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Building an Online Community

Every online community has a unique vibe, so it's difficult (and not necessarily a good idea) to generalise about the best approaches to creating and running online communities. However there are some ground rules that apply to most DNA communities, and working out how they apply to individual communities can help both those communities and the Editors to make it work for everyone.

  • Group Identity - For visitors to your community to become members (as opposed to users), the community needs a group identity. This identity can either be created by the subject matter of the site - fans of a specific TV programme, or those who want to talk about books, for example - or can be nurtured from natural clusters that emerge as the community grows. Whatever, it's important that the site generates a feeling of belonging, rather than a feeling of simply using the site.

  • Personal Identity - Within this group identity, it's vital that individual members retain an individual sense of identity. Often this sense of identity will emerge as members get more involved in the site; some may gravitate towards more serious aspects of the site, some may like the seemingly more frivolous conversations, and some may like a combination of both. It's important that the community is designed to cater for all types of people, and must avoid pigeon-holing visitors and members into a irrelevant and ultimately damaging demographic slots. Members of online communities are real people, and it's vital that this sense of individual identity is encouraged.

  • Clear Purpose - For each site, it is vital that visitors understand what the point of the site is, and what it is that the Editors and the community would like people to do. This could be anything from writing articles on specific topics to joining in discussions on the latest events, but as long as the purpose of the site is made clear from the start, it will help set the tone for members' continuing interaction with the community.

  • Developmental Path - As members get more into the site, they will go through various stages of interaction and commitment. These stages should be encouraged at all levels, and members should be rewarded for any contributions, however trivial they may seem to those whose contribution levels are large. More information on this can be found in the article The Read/Talk/Contribute Model, but whatever the developmental path for each community, it needs to be actively encouraged.

  • Aspirational Processes - Some people join online communities because they want something to do, and one of the ways to fulfil this need is to create an aspirational process. This could take the form of rewarding the best pieces of writing by putting them in a 'best of' section of the site (as with h2g2's editorial process), or it could be rewarding those who run great community activities with badges on their pages (such as the badges that regular reporters on h2g2's newspaper The Post get on their Personal Spaces). Aspiration inspires people to develop their skills, helping them feel 'in flow' and happy. See the article Why Do People Participate in an Online Community? for more information.

  • Transparency - A healthy online community is self-aware and self-organising. Community members consider that they are the true owners of their community, and that the host is just offering server space and facilitating interactions. This is absolutely true, and a transparent approach is an essential part of developing a sense of trust between hosts and community members. See the article on Transparency and DNA for more on this.

If a community follows the structure above, it has a better chance of developing into a healthy and forward-looking collection of dedicated members. Conversely, a community without the above is asking for trouble.

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Commonality (Last Posting: Sep 20, 2004)

Article Data
Article ID: A787151 (Help Page)
Written and Researched by:
Mark Moxon

Edited by:

Date: 15   July   2002

Referenced Articles
The Read/Talk/Contribute Model
Interaction and Clustering
Transparency and DNA
Why Do People Participate in an Online Community?

Related BBC Pages
h2g2's editorial process
The Post

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