Saturday, November 1, 2008

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.

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