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COMMUNITY ON THE
Communities on the Web are made up of individuals, each of whom brings a very personal and unique perception of community into Webspace. We all have our own ideas and images of what a community looks, acts, and feels like. These are formed from our experiences in the places we grew up, went to school, and live today. Maybe we were also impressed by TV shows and movies we've seen in our lifetimes, but in terms of person-to-person interaction, our internal models of community have been formed through real-life associations.
Partially for that reason, community is difficult to define because it means different things to each of us. Like the individuals who populate them, communities vary widely in their descriptions and in our interpretations of them. The Web has provided an environment in which more people than ever before have the space, the tools, and the opportunity to put their personal versions of community into practice. This has resulted in an amazing variety of creations and expressions. It's not the real world, but it has the potential to both complement and transcend the real world. There are communities on the Web that could not happen within the constraints of real-world time and space.
So, the definition of community, already elusive, also has these new and evolving technologies with which to contend. New social entities have taken form in this blossoming environment: newsgroups, listservs, chat rooms, forums, and virtual worlds. Community, as a feature ofthe modern Web site, is a proven attraction to online explorers. More sites every day claim to be hosting community or offering community services. Because so many now employ the term, the Web has increased our collective exposure to it to the extent that it's fair to question how much of what is referred to as community on the Web fits with any of our personal images of it.
For some, a community is a specific group of people meeting and conversing daily in a chat room or message board. For others, it's a Web site designed to attract interested customers to a product, a company, or a service. Some think of community on the scale of a city, while for others, nothing larger than a neighborhood could possibly fit the description. There are those who identify online community only in terms of people engaged in conversation, and there are those for whom the conversation component is subordinate to higher priorities such as serving the buying preferences and information needs of a focused market of consumers.
When people visit self-described communities and compare what they find with their personal expectations, they are liable to be disappointed and confused. The term is increasingly used to describe aggregations of people who aren't motivated to interact with each other and have even less in common than superficial interests and consumer tastes. Community has become, in many cases, a conspicuous piece of marketing jargon with connotations far removed from the ideal most of us hold of its being about people and their relationships.
But even as the word is being co-opted and misapplied, the expanding availability of modern software platforms, utilities, and services has opened up possibilities for many people to create and host sites matched to their very personal definitions of community. Thus, the term and its definition are being swept along by two seemingly divergent trends: one toward larger, mass-traffic, marketing-driven services, and the other toward smaller, more personal, grassroots gathering places. Being stretched across that range, the definition of community is anchored only by those meaningful images held in the hearts and minds of the people who populate and host them on the Web. As we'll see throughout this book, those two trends are not as divergent as they seem.
Home, Home on the Web...
It's important that we resolve at least some of this confusion of meaning and definition before heading deeper into the nuts and bolts of building and hosting communities on the Web. I will point out some instances in which the term community is used as a convenient description but serves no practical purpose. These are sites where you're likely to find yourself wondering, "What community are they talking about?" It's my belief that community should be a practical and useful thing for people to join.
I'm also going to challenge a current contention about the priorities of online community as a commercial enterprise. I'll present and explain my own definition, which, like everyone else's, has its origins in personal experience. But my experience in the realm of virtual communities is relatively deep and broad, and I at least want to get us all thinking of community in the same terms through the rest of the book. I attempt to provide a definition that not only addresses the essence of every community, but accommodates as many of our different personal community concepts as possible.
Over the past 12 years I've participated in many online conversational groups, and in many hours of intellectual noodling and debate, online and off, about the proper definition and practice of this techno-social concept of community mediated by computers. I've stirred up my share of long-winded discussions and I accept some blame for the poor word's manipulation and overexposure, but there was a time when the idea of online community was revolutionary. Howard Rheingold's landmark book put the word community in everyone's cyber lexicon.
In The Virtual Community (Addison-Wesley, 1993), Rheingold wrote, "Virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace." He presented examples of the variety of forms that online communities were taking before the popular adoption of the World Wide Web protocol. Through Rheingold's eyes, the reader could see that, in spite of their different technical and social configurations, what all of his examples had in common were meaningful human relationships.
Four years after The Virtual Community, John Hagel and Arthur Armstrong, two media experts from the McKinsey & Company consulting firm, put a commercial frame around the idea of virtual community and attracted the attention of business and venture capital people with their provocative and widely read book, Net Gain (Harvard Business School Press, 1997). Community, said Hagel and Armstrong, not only could be part of a successful Web-based business plan, it should be. They advanced the idea that markets could be expanded through adoption of a community-building perspective. They provided models showing how the commercial power of virtual communities could be leveraged to create and sustain revenue streams. Yet even they, unequivocal cheerleaders for the concept, lamented the watering-down of the term, saying, "It now seems that any Web site can lay claim to the mantle of community, even if all the site offers is a few pages of text and graphics."
Any definition of community is subjective, and the one I'm going to use as our working definition throughout this book is no exception. Even within its restrictive boundaries, this definition--actually a list of attributes by which you can recognize the existence of community--leaves a huge amount of room for variations, and it's those variations that will both impact and be impacted by your site design, the technology you use, your staff, and the way you maintain your community's home on the Web. A home is, after all, what you provide as a host; a place that people return to regularly, where they feel comfortable, connected, and part of something greater than themselves.
Twenty Sites That Use Community in Their Descriptions
It's November 22, 1997, and, to support my point about the varied uses of the word on the Web, I've just done a search for the word community on Yahoo! and found 14,973 matches. That's a lot more than I'm willing to deal with, so I restrict my next search to sites describing themselves with both the words community and online. Ah, much better. Only 1062 matches. Scanning through them, I pick a sample of 20 sites that would appear to illustrate a representative range of community interpretations in the Web setting. I call these my Tentative Twenty because, in spite of the use of the word in their titles or descriptions, I don't know yet how (or if) they fit my definition. Also, as with all Web sites, I don't know how long they'll be around. By the time you read this, many of them may no longer exist, and the ones that do will have changed their appearance, description, and business models. I list them here, frozen in time, in Table 1.1.
You'll be reading more about some of these sites throughout the book, but for now I want to point out the different uses of the word community demonstrated by their titles and descriptions.
* Some sites define their communities as the people who are online and have interests that match what their sites are all about. I refer here to Outside Online's "electronic outdoor community" and the Cupid's Touch "online dating community." This use of the term lures users to the prospect that community will add value to the dating and outdoors focus of the sites.
* For some, the community being served seems to be defined by a group that exists exclusive of the Web and is being invited to come online; for example, the "Vietnamese community" and the "eye care community." Again, we don't know if community on these sites is real or hoped for, but we assume that there are potential community populations out there, waiting to discover places to meet.
* Neighborhoods Online serves populations defined by their geographical location, closer to the classic image of a real-world community. The description makes it clear, in fact, that the communities referred to are not online at all.
* The Virtual Community of Associations and Nonprofit Online News each address what would seem to be collections of organizations that share certain challenges and information needs. A community of associations seems at least a step removed from one composed of individuals, and Nonprofit Online News "presents news and opinion," which sounds more like one-to-many broadcast communication than a many-to-many conversational model.
* We have a product-related site represented in Molson Breweries, the purpose of which appears to be to build goodwill among its current and potential customers by providing a place on the Web for entertainment and recreational conversation.
* There is a Web-based business, LiveWorld, that describes itself succinctly as "a virtual community" indicating that its mission is to be a successful one of those.
* We expect that at least some of the visitors to Poplar Bluff's Online Community will know each other in real life because of its regional definition. We don't know to what extent neighbors in Poplar Bluff use the online system to enhance their real-life relationships, but the site's description gives the impression that its priority is to connect the local residents to the rest of the world, rather than to each other.
* Then there are the uses of the term that stretch both imagination and credibility. Of what practical use, for instance, is "the international defense community"? Or "the worldwide Internet community"? Or the "global community of multilingual people"? Have multilingual people ever thought of themselves as a community before now? One wonders. The term is often used in this rhetorical or hopeful sense, rather than to name an existing group and its relationships.
It's understandable that the term would be applied loosely to describe so many levels of association, given that the Internet and the Web are being used by so many individuals and organizations to summon people together electronically. There are, perhaps, too few words in the English language for describing a group of people with similar interests. A community can conceivably be any group of people who have anything whatsoever in common and are liable to visit the same site. Community fills the vast conceptual space between audience and family.
But I've got only about 400 pages to work with, which won't allow me to rationalize every idea of what a community on the Web could possibly be. So I've narrowed my definition to one that requires that a community deliver benefits to the host who supports its activities. I assume you're looking for practical ideas from this book, so community deserves a practical definition.
The Benefits of Fostering Community
A practical definition is more useful than theoretical. It contains elements that you can observe and act on as a Web site owner and manager to make your community work. A community that works is a living thing that requires special care but will learn to take care of itself. A working community is a productive asset. It's active rather than passive, and brings tangible and measurable benefits in response to your efforts. How does it do this? In several ways:
* It creates steady streams of fresh user-originated content.
* It weaves a web of personal relationships that bind their participants to the site.
* It acts as a social flywheel, maintaining the momentum of interaction by feeding back into itself, drawing its members in and stimulating them to remain active and productive over time.
* It contributes to its own support and rejuvenation, attracting, training, and socializing its new members, and forging its own new directions for growth and expansion.
* It tells you, the host, what its members want and how to make your site more attractive and useful for them.
* It spreads your marketing message through the trusted grassroots grapevine of the Net in the testimony of satisfied participants, and in the stories that come out of its group interaction.
What do you need to do, as host of a site, to reap these benefits? The most important thing of all is to win and hold the trust of your users.
The Leverage of Trust
The presence of community on your site means that you have a core of people returning on a regular basis. These members come back because they feel a connection with your site, sometimes through its content and personality, but more significantly through the people they find there. Members not only visit regularly, they refer their friends and associates to your URL and spread the word by pointing to it from their own homepages. They contribute to its improvement by submitting suggestions and criticisms, engaging creatively in its group discussion, playing its games, entering its contests, and purchasing the products it sells. They do all of this because they feel sufficient trust in what they find there: you, your business, your content, your staff, and most importantly, the other members. Chapter 3, "Establishing and Maintaining Key Relationships," has a lot of information about trust and your relationship with the members of your community.
What You Can Learn
Community is about communication between people and, as host, you must be in the communications loop. You have a privileged relationship with the community and can learn from it in two ways: directly from its members, and indirectly from their activities and behavior.
A community that trusts you will confide in you, providing sincere feedback and advice directly when asked for it. You may also hear from users who don't trust you, but that can be even more valuable since your friends won't always tell you what you most need to hear. The multipath communications channels in a community bring new ideas and criticism to your attention that would have nowhere to go on a site devoted to one-way publication of content.
You learn indirectly from your community by observing and measuring what its members do. Membership, for most sites that provide access to chat or message boards, involves it registration process. Registered members are no longer anonymous Web surfers just passing through. They are individuals whose use of the silo tells you more about their preferences and habits than they would likely reveal about themselves if you asked them directly.
Enjoying the benefits from hosting a community is one thing, but will they lead you to success? That depends entirely on your definition of success . You may begin with a preconceived idea of what your community will be like, but that won't guarantee what you'll end up with. Business plans have numerical milestones to mark their progress, or lack of it, but success in fostering community is much more subtle and difficult to gauge along the way. It may come wrapped in surprises even if (especially if) you prepare well.
A thriving community is energetic, generating momentum and direction from the constant interaction between its members. It can develop a self-concept and a mind of its own, bubbling up original ideas that you may decide are better than the ones you'd originally planned. You may be surprised by where your community leads you, but the surprise won't be shocking if you initiate and maintain contact with your members from the beginning. That connection is the foundation upon which a healthy community grows. Certainly, you will have parameters that tell you if you've succeeded or not, but the true measure of a community is in its participation, enthusiasm, and loyalty.
Community and Commerciality
In Net Gain, Hagel and Armstrong put forth the idea that one of the greatest benefits of community on the Web was the revenue potential of a loyal mass of customers who identify themselves to advertisers, marketers, and vendors by the choices they make of where to spend their time online. Communities on the Web define reachable market segments that become more valuable the closer they come to a point of critical mass. When that point is reached, a kind of process called increasing returns takes effect. The community itself becomes a vital resource for its members and its success breeds more success. In Chapter 11, "Support Strategies and Revenue Models," we'll revisit the Net Gain theory, but meanwhile, in line with that theory, the authors offered these five "defining elements" of a virtual community:
* Distinctive focus
* Capacity to integrate content and communication
* Appreciation of member-generated content
* Access to competing publishers and vendors
* Commercial orientation
Net Gain was the first book to make a strong case for virtual communities as expanders of online marketplaces. Keep in mind that their model is intentionally fitted to today's Web-based, corporate-driven businesses that aim to grow fast, dominate markets, and make big money for their owners and investors. You may not describe yourself or your site that way, but these defining elements apply to any self-supporting community system on the Web today.
Distinctive focus means that a community has a specific core interest that draws people to it. Common interest is a good first step toward building a loyal user population.
Capacity to integrate content and communication merges the editorial publishing model with the conversational publishing model to create an attractive hybrid that plays to the Web's strengths.
Appreciation of member-generated content describes an important distinguishing aspect of the relationship between site management and the community in which the members' contributions are encouraged and regarded with respect on par with editorial content.
Access to competing publishers and vendors is another aspect of the publisher-user relationship. In providing this access, the host serves the best interests of the community by taking advantage of the assets of the interlinked Web.
Commercial orientation is Hagel and Armstrong's contention that a successful virtual community should be business focused. If the community is to be self-supporting, its management must think in terms of generating revenue. Net Gain is quite aggressive in the advice it gives about staking out territory on the Web because advertising dollars go first to the sites with the most traffic.
But commercial orientation can be overemphasized as a requisite of successful community. There is a cost to allowing early profit-making considerations to overshadow what is basically a relationship-building process. In their book, Hagel and Armstrong specifically cited the WELL as an example of a community that was "not business oriented." Having managed its business operations for six years, I beg to differ with them.
The Commercial versus the Sustainable Orientation
In fact, the WELL was forced by the reality of its minimal startup funding to be very business oriented just to survive during the years when it earned its reputation as a virtual community. While it was not founded to make its owners rich, it did have to pay its own way, and earned enough through subscription fees to support both its operations and expansion into a million-dollar-a-year business, all at a time when better-funded online businesses with more ambitious goals were losing money and shutting down. As an online community, the WELL fulfilled its intended purpose of selling its users access to each other, meaning that it deliberately attracted and won the loyalty of people who were themselves attractions to others. I would describe it as a conversation-oriented, rather than commercially oriented, community.
Many Web-based communities today can, like the WELL, fulfill their goals without adopting a strictly commercial orientation. The opportunity now exists for community building on every scale imaginable, beginning with operations that cost no more than the price of a regular ISP account. I prefer, in this book, to emphasize a sustainable orientation, for there are many noncommercial reasons for hosting groups on the Web, and one of the points of community is, after all, to last.
Diabetes.com is a worthy example, supported through an educational grant by Bayer Corporation's Pharmaceutical Division and the sponsorship of Sun Microsystems. Molson Breweries is a community site funded by its parent company not to bring in direct revenue, but to be a worthwhile cost of doing business in the same category as its customer service and public relations operations. Communities must first be oriented toward serving the ongoing needs of their members. If you can do that effectively while in commercial mode, good for you. If you can't, there are alternative strategies to follow.
The Effects of Size and Growth Rate
Communities are unique social entities and each one grows at its own natural rate to its own natural size. Forcing a community to grow unnaturally fast brings diminishing returns. People leave if they don't feel comfortable and cared for. If forming a community is your goal, it's not wise to race to a critical mass of users in an effort to lock up the market for a given theme. To draw a large and loyal user base around a shared interest, you must deliver quality in the features that matter most to your target audience. Huge size and rapid growth are rarely among those.
Clearly, there's limited room in the world for dominant communities while there's almost infinite room for small, personalized niche communities. Such focused populations can grow large enough to be profitable for the host, and, given the right amount of care, can be long-lasting. The social reality that I think we all recognize is that people will find and adopt the communities in which they feel best served.
Forcing a community to grow quickly in order to achieve dominance in a market interferes with the nurturing process of the early interpersonal and customer relationships that set the foundations for the community. Growing an enduring social system is a delicate and sensitive process in which large size has little meaning except as a threat to the individual's feeling of significance. Communities, even as defined by the five elements in Net Gain, tend more toward smallness than hugeness. The key question for sites that depend on very high traffic for survival is, "How many of these small communities can they actually serve?"
As populations grow in size, they divide socially as each subgroup realizes and consolidates its distinct focus, identity, and core of relationships. If you are host of the original and overarching community--the metacommunity--you'll find it necessary to subdivide yourself in order to stay in contact with the multiplicity of special interest groups that will find themselves looking for space on your site. So, if it's a market-dominating community that you look forward to hosting, be careful what you wish for. Dominating the market won't mean much if you lose the community magic in the process.
The Attributes of Online Communities
The attributes I present here as a definition of community are about social dynamics more than hard commercial realities, which means that they focus on the actions, needs, and attitudes of people rather than on marketing strategies and revenue sources. They represent practices, activities, and values that distinguish online communities from other online formats and activities. That image of community you carry in your mind? Hold it up against these and see how it fits. In a true community on the Web:
* The member feels part of a larger social whole.
* There's an interwoven web of relationships between members.
* There's an ongoing exchange between members of commonly valued things.
* Relationships between members last through time, creating shared histories.
Where these attributes exist, they solidify loyalty to the group and, therefore, to the Web site that supports its activities. Members return regularly, and in doing so, affirm the feeling that they belong, and maintain the relationships identified with the site. They come back because they are rewarded for doing so with valued facts, feelings, advice, and opinions. As time passes, they help to construct a history that is shared with others, adding to the feeling that they are part of some greater entity. As you can see, these attributes feed and reinforce each other in such a way that the community requires only the attentive support and encouragement of the site's management to keep the self-sustaining processes going.
The Feeling and Sense of Belonging
Community is most powerful when membership brings with it a sense of belonging. Unless that feeling is there, no manager, advertiser, or promoter can claim the presence of community, no matter how much commonality exists in the users' interests and demographics. The feeling needn't be warm and fuzzy, for community is not synonymous with social harmony, but it's a feeling of being included by a group. It's important that enough of the participants share that feeling because it motivates them to contribute to the whole, and it inspires loyalty. As John Coate, former conferencing manager of the WELL, once put it, "If you feel like you're a part of a community, you probably are."
Probably? Well, you might be wrong. That is, an individual doesn't have to interact with the other presumed members to harbor that feeling, though interaction is the only way to confirm that the feelings are mutual. And it takes more than one person feeling it to make it a community. But it's the sense of being included in some greater, mutually recognized social entity that drives people to invest themselves through visiting, participating, and contributing, which is exactly what you want them to do. When people invest in this way, they feel a sense of shared ownership in the community and even in the organization that supports it. They become allies of the host, and that makes for good community chemistry.
Common Purposes, Relationships, and Rituals
Individuals usually come together to form communities in which they recognize common purposes, values, and visions. That commonality is enough--at least in the beginning--to provide an initial impression of agreement with their fellow members. Invariably, as time passes, that agreement proves less solid than first assumed, but diversity of viewpoint and opinion is also important to community longevity.
Most of my Tentative Twenty sites exist to serve populations sharing common interests. People who follow the Space program, fans of the Grateful Dead, diabetes sufferers, and Vietnamese Web surfers all, as groups, have something substantial to discuss with each other. But the extent to which each group member feels a sense of community depends on several factors besides common interest, situation, or history. The sense of belonging is also a function of the amount and quality of interaction between people, the individual's compatibility with the group, and the effectiveness of the site's hosting.
As time passes in a community, familiarity, rituals, and relationships, rather than perfectly matched tastes and beliefs, serve as the social glue. Eventually, local jargon and regular activities--the rituals of the community--add reinforcement to members' identification with the group. The gathering place and its personality, rather than its distinctive focus, become the real objects of loyalty and identification.
Affinity Groups: Potential Communities
There are plenty of people who have common interests but don't collectively demonstrate the attributes of communities. Such groups could be active communities, but they lack the channels for interaction that would spark interpersonal relationships. For an example, let's take the owners and drivers of vintage Volkswagen microbuses.
Microbus owners often acknowledge each other as they pass on the highway. They share the attachment to a vehicle whose character and quirkiness are endearing. They know that the passing driver has suffered the same frustrations and reveled in the same joys of ownership. They view the same simple instrument panels, camp in the same boxy interiors, and waggle the same spindly gearshift levers. They may have never met, but they feel as if they know a piece of each other's mind. Many of them surely feel like part of a diffuse mobile tribe even though they don't relate to each other beyond their friendly salutes across the median strip.
Groups that share passionate interests but don't have the means for regular contact in the real world can be natural communities once they convene on the Web. There are many examples of such affinity groups that, while sharing significant interests, don't engage in ongoing relationships or exchanges. Eventually, many of them form organizations that provide mutual support and information sharing. Every day, more of these groups find their way online and begin communicating.
Among the Tentative Twenty, there are a few affinity groups that are seeking communityhood by creating meeting places on the Web. The Vietnamese, the health care workers, the diabetics, the chiropractors, and the women of Women's Web might all have understood the bonds of common experience they shared with others in their respective groups, but until they jacked into the Web, they may have never made the personal connections to complete the community loop. Once connected member-to-member through the Web, they can begin to build personal relationships--the exchanges that enhance their membership and shared histories.
Relationships: The Ties that Bind
Relationships differentiate a community from an affinity group and from another quasisocial entity of Webspace: the gathering of people around products and services that we call a marketplace. Establishing, nurturing, and maintaining relationships is what draws people back to communities repeatedly. In a marketplace, simple exchanges of information and acts of commerce between people define the interaction, and while buyers and sellers do have relationships, they are based more on their respective business roles than on affinity and shared perspective.
A Web community is a place where relationships can form and be maintained over time. The relationships must have value to the users, and they must have room to develop. The more restrictive the conditions, the less satisfying will be the relationships. There are many possible configurations of relationship on the Web. They can be between individual users, between users and content providers, between users and actual content. There should be some reciprocity in the relationship; some give-and-take interaction between the user and whoever or whatever he is relating with. But the feeling of community is much more likely to come out of relationships with peers than relationships with service providers.
I have a relationship with the stock trading site where I maintain my IRA. It tells me what my savings are worth and I tell it what I want to buy and sell. But I don't consider it part of my community. It's a business relationship. It doesn't give me any sense of belonging to anything.
Relationships are the core of community, and whatever your business plan, your technology choices, or your editorial policy, you must serve the relationship needs of your users if you want them to make your site their home.
From Affinity to Relationship
The Web is often used to tap the potential of affinity groups to be active communities. It doesn't take elaborate technology or expensive development to make this happen. The attraction that VW microbus owners have for each other because of their shared fanaticism predisposes them to form relationships if given the chance to connect. One of those owners, named Thom Fitzpatrick, serves his mobile tribe by providing a service for them on the Web called Vintage Bus (www.vintagebus.com).
The owners of older microbuses need to connect with each other to track down the increasingly rare parts and technical information required to keep their aging buggies in repair. Thom relates to them from that perspective. His site provides links for subscribing to the Type II (air-cooled) email list for owners, and to Web pages where owners can advertise buses and parts for sale. He has also uploaded hard-to-find factory wiring diagrams and specification sheets, and has written a FAQ (frequently asked questions) about vintage microbuses.
According to Thom's count, several thousand visitors return to his site repeatedly. He provides space for them to share pictures of their buses and to trade with each other. The actual conversation between members of the microbus owners' community takes place through the email list, and Thom's resources complement that interaction. His own relationships with site visitors are but a part of the many relationshipst that make up the Net-connected community. His role is to provide and maintain the resource center.
Most visitors to Diabetes.com are either diabetes patients or their relatives. The site provides a basic electronic bulletin board where people can leave questions or requests for each other and respond to others' postings. What most people do, because of the board's limitations, is follow up postings with email messages. People in similar stages of the disease or taking the same medications form mutual support relationships through ongoing correspondence, facilitated by the Web site. Diabetes.com serves them not only as an information resource maintained by medical experts, but as a link to people who identify with them personally.
Identifying populations of compatible individuals who need only reliable and accessible communications facilities to blossom into actual communities is the shortest route to establishing networks of relationships. Most Web sites do target population segments with common interests, but many of them fail to understand how to service the relationships that want to form once people are put in electronic proximity to each other.
Conversation Brings Familiarity
As George Costanza of TV's Seinfeld once announced to his friends, as though it were an eye-opening discovery, "Just by conversing you can really learn a lot about people!" Well, duh! But George's self-evident statement illustrates a truth about building relationships on the Web: If you provide people with an opportunity for group conversation, it really does let them get to know each other. The greater the variety of conversations they participate in with the same people, the more familiarity they are apt to feel.
Cafe Utne (www.utne.com/cafe), the conferencing component of the Utne Reader's Web site, provides a diverse selection of subject-oriented discussion areas where people find others who share similar interests. In each specific conversation, Cafe members are likely to form relationships that are valued for a person's knowledge, style, or wit. Through meeting others in the context of the Cafe's different conversation topics, they are exposed to different facets of people's personalities and form more well-rounded impressions than they would in a single conversation venue centered around a single topic.
Where the regular participants in a community conduct their relationships in public forums, their ongoing patter creates a sense of place and stability for all. When newcomers visit, they discover something going on, and a general feeling of familiarity among the people there. The TV sitcom that this brings to mind is, of course, Cheers.
Interaction in chat rooms, in asynchronous forums, even in email lists, allows people to build familiarity that leads to trust and reciprocity--the casual exchange of greetings, acknowledgments, ideas, knowledge, and stories. The resulting relationships create a richer context for everything else experienced on the site.
The important relationships within a Web-based community are not limited to those between its users. The service provider should also be involved--while being careful not to interfere--in the activities of the community. The service provider is by far the most powerful agent affecting all aspects of a Web site, so it helps for the members of the community to know the provider and host as human and accessible rather than as a nameless, faceless, and invisible power pulling the strings behind the curtain of the Web interface. In Chapter 3, "Establishing and Maintaining Key Relationships," and Chapter 4, "Involving Your Staff," I'll expand on the critical relationship of the site and its staff with the community.
Exchange: Finding Value in Community Interaction
The trust that opens the door to relationship-building is the same trust that greases the wheels of exchange among the members of a community. What are these things of value that people must exchange to transform a mere assemblage into a community? Their nature varies with the people and with the focus that brings them together.
In communities based heavily on person-to-person communication, such as Diabetes.com, people value the benefits that they find in those communications: care, concern, humor, and advice. Regular visitors to the conferences in Cafe Utne and the chat rooms of LiveWorld's Talk City (www.talkcity.com) also value the amusement provided by members' stories and wisecracks, the knowledge shared from their expertise, and the recommendations drawn from their experience. For some, the value may be in the simple reliability of others' presence and attention. When they need a place to go and connect with someone, they know there will be somebody "home" in the online community.
Exchange Means More than Just Receiving
Of course, more material things can also be exchanged. Those used VW parts are hard to come by anywhere else except at the Vintage Bus site. Thom is in touch with his community and knows not only what they need but what entertains them. He understands the importance of providing stuff that is valued by bus owners and of making it reliably available. He isn't paid for his work and neither are the people who help each other with repair tips, or those who upload pictures of cherried-out microbuses. Exchange isn't about dollars and cents; it's more about serving what the community's members recognize as their common and personal needs.
People needn't be recipients in the exchange to be motivated to return to a site. As you've probably experienced many times, the Net tends to be a generous place. People enjoy giving, especially in socially interactive situations in which the appreciation of the group can be expressed to them. Exchange is not a one-way thing; it goes back and forth; it's reciprocal. Where relationships exist between people, there is something to be gained by contributing, and this is a key asset of community anywhere, online or off.
On a Web site, members produce content as a way of servicing their relationships. They tell each other not only what they know, but what they feel, what they've discovered, and what they can't put up with. They express themselves on public stages in ways that enrich, entertain, and sometimes frustrate each other. On the personal level, many find fulfillment through the respect and admiration they receive from the group in exchange for their contributions. And, tellingly, many find reward in getting attention, no matter what they have to do or who they have to offend to get it.
Setting the Example for Openness
As host, it's part of your job to nurture the kind of open expression and personal exchange that is essential to the sense of community. This may at times mean setting an example by granting certain rights and access to your users that go counter to your more paranoid business instincts. Some of your members may engage in public criticism of your system. Listen, respond, and learn from them; don't ignore them or try to make them go away. Your members may want to discuss the merits of sites that you consider your direct competitors, or review products that compete with those of your sponsors. Don't just let them, support them, even by providing the links on your site.
Hagel and Armstrong list this policy of open information exchange as one of their basic elements: access to competing publishers and vendors. Practically speaking, it's not worth your while to try to enforce restrictions against such access. This is the Web, after all. Restricting your community's access to any relevant information goes counter to the information wants to be free ethic of the Net, besides being technically impossible. Involving yourself in your community's search for relevant data can be an opportunity to find out more about your members' needs and wants so that you can better respond to them. Allowing such exchange to happen, even to the extent of facilitating it, may mean putting the interests and needs of the community ahead of your usual competitive priorities, but management concessions to the community will turn out to be one of those valued things that, for you, is worth exchanging for the community's trust and honest feedback.
History: The Community's Image of Itself
A community has a memory. The more of its members who are conscious of the passage of time and the accumulation of collective experiences, the stronger that memory. Some of the most robust and long-lived communities on the Net keep archives of significant content and their most interesting conversations. Their years of collective experiences may have given rise to traditions, jargon, and standards of behavior that are far more important and relevant to them than the rules and structure imposed by the service provider. History is where a community builds a sense of itself.
The Web tends to be an ephemeral medium where information is displayed and replaced frequently. Sites change their design, their focus, and their content so often that it's difficult to think in terms of months or years of stability, but communities need time to establish themselves and sink deep roots if terms like loyalty are going to have any meaning. The Web is very young and still going through the early stages of development, but I hope those providing sites where community can form are thinking in terms of years, rather than months, in their planning.
Assuming that your site will exist for an extended period of time, there are things you can do to help build a sense of history for your community. Notice that events create memories. Regularly scheduled events create traditions. Plan and organize events, and celebrate anniversaries with your community to help it to see itself as something living and changing through time. Archive the best of your interactions and content where members can access them. Just the existence of an archive signifies accumulated history.
Some communities come together for intentionally brief periods when the event actually defines the community. These virtual events happen on the Web just as they do in the real world where people assemble in stadiums and arenas to root for their teams, express their political opinions, and adore their favorite rock bands. People meet each other one-to-one in the midst of these crowds. They extend courtesy and generosity to each other, performing the exchanges that enrich their experience even though they may never see each other again. Events are special because they contrast with people's normal routines. They don't last long enough for their members to look back on history, but they create histories that people carry with them when the event is over.
In April of 1996, IBM sponsored the challenge match between their Deep Blue computer and world chess champion Garry Kasparov. The event lasted for 6 games over 12 days. I helped produce a conferencing component that accompanied the match, linked from IBM's Chess Challenge homepage. Millions of people followed the event through the Web, chess fanatics and chess newbies alike. Tens of thousands registered for our conferencing site and over a hundred conversation topics were started. Chess grandmasters conversed with chess teachers and computer programmers, curious Web surfers learned that there was far more to the game of chess than they had ever imagined. Together we watched Kasparov go down in flames in Game 6 and wondered if Garry had just fallen apart or if Deep Blue was really that good. For the duration of our chess discussions, we were indeed a community, fitting all of the attributes and leaving the event with many memories. I give a more detailed account of the planning and execution of this event in Chapter 9, "The Practice of Hosting Discussion."
The Tentative Twenty Revisited
Having explored this definition of online community, how do my semi-randomly chosen candidates stack up against it? Does including the word community in one's site description or title mean that visitors will actually find community there? Not necessarily, even when the description refers to "serving the community of..." In Chapter 2, "Identifying Group Styles and Needs," I'll describe the different types of relationships that a group of users can have with a site and with each other. There's plenty of room for different types of community under this definition. However, having visited them, I can say with confidence that some of our Tentative Twenty just flat-out don't deserve our further attention as true communities on the Web.
Who's Who Online claims to serve the "worldwide Internet community." To the extent that its site is accessible to users of the Internet and that those users comprise a community of any sort, its description is accurate. But that community is hardly one that elicits feelings of belonging or of meaningful relationship. It's too broad a category to bring together. It has too little focus. And most importantly, even if people do consider themselves members of such a community, there are many more vital and intimate communities of which they are members that will certainly take precedence in their lives. For people to truly be involved in a community, it must have strong meaning for them.
Webstock '96 is, by now, merely a memorial to an event; a community once removed. As an event community, its time has long passed, so it sits on the Web as a kind of museum exhibit. While the event was in progress, it drew traffic and was considered a success by its organizers, focusing youth on making positive changes in their local communities. Now it's an example of Web content that may have been forgotten about by its server's administrator.
The Virtual Community of Associations is actually no more than a Web-based directory of associations with offices in the greater Washington, D.C., area. Given that most associations have headquarters there in order to lobby Congress, their directory is impressive. But as of this date, there's no facility on their site for interchange and discussion. A virtual community? No. A good contact list? Yes.
Neighborhoods Online is probably the most community focused of all my Tentative Twenty and yet, ironically, its site does not really host a community of its own. Instead, it serves as a resource center for people trying to revitalize their real-life neighborhoods. Given many of the common problems shared by people attempting to do that kind of work, I can see the potential for an interactive community of these people on the Web, but without any interaction between its visitors or between visitors and host, it doesn't qualify for our definition.
Nonprofit Online News is actually just that: a clipping service on the Web that serves nonprofit organizations. It invites people who work for or run NPOs to submit their own clippings, so in some sense it supports communication and interaction, but without facilities for discussion or a strong point of view from its host, I don't recognize it as a community on the Web.
The rest of the Twenty survived my scrutiny, though a few just barely. We'll be visiting most of them along with many other sites as we progress through the book. As I demonstrate in the next chapter, there are many types of community and degrees of communityness. This book's definition describes the attributes of an ideal online community, one that grows organically, according to the natural development of human relationships rather than the market forces of a competitive environment. Not all of you will be able to afford to grow ideal communities, but neither can you afford to ignore these attributes if you hope to realize the benefits of community on your site. Remember the benefits that community can bring, and try to balance your short-term business needs with the long-term goals of establishing your site as a regular meeting place with a participative and enthusiastic population. Commit yourself to building trust and loyalty among your users, and the community pieces will fall together. You can't rush human relationships, but you can always communicate your intentions. Start with the right ones and users will respond positively to them.
The term community is used today to describe a wide range of services on the Web. Not all of them emphasize or provide for conversation or interaction between their users. Not all invite users' contributions of any kind. Such services won't realize the benefits that can be gained through nurturing relationships between people and involving them in their site's content development. In this book, those relationships, contributions, and involvements are central to our working definition of community on the Web.
According to that definition, members of a community feel a part of it. They form relationships and bonds of trust with other members and with you, the community host. Those relationships lead to exchanges and interactions that bring value to members. It's that value that draws them back repeatedly to your site where, over time, they build shared histories of experiences and events. This reliable traffic and the members' contributions of information, ideas, and feedback are the major benefits you'll realize by fostering community on the Web.