Community 2.0: The Recipe for a Successful Online Community
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by Todd Anglin
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Theoretical Insight on Building Strong Communities

Beyond the practical examination of successful online communities, it is also important to look at what theoretical rules apply when seeking to build a strong community. Kathy Sierra, a prominent blogger on the cognitive “rules” that govern good communities (as seen on the “Creating Passionate Users” blog), has put forth 6 “rules” (or guidelines) for turning average users into passionate users:

1.    Encourage new users- especially active askers- to answer questions.

2.    Give tips on how to successfully answer questions.

3.    Tell newer users that it is okay to guess a little when answering, as long as they say they are guessing.

4.    Adopt a near zero-tolerance “Be Nice” policy when people answer questions.

5.    Teach and encourage advanced users how to correct a wrong answer while maintaining the original answer’s dignity.

6.    Re-examine your reward/levels strategy for your community.

Sierra’s rules are based on her experience as the founder of JavaRanch (a large Java community that sees over ¾ million users each month). Chief among her rules, though, is number four: Be Nice. Sierra believes that communities must adopt a culture of “Be Nice” if they ever hope to grow and bring new users into the fold. She paints the following picture of a users “journey” in a community.


Figure 1

Communities that succeed, in her opinion, learn how to engage new users quickly and transform them for “takers” to “givers” before they get lost in the intermediate void.

Danah Boyd, UC-Berkly PhD student and researcher at Yahoo! Research Berkley, offers some more advice in her speech delivered at O’Reilly’s ETech conference last year. In it, Boyd points out online communities are often built to invite “random collisions”- such as two people meeting due to similar photos posted to Flickr. But contrary to designers’ beliefs that these interactions are random, Boyd stresses that people interact because they have something in common and the online communities simply help people find those commonalities. A successful community must provide tools and interactions that enable people to make these discoveries if it is to flourish and grow.

Boyd also stresses a concept she calls embedded observation. Essentially, this idea says that it is important for community designers to exist within the community they are building. Communities are fluid and the best communities know how to recognize what users are doing (vs. what the designers “tell” users to do) and quickly respond with changes that support the observed behaviors. Boyd encourages community designers to design for re-interpretation instead of perfection and allow the passionate user community to refine how a site is used.

In short, do not count on building the perfect community site in version one. Do count on releasing versions two, three, four, and so on in rapid succession as you observe and interact with your community, refining the tools, recognition, and central focus of your site as you go.

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