Sunday, November 2, 2008

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.

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