Monday, November 3, 2008

Conclusions - Empowering a Self Directing Community

"The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all or cannot so well do, for themselves - in their separate and individual capacities. In all that people can individually do for themselves, government ought not to interfere." ~Abraham Lincoln
Lincoln's sage words provide us with a powerful perspective that encompasses this approach to community building, management and administration. When you empower your members to take responsibility for fulfilling their own expectations you make a major commitment to sustainability. The organic nature of the Elicitive model fosters communication, development of adaptive behaviors, dissemination of values and increases opportunities for inclusion and participation. In many instances, the combined insight of literally thousands of vested individuals will provide new ways to perceive obstacles and discover attainable solutions. In addition, integrating community centric staff as participants develops a broader sense of community for both members and the company and sets up the parameters for mutually beneficial exchange.

Work and Leadership

The human needs for self esteem and self actualization are most often expressed in productive activity (work). Social activity found outside of production cannot be sustained for long. A key element of e-commerce sites' success in building solid, permanent communities lies in the ability to provide work, not only in the form of employment, but also by providing volunteer opportunities both formal and informal. Gaming sites serve as non commercial examples of this theory since they enable their members to engage with others in cooperative (albeit competitive), meaningful activity that creates leadership opportunities along with development of community roles and activity over time.

Although members may chat frivolously with one another, they often perform work related tasks in the background or are passing time while waiting for an opportunity to answer questions, work on marketing strategies or communicating with their customers. The variety of informational needs of other members creates unlimited opportunities for sharing knowledge and experience. By doing so, volunteers earn respect and solidify their role as a valuable contributor to the site. Here again, is a reason for providing naming conventions that are thematic or metaphorical rather than specialized. General topic forums provide greater opportunity for a larger number of individuals to contribute in a variety of forms. In addition, functional interaction provides a gateway for new members who want to gain entry into an existing community. By asking for help, sharing an experience or contributing to group knowledge a newcomer begins establishing a role for themselves as an indispensable partner in the community from the very first post. In fact, the hunger to share knowledge and be seen as a resource can be so compelling that members will often compete to be the first to answer any question. Answer centers are built on this premise because they provide numerous opportunities for both meaningful work and establishing a reputation.

In every functioning community individuals demonstrate their appreciation for success by giving back to others. Altruism has been shown to be a fundamental success strategy for human groups leading to enhanced success for the individual as well as cementing bonds through meaningful cooperation. Sharing information aids in evangelizing the general culture along with promoting trust. People who approach community with service as a goal often find that it brings well deserved rewards.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Celebrating Diversity

Recognizing that each forum, group, chat room or any other area dependent upon member content forms the infrastructure of online community opens a door to opportunity. It also opens a door to potential hazards. The sheer joy experienced when establishing friendships across the globe is unique to our modern digital age. Unlike the pen pals of old, the connections are instantaneous, inexpensive and available to most anyone. E-commerce sites thrive on the sales of items to people you may never meet and the transfer of goods and services establishes a contract between the parties along with a preliminary link. However, there is nothing quite like talking to someone in a far off land about his or her day to day life.

One of the management issues is how to address widely divergent world views as people are exposed to different opinions and approaches to problem solving. Socio-cultural differences impact the evolution of community as each entity strives to fill their own needs based on their learned set of expectations and bias. The elicitive model proves a variable structure that allows this diversity to be expressed within a uniform social contract. Enabling all member of the broader community to contribute and embrace a similar set of cultural tenets provides a more secure environment that reduces fear of "the other" and allows differences to be explored with a higher level of comfort.

Provided with sufficient control of space to function autonomously, groups will tend to tolerate or ignore other groups or interact with many groups and individuals while generally respecting boundaries. However, where resources (such as staff attention) appear unevenly distributed between groups or where differing percepts of interest cause members to feel threatened, there can be clashes between groups and even outright feuds. In some instances each entity seeks to increase its influence by protecting its own boundaries or making incursions into the spaces defined by other members. When this occurs community leaders should be able to rely on the common ground to help resolve the conflicts. This takes into account that all parties are motivated by a strong need to maintain a sense of security and place. Providing opportunities to air grievances and disagreements among members provides a built in reinforcement for continuing community detente' thus effectively countering the tendencies of online communities to support extreme ongoing conflict.

The effect of continual exposure to differences between life or business approaches (in e-commerce sites) occurring in a safe and shared environment is real and profound. Members may still profess to hold strong activist or oppositional views when debating philosophies, but ultimately become increasingly tolerant of other community members. Alongside the sometimes heated debates, members continue to share experiences and review each other's successes. Each contributes to the group despite vast differences in perspectives and respect is earned, sometimes grudgingly. In most cases the absence of a familiar yet confrontational face causes concern and queries about the well being of the missing person. The sharing of information is an integral part of this process and new ideas are quickly adapted whether its an original acronym or a successful selling strategy there is a form of cooperation in effect in all but the most destructive forums.

Geography Lessons

Creating new discussion boards serves to alleviate stress as do forums developed expressly for controversial topics. The addition of new forums also provides opportunities when the number of participants and volume of posts start to overwhelm the medium. Because space can be virtually infinite in online communities, the tragedy of the commons need not remain a critical issue. Judiciously planned real estate can be opened before critical mass takes it toll. Members often complain that introducing new spaces will take away from their purpose or break up the bonds between groups, but the reverse is usually true. Alleviating overcrowding reduces the stress to the point where newcomers are encouraged to participate which in turn provides more opportunities for people to share their knowledge and engage in problem solving.

Creation of new spaces must be controlled to prevent the dilution of the forums. Excessive empty space with too little activity can cause a couple of problems. The first is it identifies a significant barrier to building momentum for sustainability. Individuals online require a sense of their own space (the post box) but will not get any of their needs met if this space is not in proximity with other members. In order to feel secure the poster must receive a response from another person within a relatively short period of time. If a response is not received the member may feel rejected and seek fulfillment elsewhere. As this affirmation is less likely in a sparsely populated forum the successful member will gravitate to spaces that are visibly active. Thus, bustling forums grow busier while inactive spaces fall into greater entropy.

The other issue with empty or sparsely populated forums is that they may be attractive to groups of members who are not willing to adhere to community norms or policies. The lack of community leaders to provide guidance and set standards along with an anything goes attitude from the current inhabitants will likely create a forum that looks like nothing else on the site. These members will not report each other's posts for violations and they will strive at times to come up with the most creative violations.

Leveling the Playing Field

In all communities there is a tendency to rely on overtly vocal members who derive their meaning from commanding staff presence when it may not be the best community strategy. Invariably, focus on special interest groups serves to create discrepancies and the members notice the differences in how staff treats certain individuals or forums. While the special interest groups may have well organized information to share with the staff and other members, they are driven by meeting their own needs which are not always the same as the needs of the rest of the community. Members learn to respond in negative ways when they feel their input is not as valuable as input from other factions. They will often use aggressive, disruptive tactics as a bid to demand attention.

One challenge is deciding where, when and who to ask for input and also how to frame questions. Since one of the objectives is to provide a clearing house for opinions, it is intuitive to recognize that most site specific issues cross all strata and that the newest member may share common concerns with the established leaders.

It is important for community managers to develop enough familiarity with the interface to teach and enable employees to "hear" and acknowledge the user who makes a single post as loudly as the user who makes a hundred posts. Adding employees who are able to address specific questions from their area of expertise along with generalists provide many more ears to listen to the community and take input.

A Place for Everyone!

New areas for individual expression equal new opportunities for users to relate to each other. As your company grows both locally and globally, different forms of interaction need to be provided for your population. Raucous discussion boards may intimidate a shy member or exclusive member chats between a group of established regulars may deter a newcomer's participation. We found that people want to share their knowledge and expertise in a myriad of ways. Some seek admiration for their skills while others simply want to discuss best practices, still others thrive on the exchange of ideas and problem solving. New members in the community may find the general dynamics found on most forums overwhelming. Questions that go unanswered or derisive answers foster feelings of inadequacy. Rather than risk rejection, inexperienced people may choose to simply read the content and never expose themselves to the uncertainty of full participation.

Identifying and providing opportunities for multiform interaction is a strategic long term goal. The organic need of groups to expand into new spaces encourages development of platforms that allow for user initiated expansion. Members expect the choices that come with a diversified platform along with some of the bells and whistles that allow them to customize their space. They also make it clear that they want to engage in controversial or extensive topics on the discussion boards, create exclusive spaces within user groups, socialize with others in the chats, blog about their experiences and assist others in the answer center. Providing safe areas where people can get their feet wet with friendly responsive members builds community by attracting new members while providing opportunities for volunteers.

It is a good idea for each community to have a welcome wagon type of board where new members are directed and participation is easy. The rules for this board should be basic and experienced members who want to help should be provided with guidance on what to do if there are problems. If the long term members have sufficient experience they will be able to mentor the newbies. Many long term friendships are developed with the mentor student relationship.

Keep it Simple

Using trendy language or jargon often confuses both staff and members. The resultant backlash can cause difficulties when trying to gather input or explain new features. From every perspective, there is nothing more disconcerting than posting an unclear message. Lack of clarity can also create a negative impression of staff's willingness to understand the participants needs and community managers may end up with an erroneous perception of the members. For example, a frustrated response may lead staff to assume that the members are not in tune with corporate goals when in fact they may simply not understand what was asked. In addition, staff may misinterpret the connotations or references used by members, even for concrete terms and words referring to specific products, features or site activities.

With this in mind, the best approach to interaction is to rely on language and expressions we find ourselves most comfortable using. We know that members represent every walk of life so it should be apparent that clear, concise messages are of paramount importance. The recipient's education or abilities cannot be taken for granted so the focus of communication should be built on sharing pertinent information. While reassuring members that the staff expertise is valid, we need to be mindful that we don't have all the answers or that we are somehow more capable.

By asking for clarification and reframing what we believe we are reading, employees can better define for themselves and the community, exactly what is being conveyed from both sides. The ultimate goal is to ensure that members are comfortable with our sincerity, professionalism and understanding of the current issues even though we may not agree with them.

Keeping it Human

Another consideration is regarding the community as a unique resource built upon a wealth of knowledge both online and off. Each new participant brings fresh ideas and perspectives to the table which serves to increase our understanding of how it all works. Experience teaches us that communities can be constrained by both internal and external factors so it is necessary to effectively regulate those pressures. Conversely, those same forces may reinvigorate stagnant communities so they must be examined with a critical eye. As a rule, negative dynamics can be ameliorated with modest assistance from staff if they focus on the human elements of exchange rather than the specific content. Promoting special events or flagging group efforts go a long ways toward creating value for member driven initiatives and for the users themselves. Recognizing that everyone has something to contribute helps staff develop opportunities where individuals can be brought into the whole.

The members are also curious about who works for the company so sharing small vignettes about one's life is appropriate. Discussing a hobby, asking people to identify an unusual collectible or sharing a recipe gives staff a human face. Instead of merely representing a corporate monolith, members soon discover that employees have lives very much like their own. One caution is that too much information may prompt curious individuals to find out more. Some users may make use of this information to manipulate or discredit staff or as a means to promote their own agenda. Staff interaction should enable a role within the group but should not cross over into expectations that the group will meet employee's needs for acceptance, safety, affirmation or success.

Narrowly focused forums may also create problems for both members and staff. Off topic discussions frequently prove to be an irritant to some members and the amount of dedicated time increases exponentially when employees are called upon to maintain a specific direction. If the intent of the interface is to improve site stickiness then this issue bears closer examination. In all communities people develop a sense of the other by informal communication such as getting together for coffee each morning. Posting silly or random thoughts increases the human elements of the forum and points to the similarities between people rather than the differences. Social networking also adds to the user experience by building friendships and enhancing trust.

A final observation is that off topic discussion provides a diversion to folks who volunteer their services. A board that allows discussion on only one topic may attract participants but they are just as likely to go somewhere else to meet social needs.

Policies, Rules and Enforcement

An important observation is once the culture is established, the community will introduce its own form of moderation. Whether or not written policies are in place members progress to a general code of conduct and demand that all participants comply with the established norms. Its obvious to all involved when those embedded values are violated because the users take rapid action to remedy the transgression. New and old members alike are taught the consequences of misuse by both the immediacy and volume of response from other users. Behavior that flagrantly trespasses on the community norms will bring the day-to-day exchange to a screeching halt as members seek to restore stasis. A discussion that jumps from a few posts to several hundred posts in a short period of time is a good indication that something is amiss with the forum.

Top down moderation or direction is generally ineffective because no one solution is universally applicable to all populations. What is tolerated in one area may not be acceptable in others. For example a board based on the newest technology may not welcome off topic posts as easily as a board geared toward more general content. Staff intervention even with the best intentions, can be seen as intrusive which causes other forms of disruption such as accusations of favoritism. This insight forms the basis of self administered reporting which is one of the most successful tools implemented in any forum. The anonymous nature of third party disengaged moderators signals impartiality because each reported violation is taken at face value by individuals outside of the complex social arrangements. Members often complain that the reporting tools are used to create problems for other members or that the posts are vetted improperly, but in reality these types of complaints are indicative of other issues such as cliques or power struggles.

Member reports also alert moderators to developing problems so that the integrity of the forums can be maintained. Relying on the common sense of the members to manage the content and traits of their own forum has the added benefit of relieving personnel obligations in communities where growth out paces the effective use of dedicated staff.

Terms of use policies must be grounded in the expectations of community members. Therefore guidelines should be based on knowledge of the community and how all of its parts function. Consistency across all platforms is a given, since members should feel comfortable and knowledgeable in regards to expected behaviors in order to reduce confusion and to maintain overall site integrity. General policies should incorporate community values, the corporate intent for the forums along with member driven requests for changes and clarification. Since the expectation is that members will define and moderate their own forums the members also must assume responsibility for self direction and that includes adherence to the terms of agreement for participation.

Policies are necessary because they formalize the terms of use between the members and the company. In many cases the policies may appear somewhat nebulous but that should be predicated on clear intent. Policies that are too specific may encourage problem members to test the boundaries or find loopholes. The best approach we found is to create policies that are instructional in nature rather than mandated rules. This helps members adjust to our expectations and also adjust to the online experience. The structure of forum's policies should allow for evolution in interpretation as the community's needs change while enabling continuity because the philosophy behind each policy and the policy itself remain constant throughout time. Thus, the policies are intuitively understood and members have a sense of security that overall governance is predictable.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

What's in a name?

Another important process for enabling successful community development are the naming protocols used to describe each forum. Naming discussion boards and other shared spaces not only subtly directs the nature of the dialogue but also impacts the volume of traffic that will visit, the rate of return and the likelihood of group formation. In most instances a forum designated for a specific use will not attract members with dissimilar interests. However, as we learned over time, our ideas and the ideas of the members may not translate as the same thing. While the name itself determines what kind of people are attracted to the forum and whether or not you will keep them, the truth of the matter is that the members will poke and prod at the structure until they are comfortable with how it defines their space. Subsets will often adopt a variation of the forum name as the identifier for their group (a nickname based on the original forum name is success indicator that the forum has an appropriate name).

Returning to the elicitive model demonstrates that the user base should have a hand in determining the need for community spaces as well as relied upon to define the most appropriate metaphor. Whether its asking for suggestions or creating an organic name that can be manipulated successfully, its clear that members will ultimately exert their influence on the environment.

A name that is narrowly focused on a single product may not generate much staying power and will limit the number of potential users. In addition, building areas designed to attract participants for one time special events may create its own set of problems. Leaving the forum intact once the promotion is closed and without an established culture may lead to interference with overall cultural continuity and impact limited staff resources. The members who remain may use the forum for activities never anticipated by the company. If the board is closed after the event, these members may move en masse to other forums on the site, which in turn disrupts the prevailing culture. In short, building boards or areas geared solely towards fulfilling a departmental goal or implementing a new tool without regard for the community's own needs may have unpredictable outcomes.

Disintermediation -- or cutting out the middle man

Experience reveals that removing the middleman between the community and the company performs a vital function. It develops a two way sense of appreciation as members learn to communicate with staff and employees are exposed to the very core of who and what makes community tick. When individuals realize that their comments are read by staff and corporate leaders they gain a sense of empowerment that in turn encourages them to vest in the outcome. It's always enlightening to realize that the people who post on the forums may be highly successful business owners, university professors or acclaimed experts in their field. It should be obvious that the member base is a tremendous resource when contemplating change.

Nothing provides more validation for community than knowing that the people at the top are listening and paying attention. Members are quick to pick up on roles within the company and want to be partners in the process. They often address the corporate principals by their first name and can consider them peers. However, this effect is not due to personal charisma alone and in fact one should use caution to avoid a cult of personality as the unifying glue to maintain the community. Instead its the shared social contract that cements the members and the staff into a comprehensive whole. Members should not view executives through starry eyes but as partners in the shared quest to improve success for everyone. As a result the community is equipped to survive without them when necessary as they lead toward the continual member self-reliance, growth and community based governance. In many forums this plays out as an ongoing cultural ebb and flow that infuses the discussion areas with fresh interaction as employees move in and out of the milieu.

The importance of providing a space to air grievances

A specific component of any overall forum strategy is to provide a space where members can address their grievances. While management may take issue with negative personal comments or the use of vulgar terms, forums should be used as a sounding board for members to discuss company policies or changes they find disagreeable in addition to the socio-cultural exchange. By giving members platforms to vent frustration community managers can accomplish several goals.

The first is providing the company with a rapid source of feedback to proposed changes and secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the members understand that they have an established place for voicing their opinions. The transparency of this approach is a key concept in that members are able to ascertain intent. Rather than taking complaints off site where dissent can fester into malcontent or destructive acts, the members more often receive timely input from staff which can serve to diffuse the negative and correct misperceptions.

As noted in the Maslovian model, economic viability provides for meeting basic needs. Once the resources are secure the individual is able to progress toward more community centric endeavours. Forums existing on commercial websites with member driven sales are particularly vulnerable to anxiety and reaction over policy changes. Providing arenas for members to discuss their concerns and perhaps find solutions enhances the good will within the forums as conscientious people assist others with problem solving.

A final crucial goal accomplished by providing the means to criticize the company, staff, actions and policies openly in the forums is that this significantly contributes to feelings of trust and loyalty. Not only the members, but the media and general public are able to see that the owners are not afraid of criticism. Staff should not retaliate against those who speak out and in fact should invite the airing of honest opinion without feeling the need to continually defend itself or cater to every pressure brought to bear. This approach serves to reify the company's consistency between what it says and what it does. It attests to confidence in both long and short term goals and the good intentions of the staff involved. Many companies invariably go astray by attempting to censor, ignore, placate or otherwise shut down negative discussion in their forums. The predictable result is their participants observe the lack of corporate certitude and begin to lose faith.

A new community paradigm -- Applying the Elicitive Model

The ultimate goal of any community manager is to maintain a healthy, engaged community of people who are willing to work with other members and employees to define their own needs while contributing to the success of the website and the greater community. The bedrock of this strategy is the Elicitive Model, an approach expanded upon by my team over the past decade. An elicitive style of management relies upon communally held knowledge as the basis for conflict resolution between individuals, groups, and communities. It vests the members in the process and fosters belonging and self direction. The continued success of this design should be readily apparent in community metrics. These elements include
  • sheer traffic and activity volume,
  • monetized value per capita,
  • consistency of traffic and activity over time (a crucial measure)
  • incidence of violations and recidivism,
  • rates of time spent on site
  • return rates,
  • user retention and;
  • user attitudes towards the hosting company.

The success of the elicitive model rests on three major suppositions

  • While a populations' behavioral norms and activities may not be externally mandated or forcibly controlled, healthy behavioral patterns may be elicited through predictive planning.
  • Individuals within the population may not be compelled, but may be induced toward voluntary cooperation with group norms by other members and involved staff.
  • The growth, stability and sustainability of the community requires tactical predictive management entirely separate from the force of charismatic personality.

Elicitive management firmly places the responsibility for actions and reactions within the hands of the community and its individual players but does not abandon the community to its own devices. Instead this management approach holds itself responsible for maintaining the community's capacity for continued independent growth and life. The elicitive model requires management to stand on the fringes of the community, an integral, integrated part of the community itself, but at the same time sufficiently separate and distant to enable understanding of the big picture. Thus, proficient management fulfills a complicated dual role as both an internal support and external irritant.

As Lederach (1995) discusses in his book Preparing for Peace: Conflict Transformation Across Cultures, there are four functional elements needed to engage and precipitate beneficial change within a community. That these ideas are applicable, with slight modifications, to the online world is no surprise and in fact they form the most efficacious approach to management and sustainability.

  1. Community members are a key resource, not simply recipients of corporate actions
  2. Community knowledge is an invaluable facet of discovering what is needed and how to implement change. At times, disruption acts as a positive catalyst for needed changes.
  3. Using local resources (the members) as the cornerstone for building community fosters self-sufficiency and sustainability.
  4. Empowerment is crucial and it emerges when members are encouraged to participate in identifying issues and crafting appropriate solutions.

This is not to suggest that online communities do best with no governance. The strongest online communities are the result of active, engaged management and a well defined set of policies. In many forums members act as model citizens by encouraging others to follow the prevalent culture. The success of the elicitive approach is best exemplified when members act to correct inappropriate behaviors by explaining the rules, reporting policy violations or by directing questions and complaints to the appropriate channels. Other examples may include the way members organize responses to crises or prompt staff to think about something in a new way. The successful forum proliferates across the member to member areas and is manifested by the ability of all participants to understand that the common ground forms the underpinnings of a flourishing society.

Architecture of online community - psychological and cultural elements

Amy Jo Kim in her book Community Building on the Web (2000) explored some of the elements necessary to promote successful interaction in online communities. Kim uses a design based on Abram Maslow's psychological hierarchy of needs to define both individualized and group actions. In the chart below we can see that there is not much difference between what a individual requires to reach self actualization on line and off. The intrinsic value of this model provides us with a glimpse into how and why our members shift their positions depending on the moment and activities within the forums. Like Maslow's hierarchy, the lower levels of security must be satisfied before the group is able to progress to upper level desires. A breech of privacy whether real or imagined, will focus a successful volunteer on safety while their other tasks fall by the wayside until they once again reach a comfort level and are able to return to full participation. This is illustrated in the chart below adapted from Kim (2000)

Designing a useful framework for understanding group dynamics leads to greater predictability when designing spaces for online communities. The ethnographic features of groups follows a pattern closely mirroring the needs and actions of individuals.

  • At the base of the pyramid, members bond together by virtue of mutual interests that in turn confer a modest sense of belonging and identity. A basic social contract only requires limited investment of time so people may join and abandon at will. However, an issue with one member will affect all members of the group so key players work together to find resolution. The psychological and social needs of the group are met by reciprocal support that takes place both inside and outside the forums.
  • If a member of the group is threatened, the participants frequently work together to remedy the predicament. Once the menace disappears or is reduced to a tolerable level most groups move on to other more productive activities or dissolve. In rare instances, a perception that the external threat will return provides a rationalization to perform vigilante type actions or boycotts. Individuals within the group may actively sabotage other users or imagine destructive scenarios that maintain the negative energy. Private user groups, off site discussion boards, email, phone calls and instant messenger services are used as secretive instruments to exchange information and maintain the anxiety. In extreme cases members reveal the activity going on behind the scenes to the general population and ask people to join the cause. These problematic coalitions are driven by excitement and fear and may never move to upper level functions.
  • As group development moves up the hierarchy more opportunities are provided for individual expression and meaningful activities. At this stage we start to see regular discussion and planned events. Members participate because they want to be part of the group and because they enjoy the companionship of others. Recognizing important life events and taking care of one another becomes the norm. The group is still focused inwardly but the actions revolve around mutual benefit, economic viability and predictable activity.
  • Much like individuals, self-esteem is important for growth. When the group starts functioning as a discreet entity progress can be made toward expansion and the group looks for potential members. They also work at disseminating knowledge and take pride in their efforts. Special topics may come to the fore and people join in locating new sources of information that help expand their expertise. The group may become known as reliable, informative and busy.
  • The ultimate measure of success for any group is when its members are able to work together in a cohesive fashion to make improvements to the community. Mentoring groups, volunteer clubs and successful charitable efforts fall under this umbrella. The group is rock solid and the members have unique responsibilities such as the editor of the newsletter or recruitment committee based on individual skill sets. Competition is seldom a problem and cooperation is the established norm. Long term members demonstrate a wealth of experience and are often in leadership positions. Because of this specialized knowledge the group is able to circumvent many of the issues plaguing less developed groups.

House of Mirrors -- Framing employee interaction in the community

The last myth to be explored in this section is one that frames employee interaction with the community. In many instances employees consider themselves set apart from the members in some way. Instead of being an integral part of the community, staff may mistakenly assume the following traits are the norm.
  1. Staff knows more than the members do about how to run a successful platform
  2. Staff has the final word on every decision and ultimately the employee's role is one of authority, not one of listener or facilitator.

Viewing the employee's role in the forum is particularly difficult to do because it often spans the gap between the corporate entity and the members. Employees are often privy to confidential information which drives internal decision making but cannot be discussed in a public venue. Conversely, members may view a friendly staff member as a conduit to the insider knowledge they desire. Members may also try to manipulate staff into revealing confidential information about other members or to involve staff in interpersonal conflict.

Members may implement a variety of strategies ranging from intimidation to granting star qualities on a particular employee to achieve their goals. As a result employees may experience a gamut of emotions that range from being flattered to feelings of rejection when the community works to finesse the outcome. It usually takes serious self reflection to appreciate how the community functions and our unique role within it.

The Jabberwocky and the Writing on the wall -- A look at how people communicate on the net.

Two myths converge that question the efficacy of mutually intelligible communication on the net. Groups of people who share fundamental social networks or interests tend to coin words, phrases and acronyms with meanings exclusive to insiders. This premise suggests that once the individual masters the vocabulary, they can then understand and be understood by any other member of the group. Normally, the shared terminology denotes belonging and acceptance and marks the speaker as an insider. However, while the jargon may appear to be universal, the ways in which people frame the information is not. What often goes unrecognized even by long term participants or forum administrators, is that words held in common and used to convey apparently similar concepts may actually have very different meanings between individuals, and especially between subsets within and without the group. Implied meaning takes on greater importance in written communication because there is limited opportunity to quickly clarify the commonly understood definition.

A second facet is the prevailing myth that attempts to explain the high incidence of emotional response by proposing that without body language, facial expression and tone of voice, it is difficult to interpret written words in the way the author intended. Despite the presumed absence of these emotive triggers, online disputes often become far more acrimonious than in any of the participants face-to-face encounters. On the other hand, many people actually find themselves more capable of engaging in large, amazingly intimate, honest and mutually supportive social systems online than they may in their off line lives. The most likely explanationfor these complex behaviors is that people are interpreting exactly what the author intended but thought he had hidden.

People may perceive written words with more clarity than they would if they were busy modifying their impressions based on learned assumptions where distractions such as physical attributes, tone and gesture blind us to true meaning. One explanation of these phenomena is that written communications are in actuality either more honest and transparent than speech; or conversely more deceptive, and that individuals quickly learn to discern accurately between the two. The result is the initiation of trust or distrust more rapidly and intensely than what occurs in traditional face to face interaction.

Tragedy of the Commons -- Do all virtual communities break down?

Garret Hardin in his exceptional essay The Tragedy of the Commons (1968), postulated that groups sharing public resources would devolve rapidly when the greed of individuals overburdened the available holdings. As competition for assets and prominence increases the population splits into loose coalitions (cliques) focused on controlling the communal assets and disruption becomes the norm.

The logic behind this interpretation is that the common areas or in this case the forums, will eventually be consumed or severely compromised by the battling factions and all the stakeholders will lose in the long run. Most everyone working with online community runs into this obstacle at some point during their career. In some instances, the forum becomes rife with self-destructive behavior bent on dissolution of the common area. Community development programs must take this issue into consideration and eventually decide how to best allocate the resources.

Is it really a small world afterall?

Contemporary thought creates a rosy outlook that the pervasive nature of connectivity will eventually serve to globalize human interaction. As nations and people are brought into the ever growing exchange, cultural divisions will be ameliorated and global issues will disappear under the prodigious weight of increased understanding. What this perspective fails to address are the cultural peculiarities found within discrete human populations. While human needs and motivations remain constant throughout the world, behavioral expectations can vary considerably even in places where everyone communicates in the same language.

In some instances, members who find their activities proscribed in some forums seek other arenas where those behaviors are not prohibited or the locals are not organized enough to deflect the intrusion. At other times assertive newcomers or old timers with new identities, may attempt to force their will on the forum via virtual coups or disruption lasting for long periods of time. Not only do the locals lack the ability to assimilate the context, the are unable to self-regulate the content. This can end up as a takeover of the forum as the original members are overwhelmed by sheer numbers or by something outside their understanding.

The Kingdom of Macaria -- Are virtual communities egalitarian?

The Kingdom of Macaria (Gabriel Plattes 1641) describes a mythical kingdom where the king is wise and noble and the inhabitants live in great prosperity, health and happiness. Where all good men are respected, vice is punished and virtue is rewarded.

The prevailing wisdom in many discussions defining online community illustrates that these communities are egalitarian by nature. The great leveling tendencies of the net serve to hide distinctions in economic status or individualized traits. Thus, Plattes' Kingdom should be easily achieved. An essential component is that the anonymity granted to each user serves to reduce social and economic barriers to the point they no longer matter. On the surface this paradigm is based on common sense: the user controlled visibility intrinsic to net communications serves as the leveling force. As long as the individual is able to navigate the interface and contribute to the dialogue, personal issues such as disability, economics, education, age, gender or ethnicity should have little or no effect on communication.

However, personal differences quickly become apparent during the exchanges as unique competencies come to the fore. In addition, both the access to computers and technological knowledge deepens the rift as those with up-to-date equipment and fast connections find it easier to navigate the complexities of the web. This often leads to a special type of elitism where technological expertise is granted more credibility than social interaction.

Finally, long term communities create another partition between the old garde and the new comers. New arrivals are often hesitant to participate in an active community for fear of ridicule or rejection. Established members may be wary of change. One of the most compelling problems we face is how to deal with the elitism and subsequent cliques that arise within the online environment. Factors such as specialized knowledge, member longevity and access to resources do indeed make a difference in the user experience.

The Cinderella Effect -- What makes a virtual community attractive

A prevalent misconception about online community is that as long as you provide an attractive, well-appointed environment, people will flock to your website and populate the forums. The "next best thing" invariably captivates attention and increases participation as people explore the possibilities. The magic of technology can dress up the surroundings and promise wonderful new features for the members. However, when the digital clock strikes 2400 we find that a tired interface equipped with the latest gadgets is not enough to keep people engaged. Its apparent that the ever increasing number of wired individuals are looking for spaces to pique their interest and provide meaningful relationships. Building forums based on such strategies as marketing new products, hawking the latest trend or seeking time-limited input are not effective for the long term in the sophisticated cyber milieu. What ultimately attracts people to online community is the presence of other people who are willing to take part in the exchange of ideas. The challenge then, is to forge venues and infrastructure that supports long term participation while inspiring loyalty.

The myth of Sisyphus - Can communty be managed?

Like the onerous travail of Sisyphus, managing online community is frequently portrayed as an insurmountable task. Multiple studies and anecdotal references found on the net point to exponential growth or the infusion of new personalities as cause for the decay and the eventual collapse of online forums. It is posited that established members react negatively or even abandon the forum when new participants actively seek to change the environment or foist their own particular interests on others.

Critics and even many proponents of net based communities insinuate that all net cultures eventually decline into anarchy once the original purpose of the forum is lost via change and growth. A third part of this construct is that huge populations tend to factionalize into smaller groups or cliques with each vying for supremacy and bandwidth. Moderation becomes a full time task and moderation is often expensive. Ultimately, virtual community theorists readily identify these issues but do not discuss potential outcomes or offer models for successful management past the point of critical mass. Community managers can plan for growth and longevity based disruptions to mitigate the impact.

Common Myths about Virtual Communities

Since net based communities are only in their second decade there is still not a lot of information on how the process actually works. Evaluating them much like any other traditional community seems to be the best approach because individuals tend to form relationships and communities based on need, interest and proximity. In the following posts, I will include some of the pitfalls I've noted in discussions of online community. Each archetypical description contains grains of truth but on closer examination proves to be somewhat misleading. This information serves to create a baseline understanding of how online community may be perceived throughout the literature and delineates common administrative assumptions that have the potential of undermining the hard work of the community planners and builders (both staff and volunteers). The tools for addressing these prevalent misconceptions will appear later in this blog.

in the beginning....

A great deal of the content for this blog was written two years ago by myself and my co-worker Tina Howard. We were part of the original eBay Pinks and found ourselves immersed in online community building. Despite the challenges of managing a huge user based website, the rewards were great.

This journey begins in February 2000, when eBay first added the discussion boards to the chat interface. Staff members originally answered questions on the Q and A board (question and answer chat) but that proved to be very time consuming. One of the things we noticed was that members were happy to jump in and help one another understand all the little in roads and byways that made up the complex policies governing the website. In order to capitalize on this trend and to create the ability to archive the information and best answers, we moved to a discussion forum format where we could set the limits for expiration rather than see it scroll off the screen after a few hundred posts.

All virtual communities mirror communities found off line. There are people who are natural leaders and people who are content to follow. In addition there are places where people congregate to share their opinions and expertise. Numerous writers use the television sitcom Cheers when describing online community and its a perfect illustration of how gathering places provide extra meaning in people's lives. There were regular patrons we all got to know along with the occasional quirky outsider who piqued interest and caused a variety of challenges for the regulars. One could think of their local church in a similar fashion where people get together to worship or celebrate life events. Its a simple step to frame online community in the same way with a couple of benefits: part of the charm of virtual community is it never closes. There is usually another person to bounce around an idea with or a bevy of folks to provide entertainment or assistance. There are familiar faces dropping in to say hello, share experiences, give sympathy or greet you on your birthday. Other folks may challenge your thinking or lay bare your biases which is often uncomfortable. Ultimately online community provides a means by which individuals participate in the social world.

Ray Oldenberg describes these areas as "The Third Space" in his book The Great Good Place, Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts, and How They Get You through the Day . While Oldenberg's premise relates to communities as close as the corner restaurant his suggestion that places where people go to interact with others are essential to community and public life is valid for virtual communities too. They are a transition area between a private life at home and a more public work life at the office. That these spaces provide individuals with the opportunity to relate to others in an informal setting underpins an understanding of one's role and the role of others in a community. Communities on the net fulfill Oldenberg's definitions in a myriad of ways. When the members of online community get together and share their thoughts and ideas they also use their individual and common knowledge to solve problems. A large portion of the success of Cheers was built on the community coming together to figure out the solution to the weekly challenge. As viewers we were allowed to look in on the interaction and laugh at the foibles or commiserate with the problems set before the actors each week. We learned that cooperation and sharing problem solving skills within appropriate parameters are the earmarks of vital communities.

All successful web based communities enable individuals to share common elements, provide means for personal growth and evolve collaborative problems solving techniques. Through various programs, the website owner can empower members to speak about corporate decisions which in turn strengthens the company's capacity to quickly address member identified needs. Discussion forums, chat boards, member staffed answer centers, blogs and groups all provide an interface integral to the collection of community reaction to changes in policies or direction. Via these means the members of virtual communities are encouraged to insist upon dialogue and command accountability.

Thoughts on web based communities.

I would like to share some of my thoughts and knowledge about building and managing successful on line communities. I worked for eBay for 9 years as a community development specialist and took part in the creation of eBay's unique community.

Special thanks to Claire, Jackie, Kelley and Katy for their exceptional knowledge and commitment to community and for their insight over the years.