A great read: Community Building on the Web

book cover

Old graphics on the book cover (the book is from 2000), but some very relevant content!

There’s a lot being said and written about communities on the web. Especially today, in the age of social networks and subscribtion-based websites… everything is communities! In a book from last year, La Communaué Illusoire, French sociologist Marc Augé argues that (1) the term “community” is overused, (2) that they are only meaningful if they’re meaningful to their members, and (3) that, rather than building communities with frontiers, we should think about building communities to encourage exchange and communication.

Anyway, web-based communities are now ubiquitous, and one of the first books that has been written about them is Community Building on the Web: Secret Strategies for Successful Online Communities (Kim, 2000). Let me share some excerpt.

When Amy Jo Kim wrote the book, she was running Naima, a firm specialzied in the design and set up of web communities. A lot of the communities that she talks about in the book (Heat, Ultima Online, Castle Infinity) are (old) game communities, but she also worked with people from Adobe, eBay, MTV or Yahoo! And interestingly, a lot of the practices that she highlights to build and manage web communities still apply today.

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

I know the following is a big chunk of text, but you migh want to skip some points… or you can still read the book 😉 :

  1. Purpose: It’s important to know why people join the community and what drives their participation. Ideally, a virtual community’s design and tools will be adapted to this purpose.  Amy Jo Kim has a great adaptation of Maslow hierarchy of needs pyramid adapted to we communities (p.9), but she also highlights that it’s fundamental for a community to be profitable: “A successful community must attract and keep enough members to make it worthwile. It must also deliver a satisfactory ROI to whoever is funding and/or maintaining it. If either one of these standards is not met, the community will eventually fail“. On community websites like patientslikeme, you’ll understand a purpose rapidly, and it also managed to be sustainable (also see my blog post about the cost of co-creation platforms).
  2. Places: It’s obvious that popular venues for communities to gather are websites like social networks, contest platforms or web forums. The book also talks about places that I know less of: mailing lists, message boards, virtual world, chats… Then, Kim gives some about growth management, design and community proximity on these venues, which is crucial to adapt to change.
  3. Profiles: Since “entering a new web community can feel like walking into a party full of strangers“, communities must include ways to get to know people. People want to present themselves, and similarly they want to discover who they’re dealing with. It’s important to note that not all members will be curiously browsing others’ profiles and communicating with them, but transparency is important anyway. “On the web, full disclosure is good business“, Kim says.
  4. Roles: Here, Kim introduces the particularly interesting concept of Membership Life Cycle (click here to see). She argues that “you can help a community flourish by providing features and programs that support [social] roles“. Reserach has also shown that design features can activate community participation in innovation communities, but to my knowledge research on membership lifecycle is not extensively covered. Do you have any thoughts or papers to share on that?
  5. Leadership: Regarding how centralized a community’s management is, a web community needs people to take leadership roles in both animation and controling. “For games or contests, you’ll need support personnel who can resolve technical issues, and deal with reports of cheating and systems hacking“, Kim says about rather centralized management sites. Also, she has a great table that summarizes leaders’ possible roles in a community (p.163), including both official and unofficial leadership roles.
  6. Etiquette: When exchange and interaction is the fundamental purpose of a community (like learning-focused communities), it’s important to have a common understanding of the tone people will adopt. One example is the use of the formal you (vous in French, Sie in German, usted in Spanish…). In English the problem doesn’t arise since there is no formal you, but you must know how you talk to members: will they be offended if you have a familiar tone? Or do they expect everyone to show closeness?
  7. Events: According to Kim, the three types of events are meetings, performances and competitions. These types of events need to be planned thoroughly, but when they’re well-executed and well-attended, they will ty together the community by bringing them together. About contests, Kim says that “the most effective contests contribute to long-term community building […] by reinforcing a community’s purpose, values, and brand identity“.
  8. Rituals: As you could see on the Membership Life Cycle illustration, there are rituals. These might mark transitions between stages of the Life Cycle (thus occuring only once), or they can be repeated: making a targetted recommendation, remembering special days, mark holidays… I particularly like Kim’s paragraph The Power of Goodbye (p.281), where she highlights that “leave-taking also offers an opportunity to ritualize the community experience“.
  9. Subgroups: Particularly if your community is big and has the possibility to organize autonomously, it might be valuable to allow members to form or join subgroups. Since “simply joining a large, general-purpose […] community doesn’t give someone much sense of community identity“, people might want to be part of smaller, focused sub-groups. However, Kim stresses that this might only be valuable in later stages of communities’ evolution.

These principles are, as I think, very true today! If you think it’s too old to be true, check out the following video from earlier this year, that Amy Jo Kim gave in San Francisco. She talks about gamification in product development. It’s highly interesting and quite complementary to Jane Mc Gonigal’s TED talk that I already linked here. Enjoy!

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