Much of my work these days focuses on building, deploying and managing online education communities in both the public and private sectors. As a result, I often get the question, “What makes a successful online community?” To which I typically reply, “Measuring the success of a community online is not that different than determining the success of offline communities”.
Think about the communities you’ve been a part of over the years—your family, your neighborhood, your high school sports or music team, the buddies you hang with at the local pub, the people you make pots with at the local ceramics studio, the parents you have coffee with after dropping your little ones off at school, the people sitting in the adjacent workspaces at the office… More often than not, you probably joined these communities due to a shared location or interest. But, what made them work? What made you a part of these communities?
A feeling of community in a face-to-face setting is often a result of time spent doing stuff together, shared experiences, high levels of comfort (the ability to let loose), many conversations, a shared purpose, and a continuous dialog to name a few. Focusing on online communities, the ingredients of a successful community are really not that different.
Community starts with Members that Participate!
In “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century,” Jenkins, et. al. (2009) take on the role of cultural anthropologists and try to make sense of the emerging and shifting cultural contexts that are being shaped as more in more people have access to digital tools that enable them not only to consume, but to create media and virtual communities as well. Critical to their analysis, is their definition of “participatory culture,” which they describe as one:
- With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement.
- With strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others.
- With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to the novices.
- Where members believe their contributions matter.
- Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at least they care what other people think about what they have created).
While their definition is meant to reflect digital communities, every single point above could equally be used to describe the culture of strong face-to-face communities. So, if you are thinking of creating an online community for your school, club or workplace, don’t let the “online” bit intimidate you. Instead, keep referencing what you know about what works in face-to-face communities as your inner compass.
Tips on Building Effective Online Communities
As you try to build community within your online community, here are a few tips for the road that build on Jenkins’s work:
- Keep the doors to participation wide open. —Pick a platform that is simple to understand and easy to use. Ning and Facebook are two out-of-the-box platforms that I have used again and again with continued success. If you are concerned that some members will not be comfortable with the ins and outs of the platform, create a simple 3-5 minute screen cast to show them how to use and benefit from your online community. (Here is a sample tutorial Mary made for an online community we created for the teachers in Ras al Khaimah, UAE).
- Communities have spoken and unspoken rules. Yours should too! —If you want people to participate in your online community, be explicit and invite them to do so. Then celebrate and highlight participation so that people realize that participation is encouraged and welcome. Consider posting “community rules” that focus on what to do, as opposed to what not to do. Ideally, have the community co-create the “rules”.
- Communities need leaders. —The most successful online communities I’ve seen have active community managers that “own” their communities. These managers welcome new people, contribute content (discussions, links, comments) relentlessly and generally enjoy being social online. They model good community participation.
- Give the community “stuff to do”—Recently I spoke at the Communia Conference on Open Education Resources in Istanbul. While I was there, I had the pleasure of sharing a few conversations with Professor James Boyle, author of the Public Domain. He said something to me that I will never forget, “Communities form around tasks”. So true. While some online communities are filled with people that just love putting content out there for the sake of it, most are not. Give your online community meaningful things to do—discussions to participate in, videos to reflect on, group projects to complete, company initiatives to create… Then make sure that those tasks are valued and used for a greater goal or purpose.
- Have your online community meet offline—Face-to-face bonds make online bonds all the stickier. As a case in point, think Facebook! Why do people spend hours looking at photos and silly comments from people they haven’t seen in 10 years?! Because at some point they had a face-to-face bond that meant something and they are curious to see what those people are up to or have become. Two years ago I attended a conference on e-learning best practices. At one of the sessions an online civil engineering professor discussed his university’s decade of experience with online degree programs in China. The first tip he gave everyone was, if you can have at least one face-to-face meeting from the onset, do it. The students will bond much faster online as a result. My experience building online communities in the US and Gulf has been the same.
For some examples of active online communities, take a look at the Global Education Collaborative (a space for educators interested in global education and collaborations), MuggleNet (a place where Harry Potter Fans share fan fiction) and ExpatWoman (a community of female expatriates within the UAE).
Okay, time for a Facebook break…
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(Image available under CC license by oseillo)