Community-building as a social craft
By David Walker (Google profile)
Back in 1996 and 1997, the notion of Internet "communities" fuelled the dreams of entrepreneurs. These communities let groups of people come together on-line to share common interests and needs - on Web discussion boards, in email lists, in chat rooms and many other virtual spaces. Books like John Hagel & Arthur Armstrong's "Net Gain" touted the marketing riches awaiting those who could inject commercial aims into such communities. Firms like iVillage built clutches of "community" sites in an effort to cash in on the riches. GeoCities, Blue Mountain Arts and even AOL found they could inflate already bloated valuations by flaunting their "community" credentials.
Then came the March-April dot-com bust - and the commercial Web community boom was over before it had really begun. As 2000 went on, site after site admitted that whatever "community" they had, it hadn't created much cash.
Lousy timing for Amy Jo Kim, a student of the art of building true Web communities who in April 2000 published "Community Building on the Web". Kim started working with virtual communities back before the boom or the bust, back before virtual communities were even sexy. Holder of a Ph.D. in behavioral neuroscience, she's worked at software giant Sun and movie giant Paramount, and her consulting work has taken her to AOL, Origin (the firm behind Ultima Online) and eBay. She lectures on the design of online communities at Stanford. She knows her stuff. Now she's laid it out in a 352-page recipe for managing the human issues of a virtual community.
To Kim, online communities grow like ecosystems, or at least gardens. The successful community-builder, Kim argues, must do three things:
- design for unpredictable growth and change
- to manage that change, make sure to listen to feedback on the community's wants and needs, and respond
- as the community grows, let members play an ever-larger role in building and maintaining the community culture
Kim calls these three points - design for growth, create feedback loops, cede power to members - her three underlying principles.
Hagel & Armstrong argued for the same organic management style in Net Gain. But Kim spells out in exhaustive detail just how it should be done, without making unsupportable claims about its business value.
The exhaustive detail fills nine chapters, neatly corresponding to the"nine timeless design strategies that characterise successful, sustainable communities":
- Define and articulate your PURPOSE
- Build flexible, extensible gathering PLACES
- Create meaningful and evolving member PROFILES
- Design for a range of ROLES
- Develop a strong LEADERSHIP program
- Encourage appropriate ETIQUETTE
- Promotic cyclic EVENTS
- Integrate the RITUALS of community life
- Facilitate member-run SUBGROUPS
This book targets a limited audience. Doubtless as a result of her work with huge clients, Kim focuses on the issues of very complex, expensive, high-traffic community sites. Readers trying to jump-start a small site will profit from seeing how the big US players do it, but you may also feel overwhelmed. The relentless prose doesn't suit light reading; you could call this volume "749 policies for managing community members".
But the narrowness of the work is also its strength. Kim doesn't provide big-picture strategic advice. She doesn't offer hints on technology deployment or usability. She has nothing to say on taking your community-based web site to an IPO, or even measuring a community's commercial success. Her focus remains at all times on the social aspects of community development. She attends to the social craft of community building.
And despite the intentional absence of big-picture thinking, "Community Building on the Web" does suggest something of the Web medium's evolving nature. It suggests, indeed, that most online communities will continue to be finely-balanced mixes of corporate and individual goals, often labor-intensive, built on a mixture of paid and volunteer effort, only partially responsive to their creators' control.
Hagel & Armstrong believed this back in 1997, but they also believed that community would bring commercial triumph. Thus, they believed, the online community would become in large part a business activity. In the more sober environment of 2001, it seems more likely that most online communities will continue to be nurtured by enthusiasts rather than corporate staff. Community specialists in either type of organisation will gain much from Kim's work.