Building Community With Online Communities - Part One


I'm intrigued by how online communities can actually create "community" among members. For four years I was the chair of the American Marketing Association's member only nine online SIGs (Shared Interest Groups). The AMA SIGs began life as a listserv and now have some additional online functionality. I've also moderated the AMA Internet Marketing SIG for about six years.

Building community has become one of the goals of so many social media strategies. I wondered what the people who are launching, what I fondly call Web 2.0+ mash-up communities, are doing to create success online.

The Diva of Community has to be Nancy White. Nancy knows more about online communities than anyone I've ever met. She graciously agreed to share her insights. But what Nancy gives us, in this mini interview, goes beyond a few ideas. She provides a primer on community best practices.  Thank you Nancy .. birds of a feather do indeed flock together!

Nancy_white Nancy White:  Full Circle, Full Circle Blog
I help people do purposeful stuff together online. How's that for simple. (And yet not simple at all!)

Toby/Diva Marketing: To set the stage for Diva Marketer's readers how about a  bit of background on how you got involved in online communities?

Nancy White: I fell down the online rabbit hole in 1996 when I joined Howard Rheingold's "Electric Minds" community as it launched in November, 1996. I was immediately taken by the high level of discourse. It was like the graduate seminar I dreamed of, but never had time to take as a working mom. For the first few months I simply read and soaked it in. Then I had the courage to speak up and became involved in a conversation I shall never forget about how to raise the quality of conversation on the net.

Jay Rosen, Ran Avrahami, Heather Duggan, Craig Maudlin and many others were part of that magical circle. Months passed. In Spring of 1997, Howard got the bad news that his funders were pulling out (Softbank). There was a hue and cry "save the community." Howard pointed towards two of us and said "lead." What an adventure.

I was an old hand at F2F community organizing and building so I thought I had a shot at being useful. Well, it turned out to be a disaster. How could anything with the highs of our previous conversations degrade to something so fraught with misunderstanding and dysfunction? That triggered what has turned into my work passion: understanding how we can most usefully interact with each other online.

Sometimes it is called online facilitation, but it is much broader. It is at once about design, technology, facilitation, change and human communication. There is so much to learn. Since then I have worked and played in focused task communities, communities of practice and social communities.

I'm still fascinated 10 years later. When the 90's dot com bust happened, community became a dirty word to some, but I still kept the flame burning in my work. It has been fun to see it surge brightly again, but I think there are significant differences. The main difference is I'm not sure we are talking about community exclusively any more. The role of networks has boomed and the landscape of tools that support our interactions have evolved. So it is still a VERY interesting space.

Toby/Diva Marketing: How do you define community online?

Nancy White: First, it is important to distinguish between community as an overall descriptor and online community. Sometimes we mean we use online tools to support a community that may have many other aspects offline. Other times we mean groups of people that almost only connect online. For the latter, i define online community as a group of people with some shared interest who connect and interact with each other over time. Relationship of some sort is implied.

Compared to networks, communities have an "in and an out." Membership has some defining element - a login, a place where you have to join. A way where your membership is made visible. Networks are often the containers for communities -- where a node grows dense with connections.

I think today we talk about them interchangeably which is sometimes useful, but not always. What I also see is that the line between community and network is fuzzy. Which makes that space very interesting and pregnant with possibility.

Toby/Diva Marketing: What makes a community successful?

Nancy White: This is highly context dependent. The one thing that seems to show up is some sort of shared purpose. But other than that, the variables are huge.

Small communities may be successful because of the depth of relationships, while large communities are successful for their breadth of relationships. Diversity can be the life pulse of one, and tear apart another. Like our offline communities, success is a complex interaction of factors, circumstances and sometimes just plain luck and timing.

If you ask the question from a commercial perspective, or from the perspective of someone trying to convene a community, I think we can think of factors that impact success:

  • Is the purpose clear? Shared?
  • Is there the useful level of identity for members? (Sometimes anonymity is the key, sometimes it is not, for example)
  • Is the means of interaction, the technology, appropriate to the community's desired activities and technology inclinations? Techie communities may look technologically very different from communities that serve second wave adopters.
  • Is there the right level of organization and facilitation? Different groups embrace more or less emergence or order. When I bake, I need a recipe so the cake rises and I follow it carefully. When I cook soup, it is taste, experiment and adjust. Communities need the same range.
  • Is there the right balance of interaction and content. Content draws us and helps focus our attention. Interaction engages us, creates bonds that strengthen interaction.
  • Is there the right level of trust? The recent situation with Kathy Sierra shows us that in our open, unbounded networks, we often don't know enough to clearly figure out what is going on and that can be threatening or liberating.
  • Are there enough bridge builders and connectors to weave the community together? These are really important actors in communities.

Toby/Diva Marketing: What should community "builders" the people behind the scenes do to engage  members?

Nancy White: There is a lot of good advice out there already. Interestingly, I don't think it has changed much in the 10 years I've been involved. That would be an interesting retrospective study! Here are a few of the golden oldies.

  • Listen to them! Build from where they start and where they want to go. This is the spark for the fire. If you ask for feedback, use it as much as you can otherwise you won't get any more feedback and the community will disappear.
  • Create just enough structure to create just enough comfort and navigability - don't over build, over legislate or over formalize, especially at the start. It's like making a wind break to get the fire going. You need a little wind, not a gale.
  • Use the power of invitation - questions that beg answers, ideas that stimulate our interest and imagination. For communities where people come to get and offer expertise, don't YOU tell them everything they need, create the space where they can invite and engage each other. Think of this is nice, dry kindling.
  • When the embers are burning bright, get out of the way. Sit back and enjoy your s'more. You can kill a community by overdoing it.
  • Role model the behavior you want to see. Take the high road.
  • Don't assume you understand what is going on - ask and learn more. Get multiple perspectives before you take action or make changes.

Toby/Diva Marketing: Where do you see the future of online communities heading?

Nancy White: Some of the changes I see are:

  • Less concern about changing tools and platforms than before. People are getting more agile. Likewise, they are leaving faster. So fast adoption may also mean fast desertion. Maybe we need to think of community life cycles as something shorter and more ephemeral.
  • The challenge of multi-membership - at some point, how many networks and communities can we belong to? This is both a social and technical question. Single ID's, portable identity tools kick in on the tech side. But seriously, at some point one can only meaningfully participate in a set number of communities. So we'll see some fallout.
  • Multilingual communities (is this just in my dreams) where we can engage across cultures and languages in new ways. This is probably the optimist in me.
  • The dark side of community will show up again and again. Community is not a value neutral word.

Building Community With Online Communities - Part Two
Simon Schnieders,


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Posted by: on Apr 19, 2007 5:26:10 AM

your insights are very helpful and straight to the point. with the emergence of social networks now there should be certain benchmarks and guides to make the community work.

i will be coming back to your site for more.

thank you!

Posted by: hazel hung on Sep 11, 2007 12:05:39 AM

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