Linda Castellani (castle) Tue 11 Jul 00 15:23
Amy Jo Kim has been designing innovative online environments for over 15 years. Her career in Behavioral Neuroscience was permanently derailed by a fascination with building systems that people use. She's now a leading specialist in Web community design, with a deep and diverse background in client-server engineering, multimedia interface design, and online gaming environments. As the Founder and Creative Director of NAIMA, a design studio specializing in cutting-edge Web communities, Kim has designed online environments for clients including America Online, Adobe Systems, eBay, Electronic Arts, iVillage, MTV, Nickelodeon, Paramount, Sony, and Yahoo. She also teaches online community design at Stanford University, and has spoken and written extensively about Web communities. "Community-Building on the Web" is her long-awaited first book. Kim will be interviewed by Ari Davidow. A long-time community activist, Davidow has been fascinated by online community since his first BBS experiences in the mid-'80s, and has called the WELL "home" since joining in 1986. He is especially fascinated by the way that online community strongly parallels our more familiar face-to-face communities, and the myriad ways that we use online communication to enhance more familiar ways of relating. Davidow currently works at ITworld.com where his duties include overseeing technology for forums.itworld.com. "Community-Building on the Web" is a short book. It is also the best introduction so far to that complex, very exciting art of building online community. Before you slap that threaded discussion module onto your latest e-commerce website, consult this book. Or, if you just want to understand a medium that ranges from help desks, to avatar-based chat rooms, to the familiar web-based text boards, here is both a lively introduction, and a valuable "how-to". The companion website for Kim's book is at www.naima.com/community. Please join me in welcoming Amy Jo and Ari to inkwell.vue!
Ari Davidow (ari) Fri 14 Jul 00 10:11
Amy, I am really, really enjoying reading "Community Building on the Web." There's a very nice conversational tone to the book that succeeds in conveying the, "yup, this is what you want to consider first, and when you do that, you'll probably want to look after these widget things over there, and here's a couple of examples of what I'm talking about...." that makes the subject very real and very approachable. It's also, despite my reference to widgets, not about "things" at all, but rather about the fuzzier issues--what is community? how is an online community different, on not so different, from the more familiar face-to-face communities that we already know? how do you put an online community together? what do you need to think out? So, I guess the first question I want to ask as an interviewer is, "how did you come to write this book? why did you write this book this way? is this the book you meant to write? what are you hoping to accomplish? and even now, just a few months after the book's release, what would you already write differently?" Which, I guess, is a few questions, so maybe we should start off with the first one or two?
Amy Jo Kim (amyjo) Fri 14 Jul 00 11:09
Sounds great, Ari -- glad you're enjoying the book! This book was "user-driven" - that is, I wrote it in response to requests from clients and colleagues. I've been designing and building online social environments for 10 years professionally, and I found that the same issues were coming up again and again -- issues like implementing persistant identity, incentivizing volunteers, nurturing rituals, managing events, and facilitating member-created subgroups. So I developed a set of growth-oriented design guidelines and "best practices" to use in my consulting practice -- to help me be a more effective designer, and to help my clients avoid some common mistakes. When I shared this framework for online community-building with new clients, they invariably asked me for more and deeper information -- which also happened when I presented these guidelines at industry conferences and university speaking engagements. So I decided to write down (and elaborate on) this framework I'd developed, in order to provide a useful tool for other community-builders. It took many drafts (and much painful editing ;-) to produce the book you're reading today. Much of the more advanced and "provocative" material ended up on the cutting-room floor, because Peachpit (my publisher) wanted a introductory, accessible handbook. Although the process was painful, in the end I believe they were right to push me towards the basics - because that's really the place to start, and understanding these basic issues is critical for folks who are new to the field. The introduction to my book goes into much more detail about my background and the writing process. It's available online at http://www.naima.com/community/intro/
naruhodo (michael-martin) Fri 14 Jul 00 11:14
So, Amy, what do you think of THE WELL as an on-line community (assuming you are familiar with it...)? I know that is a broad question, but any observations would interest me as a member.
Ari Davidow (ari) Fri 14 Jul 00 11:33
Thanks, Amy. I also wanted to ask why it took so long--I think I pre-ordered it about two years ago and Peachpit was listing it as due that spring. And, to amplify <michael-martin>'s question, besides hearing your thoughts about the WELL, itself, what are the sorts of things you look for in a good online community? What are some current examples that illustrate different types of great online communities?
Amy Jo Kim (amyjo) Fri 14 Jul 00 12:48
>> what do you think of THE WELL as an on-line community Because it's been in existence since 1985, the WELL is a rare example of a mature online community that's evolved through a series of challenges and transformations. I think the WELL does certain things very well, like providing a robust infrastructure for hosting (as is reflected within my book, through examples). I also think the WELL can be difficult for newbies to get involved with, and can be insular and in-groupy. Also, the WELL lacks a set of integrated auxiliary features (e.g. shared photos, group mailing list, visible member list) that are becoming increasingly common, and would really help to foster tight groups. Most of all, though, the WELL is a collection of highly diverse sub-communities, each with it's own distinct culture. Some of the conferences I frequent feel like highschool cliques - while others feel like a late-night college dorm conversation, or an industry conference party, or a secret confessional space. That variety of cultures is a real testament to the WELL's community-building power.
Ari Davidow (ari) Sat 15 Jul 00 07:53
You know, that's one of the things I wanted to ask you about. When I took a look at AncientSites a couple of years ago, I was astonished to see a whole string of things one could do to customize a virtual personal space, into which, if I remember correctly, one could even invite friends. By contrast, I have trouble updating my .plan here on the WELL, and have most of anything about "me" that I want to say up on my webpages, whereever they are hosted that week. But most people don't have their own domains. And lots of people get excited by the ease of putting up a page on GeoCities. And I keep thinking about the idea of having a community space without personal space--it's one of the things that seems very lacking in many online communities--a place to show off who you are to members of your community. I mean, in WELL.engaged, you can't even send an instant message to people who are currently logged in--not only don't you know who is online via Engaged, there is no chat tool. And that's just conversing with the neighbors independently of a formal discussion--doesn't even begin to customize personal space. In truth, I think that I did spend more time keeping my .plan updated when the WELL was new to me, and it was really my focus, rather than a comfortable pub I stop in at periodically. Then keeping my webpage updated was fun. Today, I've gone to the other side, entirely. When I log in to a new service, I often don't even fill in my homepage URL. I don't want people to know me until I've decided whether or not there are people there I want to know me, if that makes sense? Is any of this typical? This seems like a long-winded way of asking how important this personal customization, and how important being able to get of sense of "who is here" is? What do people using systems that allow lots of personalization say? In what ways does this customization change from place to place?
Amy Jo Kim (amyjo) Sat 15 Jul 00 14:06
Ari, the short answer to your question is: yes, the web-based version of the WELL (being a stand-alone message board with simple profiles) is pretty darn "old-school" in light of today's Internet communities. These days, you see more and more communities integrating all kinds of rich communications and personalization features into their platform. It's actually pretty rare to see a stand-alone message board or chat room - more often, you'll see it embedded in a larger framework of features. As for how important these features all -- well, it basically comes down to what you need, who your audience is, and what your budget is. An integrated, feature-rich communications platform is great -- if your application can benefit from it, and you can afford the cost and upkeep. For some people, simpler tools meet their needs OK -- and they're a lot cheaper to develop and maintain. I think that the WELL would certainly benefit from having more community-building features -- but the business model really isn't there to support it. What about you? What communications and personalization features would you love to see integrated into the WELL's platform?
Ari Davidow (ari) Sun 16 Jul 00 05:04
Well, the obvious one is some form of chat--it's the first obvious thing I miss from the picospan version. It also seems weird to me that there is no community-centric place to store files. By that I mean that, if I am using an Engaged account, I can't put up pictures or webpages or sounds that can only be viewed by my community--I can only link in from outside. But I'm a WELL person. I really can't say that I've thought a lot about other stuff that might be out there and how it might matter. Can you give an example of the types of things that people most seem to like in terms of add-ons or customizations? Maybe talk about a community that started from a feature-set similar to Engaged and why/how they migrated? (Since I'm presuming that most communities don't change much after they go live, that might be a discussion of the planning process and how what got weighted in.) In the book, you mention several sites a lot--GeoCities, for instance, for instant web pages, AncientSites seems like the most immersive that I've read about so far. You also talk about iVillages and the WELL and eBay--how would any of these exemplify this issue? (For that matter, conference participants from the WELL who can chime in with your own theories/experiences, please do!)
Linda Castellani (castle) Sun 16 Jul 00 17:45
The one point I'd want to make about what makes any interface to the WELL unique, and is part of what makes the WELL unique: it has a history, 15 years at this point, that must remain not only accessible but also searchable from any new interface. This is an issue that most Web-based communities, I would guess, do not face.
Chris Abraham (cja) Mon 17 Jul 00 13:25
I too love the book. I wish I were just entering the world of building my own Virtual Community (VC) (called www.memespace.org) right now because all the mistakes that I made along the way I could have saved myself from. Amy Jo, is this a common response to your book?
Ari Davidow (ari) Tue 18 Jul 00 07:43
<castle>, you bring up an interesting point, perhaps amplified by <cja>'s comments following. The WELL also has special problem in that ongoing development isn't really happening any more. During the first years, I remember a wide array of new gadgets and gizmos--the bozo filter, for instance, to save your eyes from the postings of those who annoy you, or "extract," a tool I use almost daily to search the contents of the WELL or parts of the WELL. Conference management tools also grew, and menuing systems changed. I don't think that is happening any more, and I think that has forced people to go elsewhere to experiment. In an environment such as the WELL, I would argue that one of the member qualities that matters =is= experimentation. Just using the issues Amy Jo raises in her book about member profiling and other customizing tools, there isn't much of anything that =couldn't= be added to picospan and/or Engaged--some things do get added on to more recent versions of WELL.engaged. <cja>, I have to admit that I am having a different reaction to the book than you. I am getting a lot of exciting ideas that I want to incorporate into new and ongoing online communities, (and I think you meant this) but I don't regret starting things back then and learning and growing as we did over time. It's just tremendously exciting to see a lot of things that we learned painfully over time expressed lucidly here. Waht are some of the things you've done in the past that you would do differently now? How did they come out? If the commmunity/ies still exist, how do your plans for moving forward change?
Ari Davidow (ari) Tue 18 Jul 00 07:50
One of the areas that has fascinated me recently is the issue of "reputation management." When I first came online on the WELL, I assumed that everyone but me was an experienced, well-respected member of the community, and I was the clueless newbie. It was a bit like stepping into a party where you don't know anyone and you aren't sure how you got invited in the first place (or why you came). Now I'm watching my partner's son as he discovers the WELL and makes decisions about people and what is safe and what isn't, and get to view the process once again. Surprisingly, it hasn't gotten any better. If anything, it is now worse. Back then, I could at least count on everyone having a .plan file (a publicly-viewable profile) that was updated regularly. Nowadays, I can't even count on people being on-system--and I may be able to get no information about them other than when they first registered. Systems described in the book range from being able to rate people on Motley Fool, and being able to see a person's most recent posts on several systems. For people who are active on systems that have such features, be they the posting ratings on Slashdot and similar systems, to the more personal "favorites" button on The Motley Fool, or the more literal reputation management tools on eBay--what works? what doesn't work? How do they affect how you participate in the community, both in terms of learning who to trust, or of potential friends, to guiding your own behavior (for better or for worse) on the system? Amy, are there best or worst-cases that you've seen where reputation management plays a critical part?
Amy Jo Kim (amyjo) Tue 18 Jul 00 09:14
>> all the mistakes that I made along the way I could have saved myself from. Amy Jo, is this a common response to your book? Yes, Chris -- I get a lot of email from people who wish they'd had this book when they were first starting out as community-builders. And as Ari mentions, I also get email from people who are applying these ideas to new community ventures. I need to get some work done now -- but I'll check in later today to address Ari's questions about reputation management, which is an increasingly important part of Web communities.
Amy Jo Kim (amyjo) Tue 18 Jul 00 22:43
So -- regarding reputation management: there's no single "right way" to measure and display each member's reputation. It all depends on the focus and capabilities of the particular community - and I discuss this topic at some length in my book. That said, I'm seeing more and more Web communities include some form of rating system or "trust metric" -- or both. One of the most interesting examples of this I've seen lately is Epinions (www.epinions.com), an "open source ratings" site where everyday people post their opinions about products and services. Epinions allows readers to rate each other's specific opinions, which are then labelled as "highly recommended", "recommended", "somewhat recommended" or "not recommended" accordingly. Epinions also gives an indication of who's doing the rating -- that is, a "highly recommended" opinion might be given by an Epinions "Advisor" who is a member who has gained a high level of credibility by posting reviews that have been consistently been recommended by others. Recently, Epinions has also added a feature called the "Web of Trust" that allows members to keep ever-evolving lists of people whose opinions they generally trust -- or distrust (somewhat analogous to buddy lists and bozo filter lists). Epinions then displays this information in each member's profile, and also uses it to influence the order in which opinions are shown to each member. So if, for example, you randomly look at the member profile of an active Epinions member like, say, Doug Alexander (www.epinions.com/user-dougalexander), you'll see that he trusts 23 members, he distrusts 2 members (whose names are hidden), and he is trusted by 133 members. This ever-evolving reputation system gives an interesting snapshot of someone's involvement and credibility within the system, and is very appropriate for a site like Epinions. I think that we'll see more and more of these types of metrics in Web communities -- although I don't think that a place like the WELL would be able to culturally integrate this feature very effectively, even if the funds to build and maintain it were available. I think such "trust ratings" systems will be most effective in communities where the culture is younger and more flexible, and also where the conversation is focused around opinions that result in actions - such as buying a book, seeing a movie, or investing in a stock. What do you all think about reputation in online communities? Could you imagine a reputation system that would actually work for a place like the WELL?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 19 Jul 00 05:30
It would be interesting, for sure, to see some kind of formalized reputation management strategy here. Informally, one thing that comes to mind is the publication (I think in flame.ind) of the the contents of world-readable bozofilter lists, so that you can see who's ignoring whom.
Ari Davidow (ari) Wed 19 Jul 00 07:16
I think you've described both the positive, and where rating people and their opinions works best, but I have to wonder whether there are other ways of rating, or of considering opinions here on the WELL. Is there a way on a given system that you've seen, where participants can be rated on their participation in a discussion based on, oh, cogency, likelihood of flamage, ability to post to the issue at hand, generally thoughtful--I don't know? How, in fact, given the variety of things discussed on the WELL which do not provide universally accepted "this is right" / "this is wrong" judgement values, does one rate a WELL participant? On the other hand, the currency on the WELL isn't being right about an appliance's value, or being able to write a good book review. It is more often "provides good entertainment" or "posts are often worth reading." It's easy to envision some conversation-oriented ratings, plus, given that this is the WELL, maybe the ability to customize ratings, so that someone looking at my opinion of other people might see things like, "has a clue about typography" or "klezmer fandom" -- ratings that might not be so important to other members of the WELL, but which tell something about me, and provides some insight into others (as seen by me). Then there's the whole idea of rating posts, perhaps using conference-specific criteria. In "canada" for instance, we might want to rate posts not only for exquisite literary style but also, "ravings of a would-be separatist" or "doctrinaire NDP supporter". (How to convert these criteria to numbers? There's the rub!) But it does occur to me that reputation management and rating have a heightened importance in this environment (sorry, the book does cause one to think about these issues over again, even though it has little to do with theory and much more to do with, "here's what is needed and how it has worked in this context or that.") simply because we don't have other cues--you can't see who hangs out with me, or whether other people are attentive when I drop my bon mots--but a web of explicit meta information might be helpful (and knowing that such a web exists might either encourage me towards WELL norms, or the opposite ;-)). The biggest question, though, is the idea of a richer environment--the ability to do stuff other than read posts in topics and respond to same. WELL users who interact with picospan, also often receive e-mail here, do instant messaging ("send"s), have access to the usual unix toolbox, even some programming tools in some instances, can see each others .plans, and unprotected files, etc. There is a lot of richness to that environment such that someone might reasonably stay logged in all day not to endless peruse forums, but because the WELL is being used for these other purposes (including, I forgot, access to Usenet). Amy, you discuss some of the issues of a rich environment in your book, but I'm wondering if you could summarize some of your knowledge of the degree to which these things matter--maybe not specifics like which sort of reputation manager a community wants, but specifics like, how to successful communities create an environment sufficiently rich to support a complexity of interactions that makes it a community?
Amy Jo Kim (amyjo) Thu 20 Jul 00 08:58
>> one thing that comes to mind is the publication in flame.ind of >> the contents of world-readable bozofilter lists, so that you can >> see who's ignoring whom Yeah -- I've been fascinated by flame.ind for just this reason -- it's an "emergent" reputation metric of sorts. For those of you who've never checked it out, "flame.ind" is a conference devoted to posting and discussing statistics about the contents of people's public bozolists (AKA .blist). It's a hoot -- and as <jonl> says, the dynamics of who's filtering who are a crude form of reputation. Some people even take great pride in being bozo-filtered by others -- and happily boast about their "first time" appearing on someone's .blist as a rite of passage. "I'm important enough for someone to actively ignore me!"
Linda Castellani (castle) Thu 20 Jul 00 13:09
I'm also fascinated by the rating system used on eBay, a community I have only recently joined. After a week, I already have four points of glowing praise, and I really feel motivated to keep that going. But, I notice a reluctance to want to leave negative feedback, especially in the midst of a field of thousands of glowing complaints. I really did feel slightly mislead by an item I purchased - the photo of it had been enlarged without saying so - so when I received it, and it was smaller than I thought, I considered leaving somewhat negative feedback, but I didn't. My reason for not leaving it was that first, there was pages and pages of really positive comments, and second, I really couldn't think of a way for the seller to make it right. I still wanted the item, so a complaint didn't seem productive. In light of that, it made me wonder about everyone else's praise. I did find a few non-committal remarks that mentioned something positive about the transaction but not the merchandise, so I followed that lead, since the transaction had been really excellent AND they were the very first to leave me glowing praise. So the reputation issue is kind of loaded, I think. It motivates me at the same time as it intimidates me.
Delyn Simons (delyn) Thu 20 Jul 00 16:25
i finished Amy Jo Kim's book last week on a flight back from Portland. kudos to amyjo on a great book for community builders in the initial planning stages, and also for those trying to plan for second stage growth. the screen shots of concrete examples of different approaches to community added a lot to the content. the last chapters about sub-communities and allowing for the growth of affinity groups within community was v. interesting to me. amyjo, what is your general advice to new community builders who want to start out with these types of exclusive, private affinity "club" programs rather than start with message boards, public mailing lists or some other type of app that is more inclusive? some new sites want to launch with community (many because their funding partners told them they have to have it), and they have 2 or 3 distinct audiences they've identified in their business plan. but rather than open up different public conferences for these groups, they focus in on launching with private club-type software for these groups before any propensity for collaboration or many-to-many communication has been established. i think nurturing these affinity groups within a larger community is v. important - but it seems like they exist in a more stable form within communities that have had time to mature. are there any examples where launching with the "lots of private groups" approach works except for the largest of online portal/aggregators like Yahoo or AOL?
Amy Jo Kim (amyjo) Thu 20 Jul 00 17:56
<castle> -- you've put your finger on a fundamental weakness in eBay's (otherwise quite effective) reputation system. There is a very strong incentive against leaving negative feedback - and stories of petty retaliation are rampant among eBay devotees. eBay corrected this weakness in their system, they'd definately increase it's effectiveness. But hey -- they have bigger things to worry about, like Federal investigations and crashing servers. I hope that when eBay is more stable and well-established, they take the time to evolve their reputation system.
Linda Castellani (castle) Thu 20 Jul 00 18:08
It seems like, in comparison, the WELL's "reputation system" i.e - the bozofilter list in flame.ind - is a lot more honest. If someone has someone else bozofiltered they truly don't want communication from them, it's not just a pose.
Amy Jo Kim (amyjo) Thu 20 Jul 00 18:11
<delyn> - excellent question! The answer lies in the difference between "building a community", and "becoming a community aggregator" -- something I describe in my book. Basically, a community aggregator is an organization that provides space, tools and support for individual private (or public) groups, but doesn't impose any particular topical context. Yahoo, eGroups, eCircles, Talk City, and AOL are all examples of organizations that function primarily as community aggregators. OTOH, when an organization sets out to build a community, there's usually some overriding purpose, topic or interest that runs through the community, and is shared by community members (at least at first). eBay, Ancient Sites, Parent Soup, Slashdot, and the Adobe Tech Support Forums are examples of organizations that started out to build a community, rather than to aggregate a disparate collection of subgroups. Of course, as communities grow, they must of necessity foster subgroups, and thus take on more of the features of an aggregator -- which is why, as <delyn> says, it's often a good idea to grow your subgroup program after the original community has had a chance to jell. So - here's a question for you all: is the WELL a community, or a community aggregator?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 20 Jul 00 21:13
Amy Jo Kim (amyjo) Thu 20 Jul 00 21:55
Funny thing, <jonl> -- I came up with a similar answer ;-)
Ari Davidow (ari) Fri 21 Jul 00 07:22
I think I got the same answer when I did a paper on the WELL last year ;-).
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