Eleanor Parker (wellelp) Fri 23 Nov 01 16:39
A sensitive topic in America is racism, and that got me to question the role of race in virtual communities. While I am quite sure that the individuals who comprise the Well are (for the most part) not racist, the Well is still overwhelmingly white. Are there virtual communities that are well integrated, and what did they have to do to get that way?
Eleanor Parker (wellelp) Fri 23 Nov 01 18:45
(Realizing that I'm sounding way too terse in my questions, but you being a big-time author and all, I'd hate to sound undeferential. ;-) But it's awesome cool that you're participating in this marathon interview, and that we get to learn so much from you. Many thanks.)
Doug Hess (dougrhess) Sat 24 Nov 01 06:05
Regarding political communities and action through web communities: Here's a self-promotion blurb from a group called "e-advocates." They design websites ( http://www.eadvocates.com )for advocacy groups and help promote them. It is a different kind of community. Not a free-for-all discussion board. But sort of like a membership group (maybe without dues). You ask them to keep you informed and then you participate if you agree. "e-advocates designed and launched http://StopFamilyViolence.org in five days, generating 164,000 e-mails to Congress in 12 weeks. The campaign won the American Association of Political Consultant's Pollie Award for Best Issue Advocacy Web site and won the issue according to the congressional sponsors -- reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. As the client's vision for the site evolves, e-advocates continues to expand its capabilities. StopFamilyViolence and e-advocates received coverage on ABCNews.com, Oxygen.com, Philanthropy Journal, and PR Week for the campaign."
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sat 24 Nov 01 06:05
Good questions, all... rather than ask a question, I want to point to an activist site, since the question of activism came up. The site is http://www.hatewatch.org, which uses Post-nuke, a php-based system that's similar to Slash. At first glance, I don't get the sense that many comments have been posted there, as compared to, say, Plastic or Slashdot. Is this a matter of subject matter? Design? Visibility?
the Angela Lansbury of guys (draml) Sun 25 Nov 01 03:30
Interesting site to point to, and to think to compare it to Plastic and Slashdot, etc. My thoughts (for what they're worth!) are that it's hard to see the functional design of Hatewatch being a problem, seeing how close it is in that regard to the wildly successful grand-daddy of the type, Slashdot. Although notably (and entirely understandably, given the subject matter) it doesn't allow anonymous postings, which gives it a slightly higher barrier to entry than Slashdot's ingenious Anonymous Coward system. Isn't it more likely to be simply a function of the very narrow focus of the site? Even Slashdot - news for nerds - has a much wider scope, and of course Plastic is even more wide-ranging. I would have expected that aspect to attract higher numbers, keep them (since, if you tire of one focus, you can still use the same community as your interests change) and also allow for a more social diversions that will encourage community spirit, numbers and posting. And Plastic also came with a wide potential user base (visitors to Wired, Feed, Inside, etc.) which will have helped it.
Doug Hess (dougrhess) Sun 25 Nov 01 05:58
Thanks for the http://www.hatewatch.org link. A very interesting site. I think Andrew (aka draml) is right about the reasons. This brings up the whole anonymous user question, and how that can destroy a community. Last year I was considering law school (gasp!). I went to the discussion board of the Princeton Review people only to find tons of very hateful anonymous postings. Mostly people bragging about themselves, their schools and complaing about affirmative action in admissions. Apparently, law schools really are filled with assholes, I concluded. Nonetheless, there were some useful posts, but rarely by the anonymous, usually by people using their name and a non-free email address (ie, their school email address). As a former community and labor organizer, I realize that community projects often draw out the cranks -- the people with real or imagined issues they have to get off their chest time and time again. So, while I want to keep getting ideas as to how web communities can lead to active life in public affairs, I am also interested in what kind of participation can spoil a community. (BTW, one community I use to be in alot is http://www.wetcanvas.com this is an art community. You can post your art and get pointers from other artists, etc. They have tried to sell art there, but it never really caught on. More about trust and sales on line, later...)
Derek M. Powazek (dmpowazek) Sun 25 Nov 01 21:30
Hey Gang. It's been a good trip home, and the cold seems to be waning. I'm packing up to head back home, and wanted to get to a few more questions before I head back into airport madness. So.... On Wednesday, <ari> said: "Derek, I was struck by the fact that you seem to approach community-building from the perspective of a storyteller. You've also mentioned working with Abbe Don, who also comes at interface design from the perspective of a storyteller. Can you speak at all to how storytelling influences your sense of community design, or how it influences your sense of how to create a place for people to share stories?" Exactly right, Ari. Storytelling is my core desire/interest/need/speciality. It was primarily my love of storytelling that got me thinking about community in the first place. Because, when you use digital tools to share your stories in networked environments, a temporary virtual community is the inevitable result. So what kind of environments are conducive to storytelling? It's a great way to approach community spaces, because it's all about emotion and empathy. Participants need to feel safe and welcome, they need to all have a turn, to share the mic, to support and applaud. You could learn a lot about virtual community at your local open mic. There's so much more to say about storytelling and community. If I every wrote a second edition of DfC, that's what it would be about.
Derek M. Powazek (dmpowazek) Sun 25 Nov 01 21:54
On Wednesday, Nancy White <choco> clarified her comments our conversation about inclusiveness: "As we talk about 'community,' 'inclusiveness' and 'barriers,' I realize that I'm more and more working with online groups who HAVE to get online together, community or not. They are a group first, perhaps community later." Aha! Now I understand what you were getting at. Sorry if I went off on a wild tangent there. Working with a pre-existing community is different than trying to form a new one in a virtual realm, with it's own set of pros and cons. Pre-existing communities already share a bond, which should make bringing them together online easier. But you can't count on them being comfortable with communicating in a virtual space. New virtual communities, at least, can be expected to be somewhat familiar with the technology, if only because they wouldn't be there otherwise. It can be incredibly difficult to get a group communicating, when they already communicate in other ways, and when some of the group may not be comfortable with the technology. You need a critical mass of participation for it to begin at all. And sometimes you never get there. Nancy also added: "I was interested, Derek, in some of your positions about devolving control where possible and appropriate to the users -- give them some control of their environment to make it work for them." While it may be tempting, I've found that user-customizations are rarely a good incentive to get wary users to participate. Because, usually, adding customizable features means adding a daunting interface layer. If you've got a user who's threatened by the "post" button, adding a dozen other to change the font, adjust the size, add columns, remove columns, change colors ... agh! It becomes even more scary. In my experience, it's the hardcore users that want customizations. And there are the users who are already invested and participating. So how to get the wary new users to participate? Look at the site, as much as possible, through their eyes. Do user testing. Find out what's scaring them off. Remember to pay close attention to signage and help text, and those places that are without it. Some basic user profiling can help here, too. For example, the first time you go to the Conversations area of DfC, you're greeted with some simple welcome text that introduces the space. And this isn't hard to do - it simply comes up for anyone who's not logged in. As soon as you're logged in, I can assume that you've signed up, received the introductory email, and verified your account. Therefore you don't need to be bogged down with the intro text anymore - as soon as you're logged in, it goes away. It's little things like this that can help new users make the transition into communicating in a virtual space.
Derek M. Powazek (dmpowazek) Sun 25 Nov 01 22:18
On Friday, <draml> said: "Thanks, Derek, interesting points you raise there. It's depressing to see so much open source effort go into the likes of Ikonboard and Snitch which essentially do their utmost to re-create UBB albeit for free." Agreed! And, I realized later, I never really said what I didn't like about UBB and its clones. Lest anyone think it's a personal grudge, here's a start: -- Lack of design customization. -- Button-happy interface: There's so much interface, the content of the posts almost gets lost! -- Difficult to navigate: How long did it take you to find the 2nd page of a thread the first time? -- Exposed admin tools: Why show users admin functions they can't use? It only confuses and annoys them. -- Heinous hierarchy: Count how many times you have to click before you can actually get to someone's post. -- Designed to overwhelm: All those boxes and buttons and widgets. The default design should be way more friendly. There's more, but I'd have to start charging. ;-) "I'm far from a company mouthpiece, but I don't think Salon is as bad as it's painted here; TT was mighty successful as a community in its own right...." Agreed. I'm only being hard on them because I hate to see opportunity wasted. There are so many ways the whole experience could be improved, I can only hope it's a lack of time/resources/money that's keeping them from happening, not a lack of, well, clue. "So, you have to get both ends right, is what I guess I'm trying to say - neither works too well without the other." Amen! The total connection between content and community is the holy grail. Well, my holy grail, anyway. "Out of interest, other than the communities you've set up and/or been employed by, which have you been most drawn to, to participate in? What appeals to them - do they follow the guidelines in your book? You cover Slashdot, Plastic, etc. in DfC for example." These days I'm much more interested in communities that do something other than simply enable people to peck messages to each other. I like FilePile (www.filepile.org) because it's file-sharing with a chaos engine. The community is constantly posting files for download and then talking about (and voting on) them. But don't look to the comments to see the life-blood of the community - the best conversations take place in the files. Visual conversations? You bet. I also like GeoCaching (www.geocaching.com), a web-fueled, techno-gadget treasure-hunt. And Nervousness (www.nervousness.org), a barter-based ebay for artists and weirdos. I like these places because they're pushing the boundaries of what virtual community is about? Do they follow my advice? Not really - and that just makes them more interesting to me. (Glad you had a good Thanksgiving; sorry about the cold; but please, take more Sudafed if it keeps you indiscrete for us all!) Well, I'm feeling a little better today, so I've lost my excuse for my impolitic behavior. Rats!
Derek M. Powazek (dmpowazek) Sun 25 Nov 01 22:58
Finally (for tonight) Eleanor Parker <wellelp> said: "While I am quite sure that the individuals who comprise the Well are (for the most part) not racist, the Well is still overwhelmingly white." It sure is! I mean, how about a little #003366 around here? Or a #000000 page or two. All this #ffffff is getting me down. ;-) But seriously, Elanor, do you have a secret decoder ring I don't have? I don't have the slightest clue what race most people I talk to online are, nor do I really want to know (unless it's somehow relevant to the discussion, and approached with the greatest care). Of all the idyllic myths of virtual community that have gotten lost over the years, there's one I still hold on to: the fact that when we meet in this realm, we meet on ideas first, faces later. This is the opposite of the way the real world works, where assumptions are made based on appearance before you have a chance to open your mouth. Here, race is only an issue when you make it one. I don't want that to come out sounding hostile or anything. (I was shooting for bemused.) I'm not so naive that I think race doesn't matter. It's just that, with so much dividing us, I see virtual spaces as a place where we can all come together in spite of it all. You know? Well, on that hot button, I'm logging off for a brief night's sleep and a (hopefully) painless flight back to SF tomorrow. Keep the questions and comments coming, and I'll be back asap. And thanks again for having me. This is fun.
ZeppoCat (zeppocat2001) Mon 26 Nov 01 11:14
I'm so glad this discussion was extended. I meant to post my question before I went away for Thanksgiving, and things got hectic and I forgot. So I'm happy to still be able to participate. My question, somewhat related to the questions Nancy posted, concerns a particular type of community, and that is learning communities. Do you have any experience with virtual university or distance learning enterprises? I believe virtual community could potentially play a very big role in these enterprises, but I'm uncertain as to how to encourage them, beyond having instructors set up course-related topics in the async bulletin-board pages of their web sites. I'm wondering if a broader role for community in these institutions couldn't go a long way toward contributing toward their success. Where I work, we've got a task force set up to try and push the university's Distance Education Network into the 21st century (it's still using the Instructional Television model). I'm pushing for inclusion of broader community-building features and looking for support for this. Can virtual learning communities flourish beyond the course-related topics on the bulletin board, and is it worth it for administrators to set up and maintain such features? Do they contribute anything to participants? and how to design them so they realize any potential they might have? Thanks again for your participation in this conference, Derek.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 26 Nov 01 11:22
This is an aside, because I thought about that whiteness comment, too. Though ethnicity is not just about color, and <wellelp> may be thinking more about a more limited cultural perspective. A decade ago, when access to the WELL was primarily by modem, I was among a minority of community members logging in from outside the Bay Area. Costly toll fees were a barrier to entry, and I remember feeling frustrated at the limitation, and the occasional feeling that I was a visitor to the community, not a member. Now the WELL is accessible over the Internet, and subscription is an inexpensive flat rate, so the barriers to entry are much lower and the cultures represented are more diverse. We have various ethnic groups represented here, and I think the composition of the community is as broad as any online. But another point about the WELL is that it has become a community of communities, and the flavor of your participation depends quite a bit where among the many conferences you hang out. Change your conference list and your experience of the WELL changes. Having got into the realm of access and diversity, Derek, I'm wondering if you've given much thought to the movements around community networks and universal access? As a designer, do you give much thought to designing for users with limitations based on a lack of eductation, inexperience with the Internet, or accessibility issues (i.e. visual or cognitive disabilities)?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 26 Nov 01 11:22
(zeppocat's comment slipped in while I was writing mine...)
Eleanor Parker (wellelp) Mon 26 Nov 01 11:37
>>We have various ethnic groups represented here, and I think the composition of the community is as broad as any online. Jon, as a newbie, I expected to see more ethnic and cultural diversity than I've experienced so far on the Well. It may turnout that the Web is overwhelmingly white and middle class, and the problem lies there rather than with the Well specificly. I was going to ask Derek a follow-up question, but on reflection decided not to because it is clearly not the intent of Inkvue to grill the authors kind enough to participate, and Derek has been extremely forthright in all of his other answers. Racism and diversity are sensitive topics in any venue. So I'll ask a different, though related follow up question: How can a virtual community reach out to recruit from other groups not currently well-represented in either the VC itself or the online world in general?
Daniel (dfowlkes) Mon 26 Nov 01 12:47
<scribbled by dfowlkes Tue 3 Jul 12 10:14>
Nancy White (choco) Mon 26 Nov 01 13:16
(Eleanor, that might be an interesting conversation to continue in the <VC.> conference!)
Nancy White (choco) Mon 26 Nov 01 13:17
(And damned fine questions! I'm enjoying this!)
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 26 Nov 01 20:11
> I expected to see more ethnic and cultural diversity > than I've experienced so far on the Well. . . . > I was going to ask Derek a follow-up question, but on reflection > decided not to because it is clearly not the intent of Inkvue to grill > the authors kind enough to participate I guess Derek's point was that it's hard to get a sense of the ethnic composition of a virtual community... and my question was whether your impression of the WELL's lack of diversity was more a cultural issue. As for the follow-up question, ask away. I don't think Derek's averse to tough questions, and we certainly don't discourage pointed discussion. And I do think the question of barriers, who's included and excluded, is important to ask when you're discussing community, virtual or physical.
Ari Davidow (ari) Tue 27 Nov 01 10:21
I would guess that a lot of the diversity issue boils down in many ways to diversity and access issues that affect people offline. I'm thinking of this because as we're discussing Derek's book, I'm also reading a book from a couple of years ago, Paloff and Pratt's lovely "Building learning communities in cyberspace" and was struck by how much of the book is spent teaching the reader about online interactions, and how both teachers and students will be new to the medium. But that's far less true today than two or three years ago when the book was written, and I don't think (Derek, please correct me if I'm wrong) that Derek spent much time on the "what is this cyberspace stuff" in his book--it's a given--and I think I remember several times reading reminders that it's community--face to face, or online, people still have similar needs and ways of relating. Even though an awful lot of people don't have much (if any) knowledge of online community, it is far less a mystery than it was, and more community creators and moderators are recognizing that while it is new and wonderful to have a new medium with which to build community, we have extended our reach, not changed our basic humanity thereby.
Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Tue 27 Nov 01 12:46
Just thought I'd mention that there's a review of Derek's book on slashdot. (How's that for timing?) http://slashdot.org/books/01/11/27/167256.shtml
Doug Hess (dougrhess) Tue 27 Nov 01 16:23
I'd still be interested in other ideas on how to keep an online community from getting trampled by cranks. Moderators? Complaint buttons by other members? Ignore them? Seems many a good thread on some forums gets ruined by mal-intentioned posters...
Derek M. Powazek (dmpowazek) Tue 27 Nov 01 16:31
Doug -- In a way, that's what my entire book is about. "How to keep an online community from getting trampled by cranks" was just less catchy than "The art of connecting real people in virtual places." For a quick review, here are a few techniques for positive posting: -- Use a personal voice in your content. People are more likely to attack a thing than a person. -- Provide ample examples of the kind of participation you're looking for from your users. Examples work better than rules. -- Enforce the rules as even-handedly as possible. -- Embrace user-controlled moderation techniques where appropriate (like Slashdot's moderation system, discussed in Chapter 6: www.designforcommunity.com/display.cgi/20011021222) -- Carefully set, and constantly monitor, your barrier to entry. -- Content, content, content. Use content as example material, conversation starters, and to create commonality and focus. And make sure that content is tightly interlinked with the conversation tools. There's lots more, but that's a start....
Nancy White (choco) Fri 30 Nov 01 16:45
Derek, what is the most unsual design/user interface you've ever seen for an online community?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sat 1 Dec 01 20:45
Thanks, Derek, for sharing your thoughts with us! For the rest of you: there's more discussion of Derek's book at http://www.designforcommunity.com.
Derek M. Powazek (dmpowazek) Sun 2 Dec 01 17:31
Nancy -- As interfaces go, most sites that self-identify as communities go for the straight-up bulletin board approach. Welcome page. Select a section. Select a thread. Drill drill drill. It's understandable, sure, but boring. I think, depending on your site's goals and the depth of your community functionality, there are many opportunities to play with the interface. For example, at Kvetch! (www.kvetch.com), the site is structured like an old radio, complete with knobs and buttons. Selecting a section is like dialing in a radio station. And the posts are presented randomly - contributing to a sense of chaos and spontaneity. Another novel community interaction I saw once was actually a popup advertisement. I can't remember who is was for - Levi's perhaps - but it presented a branded theme and asked users to talk back. It was a sponsored, temporary community interaction, and it only worked because it was presented with such a light, playful spirit. Then, of course, there are the visual mediums. Habbo Hotel (www.habbo.com) springs to mind, where the community is represented visually, with little rooms and tiny pixel people. I talked about Habbo a lot in Chapter 12, because I think they're on the leading edge of this kind of visual net-based community. In the end, the interface you create for your community says something about the kind of community you want to create. An interface that tends to promote the content (like the way Slashdot is all about the content on the front page, and stories are presented in descending chronological order) creates an environment where the conversation is really based on content and time. An interface that makes people click through long lists of conferences, sections, and thread names with little hand-holding (sound familiar?) says something else about the community you want to create: it's here for the people who already know how to get around - heavy on the social structure and community participation. Interface is a huge contributor to the flavor of community you want to create, and it's powerful because it's so subliminal and unspoken.
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