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How to Build and Lead Successful Online Communities: How Is A Community Different From A Network?

By Nic Laycock / February 2012

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In my first article in this series I talked about the fundamental need that all humans have to communicate and to socialize with others. It is through interaction that we learn, whether formally taught or, more normally, simply through the experience of talking to and watching those around us. It is in association that we find emotional safety and security. Our skills of questioning, explaining, postulating, and reflecting upon evidence are the stuff that our learning is made of.

If the concept of community is fundamental to our lives, what characteristics must it show to be successful and of value to the individual? What makes it gel, so that its value is greater than the sum of its individual contributions?

Let's have a look at what a community is not. In a world where concepts are often blurred it is important to differentiate a community from networks. Right now, while you read this piece, grab a piece of paper or your favorite tool and sketch for yourself the kinds of networks of which you are a member. Some will be formal, such as the hierarchical organization charts in which we are located and the team structures created for projects. Others will be linked to the teamwork that is vital in operating business processes. Some will be seemingly more haphazard and random, the kind of associations that often come with transient events like joining a webinar, engaging in a Tweet chat, or just the kind of wirearchies to which we are becoming accustomed. My guess is that some will seemingly have boundaries, or will have a kind of focus that holds people together. That focus may be a moment of common interest such as the Tweetchat or a webinar, or it may have greater longevity as in the assembly of a wiki as the output of working together in an eLearning course or in the execution of a project. It could be in the creation of a circle within Google+, a Facebook group, or in the streams of a platform such as Yammer or Socialcast.

My guess is that there will be other networks in which you find it difficult to depict because there is something you cannot easily describe in a line diagram or drawing. Somehow just linking positions or stick drawings of people together with lines is not enough. You need something else. That something is what distinguishes a community from a network.

It is the human element, that caring, concern, and desire for mutual support and development that provides extra glue. It is the emotion that is at the heart of every one of us. I used to scoff but I have become more and more convinced of the value of emoticons in my online communication. I find I need to convey my feelings and understand the feelings of others with whom I share so much.

I have written on my blog about my experiences of living in a small rural community in England. It is a community that has been there for 1000 years. The people have changed many times, so has the culture of the village, and so has its primary task. But there is something there that is ongoing, the recognition that the community's health is dependent on the degree of its members' support for one another. Some are activists, leaders of activity, helping in many ways; others "lurk" for the most part but join the village in its celebrations, sorrows, and other events. A few need the active support of those around them as they battle sickness, disappointment, and, in some cases of old age, the bewilderment of living in a world that has changed. A small number rarely engage.

I lived in Africa for many years. One of my enduring memories is the sense of mutual responsibility and care that pervades extended families and communities even in the poorest and most extreme of circumstances. The same was true in different ways when I worked more briefly in Chile, a country held together by strong societal norms, and in the Philippines where the rise of the indigenous Filipino following centuries of occupation provided a glue to strive against huge challenges of inequality, privilege, and poverty.

Many of my current communities are of a different nature. They are located in cyber space. I have never met, and never will meet, most of the people with whom I interact on a daily basis. But between some of us and on various platforms the relationship has extended beyond the task at hand, the area of common interest. What has evolved is a code of "looking out for one another"—providing information that might be perceived to be of interest, asking questions to keep each other involved, even checking on one another when there has been a prolonged period of absence or quietness in the communication stream. Together, for example, with the tight knit, specialist world of the bell ringer (campanologist) where teamwork and mutual dependence are of a high order, I have the privilege of both virtual and real life communities from which to learn.

So why is this so important in a series about building successful online communities?

In our work to create, nurture, and grow successful online communities, it is important to identify the, perhaps unspoken, bond that will draw people together into a more close association—one that has an intention of mutual advancement to benefit all. The purpose and scope of the community must be clear—otherwise, why join? People do not involve themselves for long in purposeless activity. We need to ensure whatever scope is agreed meets the needs of every member of that community. Arriving at that mutuality requires sensitivity. Top down attempts at imposition will ultimately be rebuffed if people have not felt they have a part in the process. Similarly, elaborate structured exercises to try to achieve an explicit consensus will be seen by many to be constraining or too time consuming. It is subtler than that.

So what else distinguishes a community from a network? Those loose associations, even if they have a degree of structure, will only become something else once people feel a sense of belonging and they begin to develop a growing sense of responsibility for their success. It starts with the way people join and the kind of welcome they receive.

Our role as leaders of communities has much to do with showing people the ropes (maybe in something as simple as how the mechanics of the communication platform works) and encouraging them to move from "lurking" into active participation. The 90-9-1 concept of only 10 percent of people being actively involved in a community has recently been challenged, suggesting that this ratio is a minimum figure and that real communities require something much more akin to the 70-20-10 proportions we associate with how we learn.

Providing space for people to express feelings is an important part of community, but there also needs to be boundaries of acceptable behavior. In most case these will be implicit, particularly if they are role modeled by the community leader or coordinator. The use of back channels and other communication media behind the scenes can be very useful in enabling people to talk to one another away from the glare of the community gaze. But care needs to be taken not to allow cliques and inner circles to develop, creating alternative foci and avenues for the promotion of vested interests. It is the mutuality of communities that leads to success

I will explore the issue of community behaviors further in my next article.

For now, think about communities that you belong to or which you know well. What is it about them that draws people in and encourages them to stay? Those are the things we have to strive for in the communities in which we are involved. The challenge is achieving it without the aid of looking each other in the eye or hearing the feeling and emotion in a comment.

About the Author

Nic Laycock blogs at Nic's Discoveries and can be found on Twitter @alc47.

© 2012 ACM 1535-394X/12/02 $10.00

DOI: 10.1145/2129230.2147782


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