Purpose of a Web Based Community
According to Sue Boettcher, “The purpose of your community and the needs of the group will dictate what tools you use and kind of community you build” (Sue Boettcher, Online Community Toolkit, 1999). Boettcher goes on to suggest that the needs, interest, location, time zone and even financial resources of community members must be considered when designing an online community. She adds that geographically diverse groups with time zone disparities would find it difficult to meet in an online chat room. Such a group might find their interest best served by the use of email or newsletters. Additionally, the needs of the group must be considered when deciding if the community is to be closed, thus protecting the privacy of its members, or open to the general public.
Nancy White agrees with Boettcher in that the purpose of the community must be established prior to actually building the community (Full Circle Associates, 2002). White describes defining the “intent” of the community with the following points.
Does it have a mission or a vision that you can communicate to potential members?
Are the benefits measurable and visible to members and potential members?
Is the outcome determined by the organizer? Group members? Both?
If the group is part of a larger organization, is it consistent with organizational goals and culture?
Is the group's purpose something that can only be done/accomplished online? Will it replace something offline? Or is it some combination?
Strategies for Designing Successful Web Communities
As stated earlier in this document, advanced software has made the creation of web sites, as well as web based communities, a thing of relative ease. Simplicity however, does not ensure success. Launching a web site can take only minuets, attracting visitors can take years. Initially, a new community can be like an open house with no sign or street address to direct people to its location. Advanced planning is required to determine not only who the target audience is, but how to alert them to your presence. In similar fashion, once new visitors arrive, a host of environmental factors conspire which may convert them into members of the community, or cause them to leave in confusion. For this reason, Amy Jo Kim describes on her website what she has titled, “Nine Timeless Design Strategies” for designing web communities (www.naima.com). Confirming Sue Boettcher’s admonition that the purpose of a community must be defined, Kim begins her list of strategies on the foundation of purpose. Kim states that communities come to life when they fill a need. This is why she stresses the need to understand not only why you want to build a community, but who you are building it for. This vision must then be communicated through design, ease of navigation, policy and technology.
1. Define and articulate your purpose
2. Build flexible, extensible gathering places
3. Create meaningful and evolving member profiles
4. Design for a range of roles
5. Develop a strong leadership program
6. Encourage appropriate etiquette
7. Promote cyclic events
8. Integrate the rituals of community life
9. Facilitate member-run subgroups
Implied in the word “successful”, is the potential for failure. There are no sure things on the web and community building is no exception. Adding to the above, Derek Powasek states,”Every Community site comes with a set of rules… The challenge then, is to set the rules wisely, communicate them clearly, and enforce them fairly.” (Powasek, 2003).
Characteristics of Web Based Communities
A report was prepared from the brainstorming workshop held at an ACM Computer Human Interaction (AHI) Conference which dealt with the theory and practice of physical and network communities in which the following characteristics were identified. .
Members engage in repeated, active participation and there are often intense interactions, strong emotional ties and shared activities occurring between participants.
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 there are policies for determining access to those resources.
Reciprocity of information, support and services between members is important.
There is a shared context of social conventions, language, and protocols.
(Whittaker, Issacs, & Day, 1997, p. 137)
It was also agreed that the following characteristics, though not essential, could impact online interactions to a significant degree.
Evidence of people having different roles.
Awareness of membership boundaries and group identity.
Initiation criteria for joining the community.
History and existence over a period of time.
Notable events or rituals.
Shared physical environments.
Types of Web Based Communities
Dependent on ones definition of community, an authoritative list of community types may be difficult. Donovan’s definition of an online community as previously stated, gives us a reference from which to begin. Agreeing that, “an online community is a medium of interaction to connect people in different locations based on a common interest or need”, (Donovan, 2005) we will attempt to identify and describe some of the various types of web based communities.
1. Email Groups: Email groups are formed with a list of email addresses and then using email to generate discussions between them. Though there are other web based approaches for this, a special program called a “list-bot” is typically used to facilitate the mailing activities. Because everyone on the recipient list receives the email, the emails may become too large or eventual accusations of spamming may occur.
a. A simple definition of email is “messages that are sent electronically via computer networks” (Library Skills Online – Glossary). Though the word email is today freely bantered and rolls off the tongue of preschoolers as if a fifth appendage, it was a bit more cumbersome in it youth. Prior to the email that we are familiar with today, an early version existed in which an electronic message could be sent to a user on the same computer. In 1972, a network adaptation of email was created by Ray Tomlinson of BBN (Bolt, Beranek and Newman). The @ symbol was chosen to link the user name with the network address. Using a program that he wrote called “SNDMSG”; Tomlinson sent the first email over the APRANET. Today there are over 684 million email users worldwide (The Radicati Group, July 2005)
2. Newsgroups: Essentially a collection of electronic bulletin boards, newsgroups are one of the earliest forms of public discussion on the net. Typically accessed through Microsoft Outlook, newsgroups may present a bit of a technical challenge for the first time user..
3. Chat Room: A chat room is a virtual meeting area over the internet where users can communicate with others in real time. Exchange of communication is rapid and can be interrupted by others. Due to the generally unsupervised nature in the environment, topics can change quickly or be difficult to follow.
4. Discussion Board: Although sometimes used synonymously with “newsgroup”, a discussion board is a general term used to describe an online bulletin board in which the user can leave a message and wait for a response. Commonly, an administrator or moderator will review forum post and edit or censor if deemed appropriate. Members who violate accepted board conduct may be suspended or banned. Discussion boards represent the most common means of online communication in the bodybuilding community.
5. MUD’s: MUD’s (Multi User Dungeons), are multi player computer games that combine elements of role playing and social interaction. Exchanges can occur by way of instant messaging or chat rooms.
6. Meetup: Meetup is an online social networking portal that allows users in various locations to connect via common interest. Users can enter their zip code or city location, topic of the meeting and then attempt to arrange a meeting in a physical location.
Online Community building in made possible by means of software applications which are published to a specific web address. It is vital therefore, that the community builders understand the technical aspects of the online environment that they are creating. Not all software applications are created equally, thus serious consideration must be given to the usability of the user interface prior to launch. If the community software is confusing and difficult to navigate, potential members are likely to become frustrated and move on to other things. In an article titled, “Building Communities – Strategies for Collaborative Learning”, Soren Kaplan states “Community members should spend more time learning about the topic than about how to use a given technology” (Kaplan 2002). Adding to this, McDermott (2001) states “Ease of use is more about how the software integrates with people’s daily work, the knowledge they need to share, the way they think about their community’s domain.”
Recognizing that the community software must be manageable by the community builders, and functional to the members, user support which includes online documentation should be provided. The builders must also decide on the types of discussion tools that will be used. Synchronous discussion tools such as instant messaging or chat may serve the community well if managed properly and lead to instability if not. Personal profiles and avatars may lend a degree of familiarity or serve as a distraction. Polling, collaborative writing and search tools are among other features that may be considered as well. While the technical array of software features may be tempting, it is important to remember that a community is comprised of individuals. For this reason, McDermott further states “There is so much good technology for collaborating and sharing information that it is tempting to focus on the functionality of products. But the real challenge is to design the social side of information technology.”
In her book “Community Building on the Web”, Amy Jo Kim asks the question, “What is a successful community” (Kim, Amy Jo. 2000). Kim responds to here own question with a series of further questions, each of which is best answered by the person’s who created the community. After presenting a list of scenarios, Kim suggests that any one of them may be considered successful “depending on how the people who create, manage, and participate in that group define success”. Adding to this, Kim states that a community of only 12 members may be considered successful if it meets the needs of all of its members.
Certainly there are other considerations which come to mind when questioning a community to be successful. Richness of content and depth of interaction will not suffice to maintain a community that fails to meet the financial concern of its sponsors. Similarly, a community that fails to enforce its own standard of ethics is likely to implode from within. Therefore, when adapting the definition as success as “a community that meets the needs of all of its members”, it is important to remember that the word “members” is not limited to subscribers who check in regularly, but to anyone who has a direct interest in the maintenance and existence of the community.
To the above, the writer would also add that a successful community should be able to continue in the absence of key individuals. With the possible exception of fan clubs, communities are built around topics, needs, concerns, goals or common interest, not individuals. Therefore, if a community disbands with the departure of a key individual, one would have to question if the community had truly been successful to begin with.