Online communities

From Faster Than 20

There is no such thing as an online community

Thoughtfully chosen online tools have the power to augment communities. Augment = to make something greater by adding to it.

Starting from this mindset is essential if you are looking to create space for your community to interact online. It reminds us that we do not build online tools to create collaborative communities. Instead you choose online tools to augment existing community.

This means that the fundamentals of engaging online community are the same as working with groups off-line. We need to ask how our community interacts right now, what behaviors we are looking to change or amplify, and then thoughtfully design the structures and processes that will best support those behaviors. People often mistakenly fixate on tool choice or on technical literacy when trying to build on-line communities. However the hardest part of learning how to use these tools effectively is actually adopting the right mindsets.

Fundamentally, the only thing that's different when considering online tools is the physics of the space. The power of web-enabled communities is they allow members of a group to collaborate across the boundaries of space and time.

Building Online Tools

Most attempts to build online communities end up as expensive failures. The reasons for this often boil down to:

  • Lack of up-front clarity around what the community needs
  • Lack of community capacity to engage using these tools (e.g. time, literacy, etc.)

The problem is that it’s hard to resolve these things in advance. People rarely know what they need until they actually have it. Furthermore, the capacities required to engage online vary widely, and it’s hard to develop those capacities without... well, engaging online, which is what you’re trying to get your community to do in the first place.

The best way to navigate this complexity and to figure out what’s useful is to experiment and learn from these experiments. Unfortunately, building software is an incredibly expensive way to do that. Hiring better engineers won’t help with this, because even lightweight projects written by great engineers will fail if they don’t address the right needs.

Fortunately, these days, you don’t have to build things from scratch in order to experiment and learn. There are a plethora of free or cheap online tools already available, hosted in the cloud or freely available as open source software. It often makes more sense to use these tools rather than to build something from scratch. Even if it is useful for you to build something, experimenting with these existing tools is a great way to build your community’s capacity and to better understand the needs of your community, which will lead to a better understanding of what you should build.

We do not treat them as a silver bullet, nor believe that building an on-line tool can create community. (read more about this philosophy around technology)

Buy or build? The reality is that most people suck at building software. That includes most of the companies who are in the business of building software. If you have lots of capital to invest, it's worth at least exploring this option. However, if you don't (or even if you do), the answer is almost certainly buy. The economics rarely merit building something from scratch, especially when you account for the cost of maintaining and evolving the tool.

That said, you can do a lot of building with good, off-the-shelf projects. You should be able to customize look-and-feel — a critical factor when you think of online tools as space and when your goal is to create a delightful space — and you should be able to customize functionality or integrate with other tools via an API.

Despite these entreaties, if you still feel like you need to build something, here are some resources:

Our Approach

As with all of our group work, our approach will involve listening, co-creation, activation, and experimentation to help encourage the behaviors and mindsets your community needs to engage on-line.

Our philosophy for projects like this can be summarized as follows: Don’t focus on the tools. Focus on building “muscles” for engaging online.

Our approach would be to design a repeatable, four-month process for establishing goals, adopting and evaluating tools, and continuously improving the practice of using those tools effectively.

1. Baseline Assessment - Understand Your Network Through a combination of surveys and interviews, we will build a baseline understanding of how your community communicates and collaborates right now, and collaboration goals for the on-line space

2. Co-Design a Plan We will present the results, providing your community insight in to how it's working today, where it is planning to go, and different tools and processes that will support this shift. We will also introduce some basic mindsets and behaviors needed to be successful on-line, and then facilitate a co-design meeting with your team to pick the best on-line tools for your team

3. Make It Happen

Our approach is designed to help the group constantly experiment and learn. Over time, your tools will inevitably become outdated. Your muscles for online engagement, on the other hand, should continue to grow.

Some advantages of this approach: build relationships, capacity, alignment

As with all of our group work, we know any designed solution is much more likely to be adopted when the community participates in the design process. So no matter the level of technological proficiency, you want your community actively involved in the co-design process. //(this last bit might not be best here, but instead somewhere on our approach)//

We would apply the following principles to this work:

  • Model the behavior that we’d like to see in the broader community
    • Work openly and transparently
    • Share by default
    • Build relationships
  • Do the work in a way that builds the capacity of the network
    • Involve the community in all aspects of the project, creating opportunities for others to participate
    • Less about research, more about participatory action-learning
    • Facilitating greater participation within the network will enable us to try more things and learn faster, all while building capacity
  • Fail fast forward
    • If you have to build something, do it quickly, cheaply, and iteratively
    • Learn, learn, learn
    • Balance smart guesses with hard data. Learn, ultimately, by trying

See Also