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Running Weblogs with Slash

Building Online Communities

by chromatic, coauthor of Running Weblogs with Slash
10/21/2002
The Internet exists to improve communication. Communities can grow anywhere communication occurs.

Truisms or not, those statements have tremendous implications. Their adherents see a commercial Web site less as a brochure and more as an opportunity to communicate with customers. They consider those who run a television fan site not as copyright infringers but as a community of fans. They think in terms of conversations and relationships. Cultivate a community, and you'll attract eyeballs and ears willing to read and to listen to your message. Encourage discussion, and you'll attract people willing to share their own messages.

Before you can start focusing your community-building actions, you must understand the dynamics of online communities. Having participated in several, as an observer, a newbie, an author, an employee, and a developer, I've been surprised by the way people act and react. Writing the Slash book made me think about what goes on in a community. I've learned even more since then. I'm not a professionally-trained sociologist, nor is this formal research. I do find my conclusions accurate, though.

Exist For a Reason

You must know why your site exists. Otherwise, you cannot judge the effectiveness of any policy. Worse yet, how will visitors know if they want to join the community? What benefit does a user derive from participating? Why should anyone care? Without an underlying goal, it's extremely difficult to guide users in constructive ways. It would be like starting a company and forgetting that, at some point, you need paying customers.

Once you've found your goal, stick with it. It's fine -- and necessary -- to shift your focus to meet the needs of the community. Lacking a plan, though, you can only make guesses. Users will pursue their own goals if yours isn't plain.

Be positive. Be assertive. Be as simple as possible. Leave vagueness and doubletalk for corporate mission statements. Use a slogan if you must. use Perl; claims "All the Perl That's Practical to Extract and Report." Advogato, designed as a community resource and a trust metric research bed, is "the free software developer's advocate."

Users Draw Other Users

As the owner, leader, and/or community evangelist, it's your job to attract users. The standard promotional approaches (search engines, word of mouth, submitting links to other sites) apply. This is the easy part. Making sure the right people stick around is harder. In a healthy community, that's not your job.

As a group, your most active users will draw more users than you will. An active user group exudes a sense of community. This attracts people who enjoy the company of like-minded individuals and seek the social rewards of participating in a healthy peer group. People like to fit in, and it takes making several new relationships to produce this impression.

The traffic and membership logs of popular community Web sites reveal curious growth patterns. If Slashdot picks up a story posted at Perl Monks, thousands of spectators will visit for the first time. Several will register for accounts. Many will stick around, becoming valuable community members. Though referrals brought the new members to the site, the community made them return. The site goal may pique their curiosity, but an empty or a fractured community will drive off potential new members.

The community itself is not the only draw, in most cases, but it is a primary attractor.

Users Will Surprise You

Community members will continually surprise you, especially if you've never really analyzed an online community before. The issues and themes you find important may never really resonate with your users. They'll latch onto and chase down ideas you've never found important or even knew existed. They'll also tend to develop some strange characteristics. Not everyone will exhibit every behavior, but these are general trends in every community I've observed.

A Sense of Ownership

Regular users will develop a sense of community ownership. As a whole, their content contributions probably outweigh yours. This belief manifests itself in several ways. It can produce a high regard for the status quo, with some users expressing an almost moral outrage when facing community changes. These changes may be as minor as adding a new feature to the Web site or broadening the community's focus.

Another phenomenon is users taking on community responsibilities. Slashdot's moderation and meta-moderation systems use this to apply community standards to user-created content. Perl Monks and Everything 2 treat it slightly differently, with a community-led editorial focus. As each site has grown, relying on the site owners and maintainers would have been a bottleneck. Some communities even resolve disputes and mete out punishments judged by a group of community leaders. Moderators of mailing lists and newsgroups often use this approach.

The responsibilities may also be individually-perceived and not explicit. For example, the Perl Monks Statistical Page is a volunteer effort not directly connected to the main site -- a subcommunity of sorts. Community members saw a need and filled it themselves. Volunteers also collate helpful links for new Perl Monks, though a hand-picked group maintains a FAQ.

Besides letting community leaders and members perform administrative work (content production, content moderation, software development, content rating, the donation of hardware or bandwidth fees), don't forget that the community has a stake in its own future. Even if you pay for everything out of your pocket, your work is wasted without users.

A Shared History and Culture

You'll know you have a healthy community when users comment publicly that "this is the best site I've ever used," "I came here because of the goal, but stay around because of the people I've met," amd "No other place on the Internet is like this." Happy users tend to talk in terms reminiscent of Manifest Destiny and settlers in a little-p paradise. It occurs in almost every healthy, somewhat-social community. Strongly-technical communities, like software development mailing lists, tend not to exhibit this behavior.

A healthy community also develops a sense of history and in-jokes. The phrases "Thanks, applied" and "Rule one" mean something very specific to Perl 5 porters. Everything 2 afficionados understand the intrinsic humor of "Soy." Highly-ranked and respected Perl Monks regularly cite precedents when controversial topics reoccur.

These bits of culture tend to cross communities. It's online syncretism at its finest. Bring up "the September that never ended" at a LUG meeting, and chances are you'll find a longtime Usenetter. Community members identify each other elsewhere by these identity badges.

Encourage community archives. Provide a way to address individual bits of history (messages, chat logs, event histories) in finely-grained units. Some bits may not be worth remembering (Slashdot posts that sink to -1), but if you don't keep a history, someone else will. Perl Monks has a Google-accessible mirror. Everything 2 editors keep logs of their editorial changes. Everything on an Everything site has an easily-linked URL.

The Bell Curves

You will never please some users. A few will stick around only to see your next mistake. They tend to be vocal. Their pessimism doesn't make them wrong, but it can be grating. Accept that they are a minority, expect them to make concrete suggestions and honest criticisms occasionally, and try not to be surprised that they don't leave. (Most people who leave do so quietly.)

Some people will almost always be happy -- no matter what you do. If their feelings fade, they will withdraw emotionally. They tend not to be as vocal as the pessimists. A sub-group of these people have just discovered online communities or your specific community and still have glory in their eyes. They propose grand ideas and volunteer for great schemes. Harness this energy and exuberance into realistic channels.

Most people participate on the fringes. Most people read and never write. Most writers write only occasionally. Most community members have opinions about the various discussion topics but rarely speak. Don't rely on declarations of undying platonic love. Learn to find esteem in steady growth and repeat users.

Eschew the idea that loud dissent from a few corners automatically condemns an idea. Do rely on the opinions of trusted community members. Don't weigh opinions solely on participation metrics. Some of the best contributors listen and think far more than they speak or type.

Take these as fallible rules of thumb, though. Just be realistic about the actual community.

Barriers Are Mixed Blessings

The number of active community members varies inversely with the amount of work necessary for an initial participation. Requiring e-mail confirmation before registering a username prevents users from creating blank account after blank account. Of course, there are hundreds of accounts on Perl Monks where the user has never even logged in after creating the account.

These rules strongly apply to e-mail lists and Usenet groups. Even on unmoderated lists, readers dramatically outnumber writers. For a group such as A Word A Day subscribers, it's helpful to compare the size of the subgroup that participates in author chats to the entire subscriber base. Hitting Reply to address an entire group can be psychologically daunting.

The First Contribution

The easier it is to join a conversation, the more visitors will become contributors. Communities that allow anonymous participation tend to see greater numbers of initial contributions. This varies with the nature of the community -- it's easier to post to several Usenet groups at once than to subscribe to an opt-in, moderated mailing list.

Adding features to encourage registration (or to discourage anonymous participation) acts as a filtering process. This is a mixed blessing. Several Perl Monks have called for the end of anonymous posting. This might reduce drive-by posters who ask questions, request followups via e-mail, and never return to the site. On the other hand, several regular contributors first tested the waters by posting anonymously.

Address the issue of anonymous participation early in your community's lifecycle. There are no hard and fast rules. Sometimes it may be better to weed out casual or lazy users by requiring e-mail confirmations. This does not always apply. In particular, cypherpunks and anti-spam activists prefer their privacy. Other communities may find that registration adds another welcome level of accountability.

Registration should benefit the users. Slashdot users customize the comment display and write journals. Perl Monks track their replies and send and receive private messages. Use Perl users post comments and receive messages when their friends use the site. Advogato users rate each other on their perceived contributions to the cause of Free Software.

Requiring registration can cull potential mischief makers, too. Even pseudonymous users with a sense of responsibility may be deterred from causing trouble by losing face in the community. (This doesn't always work, as bad is good at Badvogato.)

The Interface

A strong community can overcome technical limitations. It's possible to write a Wiki or a weblog in under a hundred lines of code. Simplicity may appeal to some users. The lack of sophistication (reply notification, searching, revisions, and access controls) may put off some users, and an ugly or awkward user interface may get in the way sometimes, but a community can grow in spite of the mess.

It's worth making things simpler and more consistent, though, especially for Web-based message boards. While social benefits may persuade people to put up with and to learn to love the quirks of an awkward posting system, too much perceived complexity (or user hostility) caps the rate of new members. Woe be to the perpetrator of any user interface overhaul, though. (See the notion of "ownership" above.)

Mischief

Like any community, your group will have spats and factions and frictions. These must be handled wisely for the community to survive. Plan for trouble, though you cannot tell when or where it will strike. Set simple rules. Make them explicit. Apply them consistently.

Start with a list of unacceptable behavior. This will probably include harassing or attacking other users, posting copyrighted or plagiarized material, straying from the topic, and abusing the system with multiple accounts or robots. Create a list of consequences, which may range from warnings to suspensions to expulsions. Communities with a ranking or levels system might use demotions and the loss of privileges. You can ignore, obscure, or delete potentially illegal material. Choose your response before it's needed.

Some communities find a community judgment process effective. Editors on Perl Monks find a rough consensus before exercising their authority. Monks in good standing vote as to the best way to handle potentially troublesome content (poorly formatted, posted in the wrong section, a true duplicate, or containing malicious code).

If possible, avoid giving the impression that the rules are a game. People like to push the boundaries, and some users only participate to provoke responses in others. Constantly changing the invisible rules under the hood may, if this leads to visible effects for normal users, lead some users to experiment to find and to exploit the actual rules. Apply the rules consistently and calmly and you will remove many psychological rewards for deliberate infractions.

Whatever you decide, keep the rules simple. Make them readily available, so no one has an excuse not to read them. Enforce them consistently but not harshly.

Discuss the Community Openly

Even if you have a legal or moral right to change the structure of the community, you may not have the necessary social capital. Change is difficult. Sudden or dramatic changes are often threatening. Change is also unavoidable.

Remember the perception of ownership and the bell curves that categorize community members. Any change you make (or don't make) will offend someone, and you'll hear about it. Be honest and open about your plans as early as possible. You may be able to harness the best minds of your community to develop better ideas.

Realize that the community itself will occasionally be a topic unto itself. Perl Monks has a discussion section for debating site suggestions and improvements. The extremely rare Slashdot stories about Slashdot garner hundreds of posts. It's not healthy to navel-gaze, but occasional meta-discussion clears the air.

Don't Stop There!

Even if you have graduate degrees in sociology and psychology, the dynamics of human communities will still surprise you. Be very clear about your goals and the rules. Manage your expectations about user participation and groups wisely. Allow a little chaos. Use your common sense and best judgment. If there's an audience for your conversation, you'll find a community.

chromatic manages Onyx Neon Press, an independent publisher.

Running Weblogs with Slash

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Running Weblogs with Slash
By chromatic , Brian Aker, David Krieger

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