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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.

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