Ari Davidow (ari) Fri 21 Jul 00 08:47
But don't we often try to build on a specific community, and let it variegate over time? Back when the WELL was young, there were a few conferences, and (excepting those nice folks who kept to the Grateful Dead areas and didn't bother the rest of us) we were relatively homogenous. I'm working with a mailing list of people interested in a particular type of music at the moment, that we're hoping to tie down to a website and some webconferencing software so that we can provide some room for new topics to spill over that don't necessarily escalate the traffic on the mailing list further (more and more people are dropping off, or reading in digest mode). So, over a relatively short period of time, I'm hoping that there are related cultural issues that would attract people who had no interest in the music and so on. Does this seem like a normal pattern for most types of community, or are there exceptions, or other patterns that I'm ignoring (beyond the pattern which keeps things tightly on one narrow range of discussion)?
Ari Davidow (ari) Fri 21 Jul 00 11:13
Hey, congrats. Leafing through the most recent (August, 2000) issue of Wired, there's a lovely rave about the book by Kevin Kelly on page 232!
Amy Jo Kim (amyjo) Fri 21 Jul 00 11:46
Ari, the pattern you're describing sounds normal to me. The only question is time frame of fragmentation. It's important to allow (or even encourage) fragmentation of your community in a way that's appropriate to the overall scale and "connectedness" of your community. When your community is small and just starting to gell, you want to encourage a strong sense of overall identity. If you're finding that people are starting to break into interest-oriented subgroups on their own, that's a good sign that it's time to provide some infrastructure that supports more focused subgroups. Of course, your next question will be "But how do I know when it's 'too soon' to subdivide? What are the metrics for community size and activity?" I don't have any specific answers right now -- that's something I'm currently working on. But as a rule of thumb, it's a good idea to be user-driven in your efforts, and grow your collection of specific gathering places (as you discussed with your mailing list, Ari) in response to user's requests, rather than to start new topics hoping that someone will show up.
Ari Davidow (ari) Fri 21 Jul 00 12:08
Oh, yes, absolutely agree. I think that's the first thing they told me as a host--don't start lots of topics or areas, keep things focused and let them spill over. Things look so much better when there are ten topics and three have new responses, than when there are 50 with only three having new responses--especially if 40 of the 50 are empty. I don't want to spend much time worrying about conferencing minutiae, though, except that one thing that the WELL used to encourage was frequent conference pruning. In the old days, this related directly to disk space--there wasn't much. But disks are humongous these days, and cheap. And text takes very little room. But the logic behind that pruning--giving people a chance to address things anew, giving topics a chance to start again, letting people encounter a smaller discussion area and grow it--still seems to hold even if we don't follow it much here on the WELL. Is =anyone= paying attention to this aspect of "community as gardening?" Does it really matter these days of big disks, cable modems, and minute attention spans?
Amy Jo Kim (amyjo) Sun 23 Jul 00 14:40
>> Is =anyone= paying attention to this aspect of "community >> as gardening?" Does it really matter these days of big disks, >> cable modems, and minute attention spans? Great question. I think that the overall notion of "community as gardening" has only gotton stronger, and lots of Web communities engage in pruning and weeding of some sort. However, this gardening activity is now driven by different motivations; rather than disk space limitations (which of course some people still face), many community managers want to keep clutter to a minimum, and showcase the liveliest, most valuable or most timely discussions. So if you look around the Web, you'll see a growing number of automated, member-driven "voting" systems that are designed to highlight the highest-quality conversations or comments -- often alongside staff-driven selections. For example, the Motley Fool featured the staff-selected "Post of the Day," along with a top-ten list of the "best" posts, as voted on by all members. So people are still weeding and pruning -- but there's much less motivation to take older discussion offline, and more emphasis on automated methods to showcase the best stuff.
Nancy White (choco) Sun 23 Jul 00 15:37
What about archives and community history? Should pruned and archived materials be 'stored' away? How does this play into the concept of YOYOW and ownership of what is essentially member generated content? How do you balance clutter with respecting member contributions over time?
Ari Davidow (ari) Mon 24 Jul 00 12:02
Yeah, Nancy brings up a good point, and one that I think <castle> raised earlier--without history, and without access to history, you don't have a community. So how do people keep the past accessible, and keep current posts manageable. Is there a better way than simply putting the old stuff in an "archives" area with whatever haste seems appropriate, as we do here on the WELL?
Delyn Simons (delyn) Mon 24 Jul 00 15:09
i don't mean to derail the evolving conversation about archiving and keeping great posts accessible (in which i am keenly interested), but... back quickly to the community aggregator concept - except for the high traffic, non-topic specific examples you mentioned (all of which i agree with), would anyone here ever dis-recommend a topic-specific site to launch with clubs straight out of the chute, bypassing public community apps? i can't think of a single instance where this would be a good idea - seems like it would turn into a bunch of inactive clubs b/c there's no precedent for interaction. but i'm trying to punch holes in my instincts to see if i'm just being biased.
Amy Jo Kim (amyjo) Mon 24 Jul 00 16:29
Great question, <delyn>! One exception might be a topic-specific site that wanted to attract existing offline groups, and offer them an online "home." In that case, there'd be a good reason to provide something like an online "clubhouse." The downside would be that these different groups would have less incentive to mix -- but that could be somewhat alliviated by creating public spaces and events, and facilitating cross-promotion and linking between clubs.
Delyn Simons (delyn) Mon 24 Jul 00 16:46
Re: #30 about automated methods of weeding & pruning: having an automated way to bring up most active topics or voting by current members is a great way to promote areas in community. but automated pruning and weeding can have drawbacks. i've seen bad examples of message boards where automated autoarchiving a topic when it gets to XX # of posts can interrupt a sensitive discussion and upset users. badly implemented profanity filters can proactively prune, but can also incorrectly block a user from posting an acceptable word. i like the way at Motley Fool users can report abuse of the boards - and let a human moderator judge whether or not the Response or User needs to be weeded out. I think automated tools or community feedback tools that help human moderators do their job better is the best way. some sites seem to want to replace hosts with automation and i think the interaction suffers.
Delyn Simons (delyn) Mon 24 Jul 00 16:49
<snip>One exception might be a topic-specific site that wanted to attract existing offline groups, and offer them an online "home." In that case, there'd be a good reason to provide something like an online "clubhouse." </snip> right. i hadn't thought of already established offline groups coming online. i can see how that might work.
Amy Jo Kim (amyjo) Mon 24 Jul 00 19:19
In regards to archiving: as a community builder, there's no single right way to approach this. It really depends on what people are discussing, what form these discussions take, and what value "older" discussions have to the community members. For example, discussions that focus on "ephemeral" topics like hot stock tips or casual chat wouldn't make much sense to archive. On the other hand, discussions that delve into deeper philosophical issues, or offer experienced advice on child-rearing will tend to be of interest for longer periods of time. Some communities have message boards that function more like chat (e.g. iVillage, eBay), and don't keep a lot of archives. This works fine for social, everyday conversations -- but it causes big problems for tech support boards (and eBay has updated their boards to address this particular issue). By contrast, "knowledge-sharing" communities like Experts Exchange or Epinions tend to keep archives online and searchable, especially when the subjects being discussed don't go out of date quickly. But making this type of setup really useful often requires robust infrastructure and considerable management overhead (to do the "harvesting" and "gardening"). In a community like the WELL, "deep archives" can have a lot of value and interest for the community members. But should every single discussion be accessible? What criteria do you use to select which to make accessible, and which to take offline? I think the answers to these questions really depend on the individual community. What do you folks think about this? What's your preferred "archiving strategy?" I'd love to hear stories about particular communities, and how they handled (or mid-handled) this.
Ari Davidow (ari) Tue 25 Jul 00 08:27
In the "mis-handled" category, I discovered a few years ago that the first set of archives from one of the WELL conferences I hosted had all be overwritten. That is, what had been topic 1, now contained the text from a later topic, and so on. Fortunately, not too much was lost in the migration from PC floppy to Mac floppy to removable storage to CD ROM, but frustrating, nonetheless. I'm also wondering if you've (or anyone else has) encountered some of the wandering communities--people who started on one system, then migrated to another, and now, perhaps are in their 3rd or 4th iteration. Years ago, for instance, I worked with a group known as EcuNet who had started on one commercial conferencing system, migrated to a second, and last I ran into them had evolved to a mailing list. Speak of archiving issues! Now, of course, the web provides a new interface to e-mail list archives, so perhaps the circle will finally be closed.
Amy Jo Kim (amyjo) Tue 25 Jul 00 16:20
Ari, you're bringing up a really interesting -- and increasingly common -- phenomenon; I call these people "the wandering tribes of Cyberspace" ;-) I've seen a lot of groups whose loyalty is to the people in the group, rather than to any particular "host" system -- and these groups will migrate from system to system, in search of the most hospitable environment in which to conduct their activities. (I talk more about this phenomenon in Chapter 9 of my book) You'll especially see this behavior in gaming communities, where "clans" and "guilds" that form in one game will develop an independant identity, and then decide to "jump ship" and devote the majority of their playtime to another game. For example, many of the early guilds in Ultima Online (a massively multiplayer role-playing game) had originally formed in Diablo or Meridian 59 -- and similarly, some of these guilds migrated to Everquest or Asheron's Call when those games came out. I even interviewed groups who were playing Ultima actively, but had sent out "forward scouts" to these other games, in order to assess the friendliness and stability of the environment. I've also met people who banded together on America Online, and then decided to move their chat group to iVillage or Talk City when they were sick of AOL, and ready for a more direct Internet experience. For the community-builder, this means that you need to pay attention to the desires and needs of emergent groups, because they can and will leave your service en-mass. It also means that, whenever possible, it's a good idea to put features into place (like ever-evolving member profiles and cumulative incentive systems) that reward loyalty, and raise the switching costs for leaving your service. And finally, it's a good idea to court group leaders, and do what you can to understand their needs -- because these people can have high leverage when it comes to influencing churn.
Ari Davidow (ari) Wed 26 Jul 00 10:27
Good point about emergent groups and just paying attention. You devote a fair amount of time to that in the leadership section, but then return to it in the last chapter when talking about subgroups. Here on the WELL, of course, "the River," and a lack of ability to work with (hell, forget working, a lack of connection) with a certain former shoe manufacturer come to mind. I hadn't even thought of wandering tribes of gamesters until you brought it up in the book. There's a different type of integration that doesn't get discussed much in the book, and might be worth bringing up just because it's on the edge of the book's scope. That is the issue of how virtual community fits in with face-to-face community. You do talk about special face-to face events as one of many types of periodic, or special events, but one of the questions that I think is going to matter a lot is how both fit together. For instance, going to City Hall to complain, or to deal with something can be a real pain. But what happens--I think mostly in a positive sense--when City Hall online becomes easier to deal with. Especially when you can see other people with similar questions or concerns in a discussion forum, or asking for help on similar subjects? What happens to community outreach for a grassroots organization when there's a place where, not only does everyone know your name, but they're there 24 hours a day from anywhere--and it only costs you a local phone call to get internet dialtone to participate?
Amy Jo Kim (amyjo) Thu 27 Jul 00 09:24
>> the issue of how virtual community fits in with face-to-face community. As I mention in the Epilogue (www.naima.com/community/epilogue), I believe that the notion of an "online community" will disappear over the next few years, as the boundary between physical and virtual communities continues to blur. This is one of the most important issues for any community-builder to pay attention to -- and I work with all of my clients to look for ways to connect F2F and online activities. However, it's also important to recognize the barriers that are slowing this progressions down -- particularly in the civic realm. By far the biggest hurdle is creating a secure, un-spoof-able online identity for each citizen. This turns out to be *very* difficult to do, and is still years away. Until we collectively solve this problem, there won't be online voting -- and even <ari>'s example of complaining to City Hall doesn't work until online identity is more secure. That said - everywhere I look, I see examples of the cross-over between the physical and the virtual. More and more people are becoming accustomed to communicating online, and they see the virtual realm not as some myterious "other place," but as an extension of their everyday lives. So when secure identity *does* come about, I think much of the populace will be culturally ready to embrace the efficiencies and connectedness that are offered by online communications.
Gail Williams (gail) Thu 27 Jul 00 09:36
Amy Jo, I have been reading this conversation with great pleasure, and wishing I had time to sit down and go back through the book for more specific questions and remarks. I think you have created a solid useful introduction, and that it is understandable both to those who have experienced the other-worldliness possible in collaborative cyberspace, and those who simply see these new channels of communications as other ways to work and play. It's important that as a guide your book never enforced a style or philosophy or culture, but had a great interest in how specific communities invariably do. It's not always easy to bridge the perceptual gaps, and to remmber that this is all both special and mundane, magical and matter of fact, and not just for different people, but even for individuals who participate in a variety of activities and relationships in online groups. I'm betting it will be in use as a text book in a lot of courses. Am I right about that?
Ari Davidow (ari) Thu 27 Jul 00 11:59
It's an incredibly lucid, thorough, engaging presentation of the subject. Except for the fact that students will want to read it, and will enjoy doing so, it's otherwise qualified as a textbook in every way :-).
Ari Davidow (ari) Thu 27 Jul 00 12:00
I'm actually glad that we're touching on questions of "what's next," too. As the formal interview period comes to a close I want to make sure that I ask the question I've been dying to ask for the last couple of weeks--what's next? What's next for you, and what do you see coming next (besides the acceptance of online community as just another facet of "community") to virtual community?
Ron Hogan (grifter) Thu 27 Jul 00 15:18
Neil Bibbins writes: "I've just ordered your book and look forward to its arrival since Community Building is an arcane science largely transmitted informally through online discussions, etc. One question that I have for you is what--if anything-- you recommend people turn to for reference when it comes to writing Terms and Conditions or AUP's? I believe these documente to be the constitutions for online communities, but they need also be written with a safe eye towards current law and "netiquette." Creating these guidelines from the ground up can be daunting; any suggestions to complement what you've included in your book?"
Amy Jo Kim (amyjo) Thu 27 Jul 00 16:27
Absolutely: check out the Resources section of my book's companion web site: http://www.naima.com/community (click on "Guidelines and Policies") There you'll find links to the Terms and Conditions docs of many prominant Web communities. There's nothing better than reading these docs to give you a starting point for crafting your own. Beyond that, I don't know of any place that clearly explains the ins-and-outs of crafting these docs. Chapter 6 of my book offers an introductory overview -- along with some useful URLs -- but of necessity leaves much out. Avd it's already somewhat out of date. Does anyone know of any other good online resources for creating basic community docs?
Amy Jo Kim (amyjo) Fri 28 Jul 00 05:47
And to respond to previous posts: you're right, <gail> -- judging from the email I'm getting, educators from a variety of disciplines (b-school, communications, computer science, library science) are planning to use my book as a textbook in their classes. I definately had this in mind when I wrote the book -- and in fact, I "road-tested" the material by teaching a graduate-level computer science class (see www.naima.com/CS377B), which really helped me refine the material and structure the order of the chapters.
Amy Jo Kim (amyjo) Fri 28 Jul 00 06:08
As for what's next -- I'm currently working on developing higher-level planning tools for my clients, based around the concept of "adaptive digital ecosystems." I'm finding that this concept is extremely useful for pulling together the ideas in my book into a time-based and *actionable* model that really helps people understand the basic stages of growing a community. Most of my work these days involves creating multi-phase rollout plans for startups who see "community" as an integral part of their Web business -- but there's often a disconnect between vision and execution. Many of my clients have a strong vision for how they see their community functioning -- but they don't understand how to get there, realistically. Again and again, I see people implementing too much complexity and infrastructure at launch, rather than starting small and focused and flexible (as I recommend throughout my book), and developing their offering over time, in close partnership with their audience. That's where the "ecosystem" model comes in. I've been finding that if I explain this "slow-growth" phase within the context of developing a sustainable ecosystem and robust foodchain, people "get it" more readily. And even more importantly, they're able to explain it internally to their management team, and then create a Web-friendly strategy around the concept. I'm *very* excited about the utility of this model -- and I'm planning to publish an article sometime soon that lays out the basics. I'll keep y'all posted, via updates on my web site, www.naima.com.
Ari Davidow (ari) Fri 28 Jul 00 11:32
I can't agree more--which is probably one reason that I enjoyed the book so much. Start small. Know how you're going to grow, but start small.
Linda Castellani (castle) Fri 28 Jul 00 13:48
I would like to jump in for just a second and thank <ari> and <amyjo> for such a fascinating discussion. I am amazed that it's been two weeks already. You are welcome to continue, of course, I just wanted to say Thank You!
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