Structuring your online community

In my experiences with various organizations and causes, I come across many people who realize the need to augment their communications efforts with an online community. They suppose, “why not set up an email list?” In general, I worry that email lists sometimes bring more trouble than they’re worth. Email lists can best be used successfully if the leadership sees the path of how to lead to more productive online communities. I’d like to illustrate that path here.

Many online communities start as email lists. They are simple to set up; there are over 2 million email lists on Yahoo (and that’s only counting the ones publicly listed). The problem is that mailing lists cannot truly scale– not everyone has the same interest on getting email for each new post. Web-based forums are an intermediate solution to that problem: they move the discussion posts to the web, putting the onus on the users to visit.

Weblogs have taken the mantle of being the next step. By design they are more compelling for the community to visit, and many of them provide value both to the frequent participants as well as the occasional readers. More importantly, a blog is a constructive medium— it enables the community to, in effect, to build a body of knowledge. Email lists, by comparison, are fleeting.

Let’s step back from technology for a moment to consider basic questions. So what does a community need? A community generally deals with ideas– those concepts which can be articulated, discussed, and acted upon. So how can we better organize ideas that come from the community? How can we better promote ideas? or more precisely, allow the community to choose which ideas to promote?

I’ve devised a structure to meet the needs of online communities that I call a civ. I hesitate about calling this next development an extension of a blog. I have found various definitions and connotations of the term “blog”, but I’m not going to be borrowing much from them. Instead I’ll be borrowing more from journalism and activism, so I thought I’d pick a name which is significant of both of them.

Organizing ideas

An online community should thinking like the editors of a journal or a newspaper do for their communities: how do we organize ideas to make them easier for people to read? The mode of email lists and blogs is to present ideas chronologically, which by itself is not sufficient for organizing ideas. Here’s what a civ can do and how it can best be used:

  1. To encourage laser-like focus on the specific topic, you need develop a good structure of categories, known as a taxonomy. This enables a reader to catch up on similar ideas written in the past. An editor should solicit stories specifically to the topics, and actively work with the contributors to focus on that topic. The blog credo of “if it interests me, I’ll publish it” needs to be checked by an unwavering discipline to the topics.
  2. You need to get a group of people to contribute on a regular basis. This can give the contributors to spend longer time making crafting higher-quality pieces.
  3. Consider how departments in magazines work: they structure the content to make it easier to browse through. The website should have different sections for different types of content— thoughts, reviews, proposals, definitions. Sure, this could allow for lighter fluff like anecdotes, stories, humor, etc., to exist, but have their place, without distracting from the meat-and-potatoes of the analysis pieces. This should have a secondary effect of enabling the contributors to understand whether certain types of content has been lacking.
  4. To make news easier to scan, consider using short headlines and outtakes — more like a conventional news site than a blog. The long run-on format common in blogs stands in marked contrast to the classical Jakob Nielsen’s classical web design guidelines.

Promoting ideas

An editor can organize the ideas, but that shouldn’t assert a valuation. It’s the community’s interest to evaluate ideas which they encounter. The specific need to “promote” ideas, is not just to spread them, but to advance them to the people who can act on them– the executive leadership, governing authorities, etc. These are familiar practices to anyone involved with committees or boards.

Here’s what a civ can do and how it can best be used:

  1. If the technology is set up in such a way that the vast majority of members “lurk”– that is, watch from the sidelines– it’s not engaging the community enough. People should be able to participate on each idea: as simpple by clicking a button to register their opinion on a piece– ViewPoints is what I call them. It’s a way for someone to articulate “me too” without wasting time or space. .
  2. The simplest post to a blog or email list is a reference to another website, or to a story posted elsewhere. Viewpoints allow the community members to quickly vote along various metrics like the utility, veracity, and appropriateness of these links. By comparison, the conventional metric used by blogs– simply measuring references to a piece– is imprecise.
  3. The process of promoting ideas also means to evolve them from mere suggestions and questions by the community, into formally written ideas. I haven’t fully built the complete technique for doing this. But the Question Scoreboard is a a way to apply Viewpoints participation towards generating ideas.

Where we’re at

Civilities is very much in its infancy as a prototype of the Civ structure. I’m still building the Viewpoints technology, and seeking to understand how it can best work, and the risks involved with it. I don’t yet have a scoreboard for all ideas. Nor have I fully implemented, let alone discussed, strategies for managing massively sized communities. There is also some work to do with Drupal on seeing how to support controlled aggregation– where an editor has the ability to control which stories from remote sites are published.

but there is valuation… by Jon Garfunkel
the important dimension by Michael_Shirts
see ViewPoints discussion by Jon Garfunkel
Blogger Corps by Visitor

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click “Save settings” to activate your changes.