After writing a post the other day about what DIDN’T work for an online writing space that I am part of for the Massachusetts New Literacies Initiative, I realized that I probably should come at the topic from the opposite direction: What DOES work for creating a strong online network?
Here are a few ideas that I have mulled over in my role as a participant and facilitator of various spaces. Some of the concepts here also stem from a book that my friend, Paul Oh, recommended many years back. The book — Design for Community: The Art of Connecting Real People in Virtual Spaces, by Derek Powazek — was published in 2002 and the world has changed considerably since then (of course). Still, much of what Powazek wrote about lingers in the back of my mind.
My ideas for creating and supporting and extending an online writing community:
- The most obvious idea is that users need to have some sort of shared connections. Disparate interests might bring folks together for the short term, but unless they find things to write about, to learn about and to share about, it seems unlikely that the community can last for the long haul. The thread that binds us together in online communities is the thread that leads us back there again and again. Sometimes, this might be groups within networks, or the entire network itself. We yearn to self-identify, don’t we? An online space can meet those needs that we have to be part of something meaningful.
- One of the ideas that Powazek writes about is the idea of a gated entry, which is the concept that a user must go through some process (registration, answer questions, etc.) before becoming part of the networking space. While you might assume this is to keep spam bots out, Powazek contends that by having a person invest time in the process, they are investing themselves in the network. Once invested, a person is more likely to think of themselves as part of the network itself, and not just a fly-by-night passerby. At the time I read this, I th0ught it to be counter-intuitive. Don’t we want the walls to be low? But over time, I have come to believe that he is right. A little work goes a long way to envisioning the importance of membership. Otherwise, you have people dropping anchor and never really becoming part of the network. They just take up virtual space.
- An obvious element of a strong network is the concept of the “welcome wagon,” which is someone who says “hello” to newcomers, offers some advice on where to begin and is available for questions. Steve Hargadon did this at Classroom 2.0 in its early years, and I thought it so important that in the networks that I manage, I always have that in place. This gives instant feedback to new folks, and lets them know there are people who care about them in the space. In larger networks, you’d have to deputize folks to help with the welcome wagon. But don’t push it aside. It gives a humanizing approach to a virtual community.
- Design matters, and you want the design of a site to be friendly, reflective of the values of the connections, and (even with the initial membership obstacle discussed above) easy to use. Most people don’t have patience. It’s sort of like a first-impression. Make it difficult to add a post, or submit a comment, and you may have already lost the battle for folks already uncomfortable with technology. The trick here is that most of us (me) are not programmers, so we use sites that have built-in templates, with some wiggle room for changes. Even so, we can make choices that reflect our communities.
- I find it useful to have some sort of notifications of new activity going out to users. The trick is to find the balance between useful information and blabber that will turn people off. But notifications are a good tool for drawing someone back to a site for participation and reminds them of why they joined in the first place. It’s beneficial to allow users to opt out of notification alerts, too.
- Create paths for leadership by being open to members becoming leaders of the site you have created. This can be difficult if you have a vision for the site, and then suddenly, you realize that users have a much different vision. But their leadership and activity is what keeps the space alive, not you (not me). At some point, you need to slowly give up some of the reins if you want your site to be more than just a kingdom in which you are the undisputed ruler.
- The corollary of that point is to be ready for change and accept it as a natural progression of a site. This has sort of happened at a writing site that I helped create, in that the places that I thought would be high interest are not always high interest, and an unexpected idea has suddenly flourished and thrived. It took me the longest time to realize, “this is what our site is about right now,” but that realization gave me satisfaction, too. The members spoke their minds with their actions.
- Activities matter, particularly when a site is built around the writing of users. Having regular activities that folks can participate in provides them with an invitation to come back and contribute. Many people will respond to that kind of invitation. We can’t expect that folks will constantly live at the site (unless you are a Facebook community, I suppose).
- While we are shifting into the age of multimedia, the fact is that writing is still the main form of communication for most networking sites. A good site allows for images and video and audio, but still provides an easy way to write and respond to writing. In a few years, this may no longer be the case that writing is the center of a network, but it is right now. Make sure a user can tap into the inner writer.
- Remember that most sites have a lifespan, which means that your site (your idea) might die out naturally. You might go through the grieving process, and even get frustrated at your members. Don’t. I can list a few blogs and communities that I have been part of that were valuable for a time, but then, disappeared off my radar. They served a purpose for the time and then, didn’t. That happens. Be ready for it.
I hope this is a bit more positive than my last post, and it sure has helped me think through more things related to online communities. I value the ones I am in and look forward to the ones I may be in and fondly remembers the ones that I was part of. What more can you ask for.
And, of course, what have I missed? What works for you in your networks?
Peace (in the reflections),