Directors' blog

Links, thoughts and updates from the directors of Dim Sum Digital.

(Not) Building online communities


At the risk of this sounding like the start of one of those jokes that includes mother-in-laws or bottoms – it’s been a funny old week and that’s the only way to sum it up.

Having just signed a contract to act as a consultant for something called SHAPE, my every evening and weekend hour is being spent carrying out research in readiness for a couple of days activity at the NATO Public Affairs Conference in October.

I shall be joining Charlie Beckett,  author of the amazing sounding  SuperMedia – Saving Journalism So It Can Save The World, who is giving a presentation on “Adapting Communications to Changes in Journalism brought about by the rise of New Media” as well as Randy Covington, Director of IFRA Newsplex Training Centre USA, who is speaking on “World Wide Trends in News and Strategic Communications”.

As well as leading a discussion on “Official Blogging in a Conservative Organization” (their z!) I’ve also started work on a presentation which was initially called “Creating and sustaining online communities” but will now probably be ”Online communities: A social world”.

The reason for the change has come about as I prepare materials – having been involved in online communities for many years now I’m just not convinced they can be “created”.

It makes it sound as if they’re built or constructed by some official providor of such things – perhaps in the manner of a town planning exercise, a sort of “build it and they will come approach!”.

Idea seems to be that you can build the online equivalent of shiny new structures and people will pick up their belongings and move in wholesale.

(Perhaps the legacy of empty apartment blocks across our northern cities reavels the flaws in this type of thinking without any further explanation.)

But I do know what people are getting at when they use these terms, after all news organisations, companies, institutions all want to engage better with their potential audiences, customers, clients or citizens.

But how will creating a special structure to which they are expected to invest their time, money or interest achieve that?

 So my curent thinking in terms of this preperation is to look at the successful online communities and consider how they achieved their success in order to learn more.

Using case studies with the youtubes and Facebooks of the world and then drilling down further to understand how people communicate and interact as well as the sort of tools they employ to do this activity.

I’m sure they will have many common elements – ease of use has to be the number one but what other elements make for an engaging online community? If you consider that you belong to such a thing I would love to hear why you “joined”, or is it more the case that the platform you engage with actually provides you with a service, something which enables you?

According to this long posting on the Encyclopedia of Informal Education, three linked qualities appear with some regularity in discussions of communal life:

Tolerance – an openness to others; curiosity; perhaps even respect, a willingness to listen and learn (Walzer 1997: 11). 

Reciprocity – Putnam (2000) describes generalized reciprocity thus: ‘I’ll do this for you now, without expecting anything immediately in return, and perhaps without even knowing you, confident that down the road you or someone else will return the favour’. In the short run there is altruism, in the long run self-interest.

Trust – the confident expectation that people, institutions and things will act in a consistent, honest and appropriate way (or more accurately, ‘trustworthiness’ – reliability) is essential if communities are to flourish. Closely linked to norms of reciprocity and networks of civic engagement (Putnam 1993; Coleman 1990), social trust – trust in other people – allows people to cooperate and to develop. Trusting others does not entail us suspending our critical judgment – some people will be worthy of trust, some will not. 

Realise this post has turned into a bit of a braindump! I find it a truly is a fascinating topic, and as it all becomes more concrete, I will update.

Written by sarahhartley

September 20th, 2008 at 2:26 pm

3 Responses to '(Not) Building online communities'

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  1. >> but what other elements make for an engaging online community?

    The ease with which I can extract my content from a service, either as a whole or as threads of information I can weave into destinations elsewhere.


    20 Sep 08 at 3:01 pm

  2. Hi Sarah,
    Thank goodness you are coming – it sounds like you actually know what you are talking about! I agree with most of what you say in this post. But I do think you can build the structures for communities – it’s just that they will only work if people come. In a way that has always been true of news media. Papers or programmes that didn’t offer a service and didn’t understand their audience failed.
    see you in Lisbon,

    Charlie Beckett

    20 Sep 08 at 7:27 pm

  3. Charlie raises an interesting point – if you build it…
    While it is true you can not build a community, there is no guarantee that a framework will be utilised either.

    And here’s another a purposefully provacative question (to which I don’t know the answer): did news media get away with being the service for the community as they were the only show in town?

    Can the media change what it does, to become that kind of service again – or does the traditional media become just one of the tools in the new personal media environment? Which echoes what Craig says above, any community we build should be as inclusive and interoperable with other communities as possible.

    Another issue is if people do come, what are the policies for dealing with the trolls etc and at which point does the creator/moderator start to move back and let the community set its own rules? Whose community is it anyway, the media organisations/governments/councils etc or those who are members.

    Look forward to hearing the results on this one, you should have an interesting time.


    20 Sep 08 at 8:47 pm

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