purpose(s) and goal(s) are likely to continuously evolve over time; however, a developer must start somewhere. Kim (1999, p. 2) states that “a successful community serves a clear purpose in the lives of its members…articulating your vision up-front will help you focus your thinking and attract your core audience.” Sometimes purpose is very clear, as in the case of the DSROAG, and sometimes it is more elusive. There are needs that are connected specifically to a narrow interest or field, such as the need for current research about DS. There are also needs that are more basic to the human condition, such as the need for affinity and connection. It is helpful to investigate what basic needs motivate people to join an online community in order to better understand how to appeal to those motivations and fulfill user needs.

Ridings and Geffen (2004) empirically examined the reasons why people join online communities. The study revealed, in order of ranked importance, the following motivations for seeking and maintaining membership in online communities: information exchange, social support and friendship, technical features, common interest, and entertainment (Ridings & Geffen, 2004). Based on these results, developers should pay particular attention to making information exchange more efficient and enjoyable for its members by including search capabilities, properly naming discussion boards, providing links to similar topics of interest, and using experts to facilitate information creation. However, social support and friendship were also frequently named motivations for joining and maintaining membership in an online community. In addition to providing opportunities for efficient information exchange, developers would be well served to pay close attention fostering support and friendship opportunities. What are the underlying mechanisms that can help explain these results?

Research in social psychology reveals that humans have an innate need to belong and to be affiliated with others because group membership provide individuals with information, helps individuals achieve personal goals, and affords people the opportunity to give and receive rewards (Watson & Johnson, 1972). According to social identity theory, memberships in social groups form an important part of our self-concept—people derive their sense of identity largely from the social groups to which they belong (Tajfel, 1978). The desire for group membership is driven by the need to complete our self-identity and the delineation between in and out-group members serves to increase self-esteem (Tajfel, 1978). It is critical that developers weave opportunities for the formation of group identification into the social context of the community. Maslow (1943) developed a theory of human motivation that has stood the test of time. In his theory, Maslow (1943) states that humans are motivated by the urge to satisfy needs ranging from basic survival to self-fulfillment and places these needs on a hierarchy, suggesting we strive to satisfy the lowest needs first. Kim (1999) suggests that developers can extend Maslow’s (1943) hierarchy to express the forms these needs can take in online communities (see figure 1).

Self-actualization Needs
Online–The ability to take on a community role that develops skills and opens new opportunities
Offline–Ability to fulfill one’s potential

Self-esteem Needs
Online–The ability to contribute to a community and be recognized for those contributions
Offline–Self-respect, the ability to earn respect of others and contribute to society

Social Needs
Online–Belonging to an online group and building self-identity through group identification
Offline–The ability to give and receive love; the feeling of belonging to a group

Security and Safety Needs
Online–Protection from hacking and personal attacks; the sense of having a level playing field
Offline–Protection from crimes and war; the sense of living in a fair and just society

Physiological Needs
Online–System access; the ability to participate in an online community and maintain one’s identity
Offline–Food, clothing, shelter, health

It is useful to examine this hierarchy to make sure the community is meeting the most basic needs, as well as offering users an opportunity to reach the highest-level needs.

An important function of creating group identity and communicating purpose is deciding on a community name and its accompanying tagline. The community name should be meaningful, it should represent the overall purpose, and it should help define the culture of the community (Preece, 2000). According to Krug (2006), a tagline should be clear and informative, just long enough to convey a full thought (usually no more than 8 words), should convey differentiation and benefits, and should be personable, lively, and sometimes clever. It is also essential for community developers to write and present a clear, concise statement of purpose that is easy to locate within the site. These principles might seem inane but they are a crucial step because they force developers to be clear on purpose and goals. More importantly, they help potential members judge whether or not a community is worth joining and if the community is going to meet their needs (Preece, 2000).

The DSROAG developers addressed these issues well. In order to communicate the site’s purpose the following tagline appears directly under the name of the community: “Bridging the gap between parents and Down Syndrome Research”. A short statement of purpose is also posted: “The Down Syndrome Research Online Advocacy Group is a non- profit scientific and educational effort aimed at increasing public understanding and support for scientific and medical research into Down syndrome.” Potential community members are clearly informed of community purpose and goals within seconds of visiting the homepage.

Once the purpose and goals of a community are clear, developers should be able to create potential user profiles: Who are the most likely users of this community? What are they like? Homogenous or heterogeneous? Broad or narrow interests? Similar or diverse technical skills? In addition to using the tenets of social scientific theories to guide needs assessment, developers should speak directly to potential users in order to uncover motivations for joining the online community. The methods of conducting this research vary widely in sophistication and the choice of methods is largely dependent on issues such as budget, time constraints, and staffing. Research techniques such as interviews, surveys, focus groups, and ethnographies are some of the available means for assessing community needs (Preece, 2000). It also may be useful to investigate similar online communities to create profiles and/or assess needs. While these specific techniques will not be covered in detail here, developers should talk to potential users in some fashion in order to better understand user needs, motivations, and desires. As Kim (1999) rightly points out, “Don’t let a tight budget stop you from doing research yourself…some testing is better than none” (p. 14).

Once the community purposes and goals are largely defined, user profiles have been created, and user needs are clear, analyzing user tasks is relatively simple. Identifying the main kinds of activities users will engage in usually fall into the following categories (Preece, 2000):

  • Log-in/Registration
  • Composing and sending messages
  • Receiving and reading messages
  • Uploading and/or downloading information
  • Searching for messages, information, and people in archives
  • Connecting to additional sources

There is a multitude of ways that each of these user tasks can be accomplished. Developers must choose the software that supports these tasks and take into consideration the impact of software choice.

Selecting Technology and Planning Sociability
Coate (1998) states that “When you log in to an online service, you use new tools for an ancient activity. Even with all the screen and wires and chips and lines, it still comes down to people talking to each other.” The role of the developer is to provide software that enables communication and to help guide user’s social interaction through sociability planning.

The communication capabilities each type of software affords will shape the social interaction in the community. Online communication is defined along two dimensions: synchronous and asynchronous communication. Synchronous software supports communication that happens in real time and users must be present at the same time to participate. Examples of synchronous communication tools are chat rooms, instant messaging, MUDs, MOOs, and virtual environments. Asynchronous software supports communication that does not require users to be present in real time. Messages can be posted and responses can be accessed at the user’s convenience. Examples of asynchronous communication tools are mailing lists, listservs, bulletin boards, and forums.

Preece and Maloney-Krichmar (2003) outline nicely strengths and weaknesses of each type of communication software. Synchronous communication is highly interactive, helps create a sense of co-presence, and provides a sense of immediacy. Disadvantages include having to be present in real time, no time to reflect, compose or edit postings, number of people that can communicate at once is limited, fast pace may hinder quality interaction, several conversations are present at once which may lead to confusion, and depending on the sophistication of the software, the system requirements may entail special downloads and configurations. Asynchronous communication is an excellent platform for asking and answering questions as it allows users time to reflect, compose and edit postings, communication can be accessed at the user’s convenience, it supports high-volume communities, the topical organization of discussions makes it easy for users to find what they need, can support in-depth conversations over a period of time, threaded discussion can create a sense of community history, and it generally requires no special equipment beyond internet access. Disadvantages include a lower sense of social presence which may lead to increased incidences of flaming, newcomers may find it difficult to break into the conversations, and following threads can be confusing. Decisions regarding software and communication tools are dependent on the purpose and goals of the community, the needs users expressed, and the size of the community. Developers can choose to embed a variety of communication tools or concentrate all activity in the community on one tool. Whichever software is chosen, special attention should be paid to good usability by ensuring interfaces are consistent, controllable, and predictable (Preece, 2000). If the software is difficult to learn and use, users will be turned away. As discussed earlier, sociability issues are critical to the shape and feel of an online community. Social structures and community policies should be planned parallel to selecting appropriate software.

Sociability planning can make or break a community. Sociability issues at this stage are concerned with the types of people that populate the community, the differing roles members will play, and the initial rules and policies that will guide social interaction and user behavior. Developers must find ways to encourage vibrant discussions, new ideas, and compelling content while simultaneously creating a supportive social environment that attracts newcomers and engages long-time members. Kim (1999) notes that “communities are held together by a web of social roles, and you can help your community flourish by providing features and programs that support these roles.” (p. 117).

Kim (1999) identified five stages of community involvement that reflect varying member roles. Visitors are people without persistent identity in the community. Novices are new members who need to learn the ropes and be introduced into community life. Regulars are established members who are comfortable participating in the community. Leaders are volunteers, contractors, and staff that keep the community running. Elders are long-time regulars and leaders who share their knowledge, are passionate about the community, and pass along the culture of the community. Developers should address the needs and expectations of each differing role and level of community involvement.

Welcome pages, help center, tutorials, and FAQ’s help visitors and novices orient to the community. The absence of such features may discourage visitors from joining and will likely frustrate novices. Inspiring regulars to become leaders/elders is critical to the long-term viability of any online community. Interesting and vibrant content must be made available to entice users to come back to the community. In the initial stages of the community, developers should recruit a core group of members who are willing and able to generate such content and create new discussions. A variety of personalities are necessary to sustain group involvement and member interest. Members who artfully but respectfully stir controversy are important as no one wants to belong to a community where everyone agrees on every issue (Coate, 1998). Leaders/elders that are willing to help communicate community history, initiate novices, participate in holding cyclical community events, and cultivate community rituals are an essential asset in any successful online community (Kim, 1999). Developers can recruit such members based on either interest in the community or expertise in a particular area.

Researchers have described people’s willingness to post information, advice, and opinions online as a form of gift-giving (Lampel and Bhalla, 2007). Offline, altruism and reciprocity have been found to be key motives behind gift giving. Lampel and Bhalla (2007) found that a key motive behind gift giving online is status seeking. Thus, as community life progresses, developers should spotlight enthusiasts and reward their efforts accordingly (Kim, 1999). Software that highlights status, for example how long someone has been a member and how prolific a poster they are, is available. Leaders/elders can be granted special privileges such as the ability to create and run sub-groups. Strategies that draw attention to good performance shows all members what success looks like and motivates the most valuable members to stay involved. Developers should only use such strategies if they enhance participation and group cohesion; care should be taken that status issues don’t polarize the community or alienate novices. In addition to supporting different member roles in the community, sociability issues also include community governance.

Online communities must settle on rules or policies for two reasons: to provide legal protection for developers and members and to discourage anti-social behavior (Preece, 2000). Members need to know how a community plans on using their personal information (privacy), that their information is safe and confidential (security), and what guidelines are present to ensure proper and legal use of information (copyright). Clearly stated policies regarding privacy, security, and copyright must be present in any online community and are generally universal. Policies governing acceptable behavior, however, vary widely. Designing and implementing policies that govern member conduct represent critical developer decisions.

Ostrum (1990) analyzed a variety of offline communities in order to identify the qualities of successful, sustained communities. Ostrom (1990) found that communities are most successful when members are allowed to customize the sanctions and norms that guide their behavior, when rules governing behavior are well matched to local needs and conditions, and when the right to devise their own rules is respected by external authorities. These research findings indicate that initial rules and policies should be minimal and developers should allow rules and norms to emerge from members. Baym’s (1998) online community research reveals that stable patterns of interaction emerge and are recreated again and again through a group’s ongoing discourse. As the group matures into a community, behavioral norms, such as taboos against flaming, emerge and members devise unofficial ways to reinforce these norms by creating structural sanctions against violating them. The emergence of unwritten codes of conduct can lead to a greater sense of group identity and feeling of true community (Baym, 1998). The downside of instilling minimal codes of conduct is the risk that such behavioral norms will not emerge effectively. Developers must initially ban the most egregious forms of anti-social behavior, monitor the community over time, and impose any additional rules as problems arise. This can be important and time consuming job, especially for large or busy communities.

Ostrum (1990) found that even the most successful communities require a system to monitor and sanction behavior. Online, this job is generally carried out by moderators. Moderators perform such tasks as keeping the group on topic, managing lists, filtering messages, opening questions and discussions, preventing serious flame wars, settling disputes, and acting as experts (Preece, 2000). Level of moderation and the associated techniques vary widely from community to community and are largely influenced by what the community sees as its purpose. Ostrum’s (1990) research indicates that community monitoring works best when it is carried out by members rather than by external authorities. Preece (2000, p. 292) states that moderators “must learn to achieve a balance: exerting too much control deters participation; too little can result in loss of focus, frustration, and aggression” (see Collins & Berge, 1997; Salmon, 2000 for excellent tips on moderation).

Finally, developers must decide on registration policies. Communities that don’t require registration and/or don’t require members to use their real namegenerally attract higher populations , are convenient, provide easy entry, and allow more freedom to play with one’s whims and identity (Coate, 1998). While this approach may increase traffic, entirely open communities are often plagued with unscrupulous people who flame for fun, cross-post spam, and distribute scams (Preece, 2000). Requiring people to officially join, provide their real name, and password protecting the community does somewhat deter this behavior. Communities that require a member to register and provide their real namegenerally attract a lower population, but create a greater likelihood that people will be truthful with each other, greater commitment, and better support the possibility that members will form long-lasting relationships (Coate, 1998). Developers need to consider the nature of the content within the community when deciding on joining policies—for example, members of communities dealing with health issues may feel especially vulnerable about their disclosures when non-members are present. These decisions represent important trade-offs and developers should base these decisions on the purpose and goals of the community and expressed user needs.

Implementing, Testing, Redesigning, and Measuring
The first two stages of the community development process represent the bulk of social decisions a developer must make. At this point, the purpose and goals are clear, are based on the expressed needs of users, differing roles are acknowledged and planned for, decisions regarding moderation have been established, codes of conduct have been addressed, and registration policies are in place. The next stages involve creating prototypes, involving potential users to test prototypes and give feedback, and redesigning based on feedback. Some techniques for testing usability and evaluating sociability are informal and some are formal (see Dumas & Redish for techniques in usability testing). Again, the sophistication of the techniques developers choose will likely be based on budget and staffing issues. Some testing is better than no testing. It is crucial to illicit user feedback in some form because unforeseen problems always arise and users are able to approach the project with a critical eye (Krug, 2006). Welcoming and nurturing the community involves getting the community noticed and continually searching for new members. Supplying new and interesting information in community discussion is crucial at this stage; otherwise members will not be enticed to return.

Measuring the success of an online community can take on many forms. It is important to periodically assess the ‘health’ of a community to help prevent community death. Developers may have overlooked certain requirements and community needs may have changed. New people join and important contributors may have left, changing the dynamics of the community. Choice of method depends on what questions a developer wants answered.

Measuring metrics is generally the first step in quantifying activity—including number of members, basic demographics, and length of membership (Preece, 2000). Metrics can map activity cycles such as the number of messages sent over a period of time or by a particular member. Several techniques directly ask members to report their satisfaction with usability and sociability issues in the community. Member surveys are inexpensive, relatively easy to distribute, and low cost. Members can rate effectiveness of policies, level of moderation, how well the community meets needs, technical concerns, task availability, and overall satisfaction. Developers should be aware of poor item construction and response biases when drafting and analyzing surveys. Interviews and focus groups are also useful in discovering opinions of members. While they create more detailed information, interviews are time consuming, can be expensive, require skilled interviewers, and can’t reach as many members. Observational techniques such as ethnography are useful in understanding context and social interaction from an insider’s perspective. Baym (1998) used ethnography to study an online community. As a result of her experience, she was able to articulate the importance of emergent traditions such as specialized lingo, group norms, and performance as an indicator of community strength. Content and discourse analyses can be used to develop an understanding of different types of content, frequency of various topic categories, and the meaning and intent of communication present in the community. Measurement should be undertaken with a particular question or goal in mind for the purposes of detecting problems before they arise and to guide the future directions of the community.

This paper has covered the key principles and practices in designing user-centered communities. Clear purpose and goals are critical because they guide many of the subsequent decisions regarding user tasks, types of software, and community governance. Fulfilling the expressed and innate needs of users are prerequisites of successful communities. The crucial social arrangements and human interaction issues such as relative advantages and disadvantages of communication software, differing user roles and motivations for participation, codes of conduct, and registration policies have been covered. Development choices that are grounded in social scientific principles add to the validity of the social interaction decisions and increase the likelihood of success of the community. As long as community needs and member participation are put at the center of decisions, the probability of success is increased, whatever path a developer follows in creating online community.

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