Community 2.0: The Recipe for a Successful Online Community
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by Todd Anglin
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Practical Look at Successful Communities

The best way to determine the ingredients of a successful community is to look at other communities that have proven success. When analyzing online communities, it is important to look at all of the factors that contribute to their success. No one feature in isolation can usually be credited as the feature that makes a community succeed. We will look at several of the largest and most successful online communities on the web today from a number of industries and analyze how each has managed to get thousands of people to actively contribute to the communities’ success.

Wikipedia

Arguably one of the most successful online communities ever created, Jimmy Wales’ Wikipedia knows a thing or two about getting a community actively involved. In September 2006, over 75,000 people worldwide contributed at least 5 times to the online encyclopedia and just shy of 10,000 people contributed at least 100 times in that month!

 

From a recent Time Magazine interview, Jimmy Wales responded to the following reader submitted question:

What drives people to contribute to Wikipedia? Altruism?
“No. It's realizing that doing intellectual things socially is a lot of fun—it makes sense. We don't plan on paying people, either, to contribute. People don't ask, "Gosh, why are all these people playing basketball for fun? Some people get paid a lot of money to do that."

The key in this statement is that contributing to a community requires social interaction to be fun. Communities that fail to provide a social outlet miss the ingredient that makes participation fun.

In a separate interview conducted by WorldChanging.com in 2005 entitled “Why Wikipedia Succeeds,” Jimmy Wales is quoted saying “people will collaborate with whatever tools they have. The thing that makes a thriving system is the project--the best tools in the world will not save a project whose people lack motivation, and most of what the system needs to do is get out of people’s way.” Clearly, Wikipedia’s success (at least in the opinion of its founder) is based on the ability to create a motivated community and provide them with tools that “just get out of the way.”

Unlike other community sites, Wikipedia does not make individual user accomplishments or stats central to the community’s success. While these numbers are available by digging through each user’s profile, there is no prominently featured “Top Users” list that contributors aspire to make. This is an interesting departure from the recognition model that most other successful communities seem to use (or used at some point in their growth, as we will see in our next example).

Digg

Created in December 2004, Digg.com is a popular example of the flourishing social bookmarking sites. With over 1 million registered users and over 5,000 “stories” (or links) submitted daily, Digg represents one of the most active communities on the Internet.

In Digg’s early days, a “Top Users” list existed to encourage people to submit content and to help new users find content from active submitters. Due to the site’s popularity though, this feature was removed since it had become the focus of Digg “gaming”- or users trying to get higher listing on the Top Users list by manipulating Digg’s ranking systems. Although the “Top Users” list has been removed, it is clear that the desire to be ranked highly on such a visible list was extremely motivating (for both good and bad behavior) and key to Digg’s early success.

Now Digg focuses more on fostering strong social communities within the large site. People connect on common interests by “digging” stories on related topics and adding people to their “Friends” list. Digg believes future growth will come from strong social communities that organically form around specific topics.

Experts Exchange

Experts Exchange claims to be the number one I/T Knowledge Sharing Community on the Internet. Built in 1996, EE sports over 220,000 registered users and over 15.5 million postings on previously answered questions. The site allows people to ask questions in any number of content areas and then awards points to the “expert” that answers the question correctly (up to 500 points per question). Experts answer questions for the self satisfaction of helping others and to rack up points that can eventually earn EE “certifications”- a type of trophy that signals an expert’s relative expertise in a specific content area.

Unlike Digg and Wikipedia, the reward of being visibly recognized on the site for your accomplishments is front and center at EE. It is very easy to browse the list of top EE experts, and individual question pages display lists of the top 12 experts in a content area. Also unlike other large communities, there is not a strong social system for facilitating friendships on EE. They do, however, provide extensive information in user profiles that help people find others interested in similar topics.

The site also has a special "skin" (or style) and tools specifically designed for experts (different from what unregistered or anonymous users see). The customizations for experts are designed to make it easy to quickly answer questions, track questions that are open, and interact with the site as quickly as possible (the expert skin removes most images from the site). EE has clearly embraced the concept of “tools that get out of the way,” in addition to a strong recognition program to build its community.

Official ASP.NET Forums

Recently, the official ASP.NET forums were revamped with a new community recognition system. The new system borrows a page from Experts Exchange and awards points to users for their contributions to the site. As users earn more points, their status on the site is elevated from “Member” to “Contributor” to (eventually) “All Star.” The status that each user has obtained is clearly displayed on each forum post, so answers from users with higher status rankings are generally respected among their peers as authoritative.

ASP.NET also features on their homepage a rotating list of top community members, top movers from the previous day, and a link to the “Hall of Fame” that shows top users overall. It is unclear how much this new program has helped increase activity in the ASP.NET forums, but the model has worked well on other sites for generating more involvement. People, especially people in I/T, are naturally competitive and they like to be recognized among the best by their peers. 

CSS Zen Garden

The CSS Zen Garden is large online “community” in which graphic artists submit custom CSS styles for a common HTML page. With over 950 submissions to date, the community is relatively small compared to others that have been examined so far. This can be attributed to two key factors: the site lacks good tools for adding submissions (Dave Shea, the project’s creator and curator, must manually add submissions to the gallery) and there are no tools for social interaction on the site (no comments, ratings, user profiles, or view/download stats). If Zen Garden followed some of the guidelines we have established in this research, it is likely the community and submissions could swell.

Nonetheless, CSS Zen Garden is a good case study in sites that ask users to create content and submit it. Despite its anemic community efforts, CSS Zen Garden remains a popular CSS resource on the Internet today and provides some level of expectation of how hard it is to get people to submit complex content (like custom CSS and graphic design work- highly relevant when looking at looking at efforts to build communities that ask users for more than quick comments).

If Zen Garden lacks good community features, why did over 900 designers submit? The project’s homepage makes it very clear: recognition. It encourages people to participate for “recognition, inspiration, and [to create] a resource… [for] making the case for CSS based design.” Again, recognition is used as a key motivator to get people to participate in the community.

The Code Project

The next community in our extensive study of online communities is also one of the largest. With almost four times as many registered users as Digg (nearly 4 million) and over 12,000 user submitted articles, The Code Project is an excellent example of a community that has managed to attract users and get them involved.

Not surprisingly, The Code Project implements our 3 keys to a successful community very well. It has a very strong recognition system that is similar to Experts Exchange and ASP.NET. As users submit more articles, they progress through different author status rankings, such as “Contributor,” “Writer,” and “Legend.” Even commenters (people who simply post comments on articles) get special recognition with a separate status system that recognizes their involvement. Furthermore, The Code Project has a number of “awards” (such as “The Code Project MVPs”) that are handed out by The Code Project staff to add another layer of recognition to the mix.

Users are clearly motivated to get involved for the recognition, but The Code Project does not stop there. They run a monthly competition for author’s to create the best article in different categories. The winner of each month’s competition gets a “swag pack” of donated goods from vendors often valued at over $1,500. Clearly, there is no shortage of recognition or motivation on The Code Project.

Recognition alone is not enough though, and The Code Project acknowledges this by providing equally strong socialization tools. All articles, interviews, and surveys can be commented on and all users can rate (on a scale of 1 to 5) the quality of an article. These conversations and rankings turn static articles and content into vibrant social interactions. The Code Project also features a “Lounge” for off-topic socialization, but unlike many forum “lounge” areas, The Code Project features its lounge on the homepage (along with featured content, latest updates, popular content, and a weekly poll). All of these social features, combined with homepage promotion, contribute to The Code Project’s massive popularity and success.

Facebook

Finally, we will round out our look at successful online communities by looking at a less "tech oriented" example. Facebook, the popular social networking site, has been all over the news lately and growing at an outstanding clip. Founded by the irreverent Mark Zuckerberg in 2004, Facebook has grown from almost 1 million active users in late 2004 to over 20 million active users in mid-2007. The growth and success of Facebook is shared by only the most popular of online communities, which makes them a great place to learn the do's and don’ts of successful community building.

Clearly, Facebook above all else has succeeded in implementing rule numero uno: create a strong sense of community. From its inception, Facebook has been centered on connecting small groups of users around a common central interest. Originally the common interest was users' schools, but in more recent months Facebook has enabled new interests- like employers, cities, and families- to join the fray. By capitalizing on the natural sense of community these interests generate in the "real world," Facebook avoided the pitfalls of other community sites that try to ambiguously connect everybody to everybody. Looking for these real world crossovers and focusing your communities around a common interest are good lessons to learn from the FB.

Facebook did not find its success without following the other observed rules of successful communities, though. To the contrary, they implemented a community system with tools that are very simple and easy to use. The system makes it very easy to find and add new friends, update personal information, and even send messages to your friends from within Facebook. Unlike My Space, Facebook did not allow users to customize every aspect of their page, but that simplicity and clean approach is what helped generate its appeal.

There is also a strong recognition system built in to Facebook. It is unique, though, in that the recognition does not hand out gold stars for actively contributing to the site. Instead, it automatically aggregates any activity you generate on your profile and announces to your friends that you have done something. This is not recognition in the traditional sense of thinking about rankings and titles, but the effect is the same. Individuals are being promoted on the site to many other people- in this case to people that might actually care- for being active in the community. Lesson: recognition does not have to include points or awards. Be creative.


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