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It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change


Calling all Community Builders

We’re living in fluid and dynamic times. It’s easier than ever to travel the world and stay in touch electronically with people who live far away. As a society we’re working harder, juggling more roles, and spending more of our free time at home— exhausted from our multifaceted lives, fearful of the violence that we see in movies, TV and video games, and physically removed from our family, friends and neighbors. So we go online—to shop, play games, trade collectibles, argue politics, or just shoot the breeze. The Web is becoming our collective town square—more and more, people are turning to Web communities to get their personal, social and profesional needs met. This translates into a tremendous opportunity for Web community builders.

I first felt the power of online communications while working at Sun Microsystems in the mid-1980s. Soon after joining the company, my boss asked me to name my computer, and I impulsively chose “Naima”—the title of a beautiful, haunting jazz ballad by John Coltrane that I’d learned the night before. My public identity on the Sun intranet became “amyjo@naima”; and within a few weeks, I started to get email from Coltrane fanatics all around the company. They invited me to join a private mailing list, and jam with them after hours. Because of my online identity, I’d found people who shared my passion, and that changed my life for the better.

How is a Web community different than one in the real world? In terms of their social dynamics, physical and virtual communities are much the same. Both involve developing a web of relationships among people who have something meaningful in common, such as a beloved hobby, a life-altering illness, a political cause, a religious conviction, a professional relationship, or even simply a neighborhood or town. So in one sense, a Web community is simply a community that happens to exist online, rather than in the physical world.

But being online offers special opportunities and challenges that give Web communities a unique flavor. The Net erases boundaries created by time and distance, and makes it dramatically easier for people to maintain connections, deepen relationships, and meet like-minded souls that they would otherwise never have met. It also offers a strange and compelling combination of anonymity and intimacy that brings out the best and worst in people’s behavior. It can be near impossible to impose lasting consequences on troublemakers, and yet relatively easy to track an individual’s behavior and purchase patterns—which makes Web communities notoriously difficult to manage. To complicate matters further, the legal issues involving privacy, liability and intellectual property on the Web are just beginning to be addressed, and will evolve rapidly over the next few years.

Although the focus is on Web communities, this book also illuminates deeper and more fundamental aspects of community building—the social and cultural dynamics, the power of a shared purpose, and the roles, rituals and events that bind people together into a group.

Why I Wrote This Book

I’ve been building online communities for ten years; I’ve worked on AOL sites, Web zines, technical-support message boards, Java chat room interfaces, online trading posts, and a variety of high-end gaming environments. Again and again, regardless of technology, I’ve found myself bumping up against the same basic issues in my work—issues like persistent identity, newcomer confusion, etiquette standards, leadership roles, and group dynamics.

So about five years ago, I summarized these issues into a set of design guidelines, and started using them in my consulting practice. Through conversations with community leaders, both on and off the Web, I learned that the patterns I was seeing in virtual communities were echoed in physical communities, and that all communities are ultimately based on timeless social dynamics that transcend the medium of connection. In other words, people are people, even in cyberspace.

This is the book that I wish I’d had when I was first starting out. I’ve found it incredibly useful to have a framework to help me address the basic design, technical and policy issues that arise in community building. This framework has helped me become a more effective and creative community designer; my hope is that it will do the same for you.

How to Use This Book

If you’re engaged in producing, designing, programming, or maintaining communities that are based on the Web, you’ve come to the right place. This book is a strategic handbook for community builders; it summarizes the “best practices” of successful Web communities, and brings them to life with behind-the-scenes stories from some dynamic and influential sites. Here, you’ll learn about the key issues that every Web community designer faces, along with guidelines for addressing these issues within the context of your own community. You’ll also learn which communications tools are most appropriate for your community, and which technologies are necessary for a large-scale Web community to truly thrive.

What you won’t find here is an in-depth account of how to program a Web community, configure specific community-building tools, create a business plan, obtain financing, or develop an advertising or subscription strategy. The focus is on teaching you how to grow a thriving community that will attract and sustain members, and on how to adress the design, technical and policy issues that will inevitably arise if your community becomes a success.

All you need to enjoy and make use of this book is familiarity with Internet basics and a desire to create or improve your own online community. You don’t need to be an expert programmer, a sophisticated Web designer, or a savvy businessperson— although if you are, you’ll get even more out of the ideas presented here.

If you’re preparing to launch (or redesign) your Web community, you can use this book as a planning tool to help you formulate your vision, identify your audience, prioritize your feature set, and plan your staffing needs. Community building is a team effort; and accordingly, this book is written to be useful to people in management, marketing, production, programming, and design—all of whom will have input during the strategic planning phase.

If you’re running an existing community, you can use this book as a general source of ideas and inspiration to help you meet your goals, improve and develop your community, and better serve the needs of your members.

If you’re involved in teaching or lecturing on community design, you can use this book as a teaching tool. On the companion Web site you’ll find some examples of class outlines, exercises and projects to complement the book.

Nine Design Strategies

The book is organized around nine timeless design strategies that characterize successful, sustainable communities. Taken together, these strategies summarize an architectural, systems-oriented approach to community building that I call “Social Scaffolding”:

  • Define and articulate your PURPOSE

    Communities come to life when they fulfill an ongoing need in people’s lives. To create a successful community, you’ll need to first understand why you’re building it and who you’re building it for; and then express your vision in the design, technology and policies of your community.

  • Build flexible, extensible gathering PLACES

    A community can begin to take root wherever people gather for a shared purpose and start talking among themselves. Once you’ve defined your purpose, you’ll want to build a flexible, small-scale infrastructure of gathering places, which you and your members will work together to evolve.

  • Create meaningful and evolving member PROFILES

    You can get to know your members—and help them get to know each other— by developing robust, evolving and up-to-date member profiles. If handled with integrity, these profiles can help you build trust, foster relationships, and deliver personalized services, while infusing your community with a sense of history and context.

  • Design for a range of ROLES

    Addressing the needs of newcomers without alienating the regulars is an ongoing balancing act. As your community grows, it will become increasingly important to provide guidance to newcomers while offering leadership, ownership and commerce opportunities to more experienced members.

  • Develop a strong LEADERSHIP program

    Community leaders are the fuel in your engine: they greet visitors, encourage newbies, teach classes, answer questions, and deal with trouble makers who might destroy the fun for everyone else. An effective leadership program requires careful planning and ongoing management, but the results can be well worth the investment.

  • Encourage appropriate ETIQUETTE

    Every community has its share of internal squabbling; if handled well, conflict can be invigorating. But disagreements often spin out of control and tear a community apart. To avoid this, it’s crucial to develop some groundrules for participation, and set up systems that allow you to enforce and evolve your community standards.

  • Promote cyclic EVENTS

    Communities come together around regular events: sitting down to dinner, going to church on Sunday, attending a monthly meeting or an annual offsite. To develop a loyal following and foster deeper relationships among your members, you’ll want to establish regular online events, and help your members develop and run their own events.

  • Integrate the RITUALS of community life

    All communities use rituals to acknowledge their members and celebrate important social transitions. By celebrating holidays, marking seasonal changes, and acknowleging personal transitions and rites of passage, you’ll be laying the foundation for a true online culture.

  • Facilitate member-run SUBGROUPS

    If your goal is to grow a large-scale community, you’ll want to provide technologies to help your members create and run subgroups. It’s a substantial undertaking, but this powerful feature can drive lasting member loyalty, and help to distinguish your community from its competition.

Each chapter explores a design strategy in detail, and offers guidelines and tactics for applying that strategy to your Web community. Each strategy builds on the previous ones, and so the chapter order corresponds to a recommended planning process (or teaching order) for community design.

Three Underlying Principles

Before we plunge ahead, I want to introduce to you three basic community design principles that underlie the ideas in this book. The first one is: Design for growth and change (Figure 1). This might sound simple, but watch out, it’s harder than it looks. As a community designer, one of the most damaging mistakes you can make is to over-design your community up front and invest too heavily in a design paradigm or technology platform that can’t easily be changed and updated. Successful, long-lasting communities almost always start off small, simple and focused, and then grow organically over time—adding breadth, depth and complexity in response to the changing needs of the members, and the changing conditions of the environment.

Figure 1. Design for growth and change

Closely related to this idea is the second principle: Create and maintain feedback loops (Figure 2). Successful community building is a constant balancing act between the efforts of management (that’s you) to plan, organize and run the space, and the ideas, suggestions and needs of your members. To manage this co-evolution, you’ll need to keep your finger on the community pulse—and you’ll do this by creating and maintaining feedback loops between members and management. These loops will keep you in touch with what your members are saying and doing, and give you the information you need to evolve and update your features and platform.

Figure 2. Create and maintain feedback loops

This brings us to the third principle: Empower your members over time (Figure 3). Initially, it’s up to you to define your purpose, choose your feature set, and set a particular tone, but as your community grows and matures, your members can and should play a progressively larger role in building and maintaining the community culture. If you want to grow a large and thriving community, you’ll need to develop a progressive strategy for leveraging the ideas and efforts of your members.

Figure 3. Empower your members over time

Going Further

Because the Web is ever-changing, keep in mind that the scenes and situations presented in this book may not match what you find. Screenshots were captured during the development of the book; upon publication and thereafter these images may no longer be current, so check the individual Web sites for the most current information. Be aware that practices and policies of the companies mentioned may also have changed.

I’ve created a companion Web site (www.naima.com/community) to accompany this book where you can get up-to-date community building resources, and discuss the issues raised in this book. I invite you to log on and share your stories, ideas, and experiences with other community builders. Good luck with your project—see you online.

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