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Some time ago, I found myself at my father’s house, telling a wise family friend about the book I’m writing. My dad’s friend is a college professor, a real silver-bearded, elbow-patched kind of guy. And he was astounded at the notion of a web-based community.

“If it doesn’t happen in real life,” he said, “then it doesn’t happen. It’s just not real.”

“But what about the Jewish community?” I asked. “We’re not all in the same room, but it’s a community, right?”

“Sure,” he said. “But we have a shared history.”

“Okay,” I said. “So if I share history with a group of people I’ve never met, that makes it a community?”

He fidgeted.

“What if I talk with a group of people online for a few years?” I asked. “Is that a community?”

“Not if you never meet,” he said.

“Okay. So what if I talk with a group of people on a website for a few years and then we all get together in real life? Are we a community after the meeting, but not before?”

He fidgeted again.

“Look,” I said. “I’m not saying that web-based communities and real-life communities are exactly the same. Of course they’re different. But one is no more valid than the other. They’re both emotional, intimate, and real.”

“Dinner’s on!” my dad shouted from the kitchen.

When it comes to the “what-is-community” question, the answer is that there are no hard and fast answers, only personal ones. Community building is an intensely subjective experience that must be respected. Everyone will have a slightly different interpretation of what being a community means. It’s up to each community to define what it is, and to constantly evaluate that definition on a personal basis.

And here’s the first great lesson to be learned about community, whether in real life or on the web: Never expect everyone to agree.

The Web Is Different

With the advent of every new media come proclamations of how it is going to change the world. The creators of television thought it would bring the arts to the masses, sending opera and theatre to people in remote places. One glance at Friday night primetime proves that goal was never exactly reached.

The same pronouncements came with the web. It would spark a digital revolution that would change everything about everything. It would turn anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of HTML into a millionaire. It would change the face of business and the economy. It would get your coffee in the morning and find your keys under the couch.

And while the web really has changed mainstream media in some significant ways, the real revolution wasn’t in the new economy. As we’ve watched the paper millionaires of 2000 become regular working stiffs in 2001, the dot-com collapse has left many wondering what all that web hype was about.

For all the false pronouncements and smoke and mirrors, a digital revolution has taken place, but it wasn’t in the stock market or the boardroom. The revolution took place in the bedrooms and cubicles of the world, where parents pecked out email to their children, where people met in chat rooms and web boards, where lives were changed because of a new kind of personal connection.

The web was revolutionary (and still is) because it does one thing that no other media has been able to do, ever. The web grows communities, almost without trying, because the web is the only media that allows its users to communicate with each other directly, publicly, and instantly.

Other media have glimmers of that connection, but none so successful or meaningful. Newspapers publish letters to the editor. Radio has call-in shows. Television has, well, Jerry Springer. All of these contain a hint of what is possible when you let the users of your media communicate directly with each other. But the web makes direct user-to-user communication a reality. Because, on the web, the device you usually use to view it is the same device you need to create it. (You can’t make a radio show with your car stereo.)

The web grows communities because it allows everyone to have a voice. Unlike the one-way communication of television transmission, or the static information of a dead tree newspaper page, the web makes dialogues real, immediate, and public. The medium this communication takes place in is virtual, but the connections themselves are real, intimate, and indeed revolutionary.

In the midst of all the hype of digital revolutions and e-everything, the web has been quietly doing what it does best, what no other media can do better: creating communities.

Defining the Terms

The word “community” is dangerous. It’s the kind of word that shows up in taglines and quarterly reports to make stockholders feel warm and fuzzy. But when every corporate website brags about its community, the word begins to lose all meaning.

I believe the only relevant context to judge a community is a personal one. Community is immensely personal. Community membership can be a major part of an individual’s internal self-image (the way a devout religious person identifies with a place of worship) or external professional life (professional organizations and guilds, for example).

Members of a community will identify themselves with the community when they feel strongly connected to it. But slapping a community label on an unwitting individual will usually be met with annoyance or worse.

When I want to sell my old camera or buy a new book, I’ll visit sites such as eBay (ebay.com) or Amazon (amazon.com). In these cases, I’m just there for a transaction, not a conversation. Yet both these sites have generous community features, and both brag about their communities to their stockholders and the press.

And while it’s true that some of eBay’s users feel strongly connected to the site, simply going there to sell my old stuff doesn’t really make me a community member, any more than using a can opener makes me a member of the exclusive canopening community.

I advise clients to never call their sites “communities.” Instead, provide adequate tools for your members to communicate with each other, plenty of relevant material to talk about, and an elegant structure that encourages conversation. If you’re successful, your members will start calling it a community on their own.

But since community is a personal business, I’ll give you my personal definition of the word. Here goes:

Web communities happen when users are given tools to use their voice in a public and immediate way, forming intimate relationships over time.

Let’s look at each of these pieces individually:

  1. Tools: This is all about power. Giving your users tools to communicate is giving them the power. But we’re not talking about all the tools they could possibly want. We’re talking about carefully crafted experiences, conservatively proportioned for maximum impact. Common tools are web boards, chat rooms, and discussion areas.

  2. Voice: Giving your users the ability to use their voice and say what they think or feel is an incredibly powerful act. When users see their words on your site, it becomes their site, too.

  3. Public: Private email exchanges and instant messages can help foster private communities. But for a community to succeed on the web, it has to be public, at least to some degree.

  4. Immediate: The web is an instantaneous medium. If you’re calling for user participation, you need to have systems in place to accept and reward that participation immediately.

  5. Intimate Relationships: In the end, communities are all about relationships. And participating in a web community can be a powerfully intimate experience. If your users develop a strong emotional bond with each other and the site, you’ve done your job well.

  6. Time: The last element is time. Whatever your goal, it’s not going to happen all at once. Patience is not just a virtue here—it’s a requirement.

What to Expect from This Book

In this book, I’m going to focus on building community features into websites, not building communities. There’s a key difference. When I talk about building community features, I’m talking about giving the users of a website the tools they need to relate to each other in a productive way. If they use them, and keep coming back to use them, then maybe they’ll start to call it a community.

But, in the end, that’s up to them.

There are many different tools you can use to build communities online, including Internet Relay Chat, instant messaging programs, and Usenet. And while all these things will be mentioned, the primary focus of this book is the web, because the web is the most active, exciting area of virtual community, and it’s the one where design matters the most. We’ll also cover web-based chat and email lists, especially as they relate to cultivating virtual community.

I expect that this book will be of interest to people who have websites already, and are thinking of adding community features — a web store that’s thinking of adding user-generated product reviews, a city newspaper that wants to add user-posted classifieds, a fan site that’s going to add chat, a national society that just wants to let its users communicate directly, a personal project to collect stories on a certain theme — all of these are good examples of groups that might be interested in this book.

The focus is on the design issues that arise when working with these features. How do you present a discussion system that encourages friendly conversation? How does color influence the tone of conversation? Should there be fewer barriers to entry in a site with community features, or more? How can the community police itself?

This book deals with the practical problems when designing these sites, based on my experience designing and interacting with sites with community features. The issues raised cover everything from visual design to information architecture to mob dynamics.

But this is not a technology book. I do not review software or write code. And this is not a psychology paper or a business book, although I do touch on all of those things. This is a book about the issues around, conversations about, and stories from my experiences in designing community-based websites.

Each chapter focuses on one specific issue of community building on the web, from moderation to intimacy to using email. Each chapter culminates in an interview with an expert in that particular area of virtual community. These are the people in the trenches every day, all of them chosen for their leadership in, and experience with, a specific area of community building. I don’t always agree with everything my interview subjects have to say, but they’re all interesting people with smart ideas that bear some thought, especially when they challenge existing notions.

In addition, be sure to visit designforcommunity.com, where you can find unedited transcripts of the Q&As, more information and current events on web community, and special insider information.

Who I Am

This book is the culmination of more than six years of doing nothing but eating, drinking, and thinking about the web. I discovered the web in 1995, just before I graduated from college with a degree in photojournalism. Every newspaper I applied to said that they didn’t hire photographers anymore. They advised me to look into the wire services such as the AP, or maybe even this new digital stuff.

When I found the web, it was like getting infected by a virus. I’d had an email account for years, but the web, as a graphical medium, changed everything. I soon found myself staying up nights making homepages and working for clients on the side.

Through my homepage (and a fair bit of good luck), I was hired by HotWired (hotwired.com), Wired Magazine’s sister publication, as Associate Production Editor. That meant it was my job to test out pages in the two major browsers at the time: Netscape 1.0 and Netscape 1.1 (which was a major difference, by the way, because Netscape 1.1 supported tables!).

It was a simpler time, back then. But HotWired had created a place called Threads, where the HotWired readers could respond to the stories. Threads was a fractured, dissonant, often hostile place. And most days it was far more interesting than what was going on at the main site. I learned many of my early lessons about web community from watching Threads.

After more than a year at HotWired, I went to work at Electric Minds, a company started by virtual community pioneer Howard Rheingold. There the goal was to further blur that line between content and community. The site was a cultural success, but a business failure. We were out of money in less than a year.

From there I went freelance. I worked for big names such as Nike (with vivid studios), where we created user feedback loops on topics such as heroes, and Netscape’s Professional Connections (with Abbe Don Interactive), where we got tens of thousands of professionals talking to each other.

I also created my own sites under the moniker Powazek Productions (powazek.com), each of which enabled users to join the community in some way. In 1996, I created {fray} (fray.com), a site devoted to personal storytelling, where users could read true stories and respond with their own. Later I created Kvetch! (kvetch.com), where users could post complaints, and San Francisco Stories (sfstories.com), where I wrote my own personal tales of The City and invited everyone else to do the same.

Since then, {fray} has spawned the {fray} organization (fray.org) — a group of volunteers devoted to holding storytelling gatherings in real life. The community that started its life online has now evolved offline. For me, that was the moment that proved, without a doubt, that the virtual bonds formed online are as real as any made offline, and sometimes much more.

All of these projects, both professional and personal, have contributed to my understanding of the beautiful, ephemeral dance that is virtual community. I refer to the previously mentioned sites throughout the book. It’s my hope that these examples will allow you to learn from my successes, and be warned away from my mistakes.

I hope you get as much out of this book as I’ve gotten putting it all together.

Thanks for reading.

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