Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Virtual Communities, Real People

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Oct 11, 2001

When you walk about in your community, going to the store, visiting the local pub, eating at a restaurant, it's not hard to notice that the people around you are real. You can see and hear them, sometimes smell them, sometimes, if you're polite (or a mugger) touch them. But when you interact with technology, it's harder to notice the people behind the tools. And quite often, you are at an extreme distance in space and time from, say, the person who tends the automatic teller, the person who fills the vending machine, or the operator on the telephone.

Our depictions of online interaction often tend to focus on the technical. After all, we are connecting to each other using a computer and a modem. The other person may be around the block or around the world. Often, their identities are hidden, their faces unseen. It has become the stuff of legend how your internet chat girlfriend turns out to be an overly large trucker from Des Moines. This distance is expressed in the terms we use for online communications: virtual reality, virtual communities, cyberspace. As opposed to, say, RL (Real Life).

It's an exaggeration, of course. Veterans of online communities - people like Cliff Figallo , former manager of the WELL and Salon's Table Talk, or Sherry Turkle, who wrote the definitive book on multi-user domains (MUDs), Life on the Screen - will tell you that interaction online can be as deep and as personal as life offline, sometimes more so as many of the barriers and inhibitions we carry with us in our community are dropped in the safety of the online environment.

The first rule of virtual community is this: you are dealing with real people. It's a rule that can be lost in the desire to provide flashy graphics, cutting edge navigation, or even to pursue community goals - goals such as, say, making money , raising awareness, or even teaching and learning. Whether it's my own OLDaily community, a news site like NewsTrolls, a programmers' site such as SlashDot, or a professional development site such as LearnScope, the first rule is that the services are directed toward real people, as near or as far as they may seem to be.

You'd think that would be a good thing. It's not. Even though critics of online learning have often decried the lack of the personal touch in the virtual world, you will find out very quickly that because the people at the other end of your website are very real, they will have very real reactions and very real problems. What's worse, it's not usually the sort of thing you can fix by running the site through a debugger. Software doesn't care about personal preference, and as for the people, well, they're almost impossible to reprogram. It takes rather more than a new Flash animation to satisfy the demands of real people with real needs.

The information architect's response to human needs is to run a usability study. The idea here is to sit people down in front of your web site, give them a task to complete, watch them as they fumble through your menus, and ask them to describe what their thinking as they work their way through the maze. Usability studies are enormously useful and serve to catch many errors, but if you read and follow Jakob Nielsen , the guru of usability, carefully, what you will find is that your site settles into a nice conservative green and blue colour scheme with a design that looks like it could be a Yahoo! clone.

This is because people want websites that are familiar, and Yahoo is the most familiar of the lot. Yahoo! has had a lot of time to conduct usability studies and they have settled on a simple, elegant, and useful design. The problem is, your website looks like Yahoo! It has nothing distinctive, it offers no reason for people to drop by. Indeed, Yahoo! Groups sites are probably the most successful community websites on the internet precisely because they offer the most user-friendly design of any similar online endeavour. yet even in Yahoo! Groups, there are dozens - even hundreds - of online communities that languish: these are the dysfunctional denizens of cyberspace, showing that even good design is not enough to create a successful online community.

In my own work I've worked in and designed a number of online communities. What I've found is that the technology is really a very small part of it. Indeed, people will struggle through bad technology in order to access a good community, while people will turn their noses up at even the best technology if they think the community is of little or no value. Consider, for example, my Guide to the Logical Fallacies. The site was created using 1995 technology. Hasn't been upgraded since 1995. Yet it continues to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors and it continues to win awards even into the year 2001. Over the years I have answered thousands of emails through the site on any number of logical and philosophical issues. It is used in dozens, maybe hundreds of logic, English and rhetoric courses around the world. Why?

I think that there are two reasons. First, the site is very narrowly focussed. It doesn't try to do too much; it merely tries to do what it does very well. So many of the emails I have received say something like, "I found exactly what I was looking for on your site." And the second reason is that I have answered every one of those thousands of emails personally, taking their enquiries to heart, providing the best (dare I say, most rational?) advice I can. People come to my fallacies site because they're looking for something specific, and they value it because of the personal touch.

In a more recent community that I've started developing - OLDaily - I've adopted some of the same principles. OLDaily isn't as popular as the logical fallacies site yet, though the number of users per day is almost up that of the other site. In OLDaily I am again trying to create a simple resource in a narrowly defined topic and I am again trying to provide the personal touch, both in the description of the resources I put online and in my answers to comments and enquiries.

OLDaily is growing much more rapidly than the fallacies site ever did because I have added some important components to it. Readers of OLDaily tend to be busy people, often professionals, who do not have time to leisurely browse a web site (by contrast, users of the Logical Fallacies site, although also busy, are searching for a specific resource). It is therefore necessary to send the site to the user, which I do by way of the email newsletter. OLDaily, unlike the fallacies site, also ties directly into chat and discussion forums. Oddly (because this is the inverse of normal experience), the chat area is busier than the discussion board. There is a simple explanation: it is easier to use. Instead of posting notes in the discussion area, people leave comments in the chat room.

That's the thing with real people. They will take the path of least resistance. Very often, if your online community is poorly designed and poorly managed, that path leads away from your site and toward the McDonalds of online life, Yahoo! Groups. People will take a more difficult road if they think they will reach a person at the other end, especially a person who cares and responds to their enquiries. But even there, people will take the shortest path, even to the point of using one service for another purpose.

Now I've talked about how to get people to the site but I haven't talked about how to get people to contribute. Every person who writes about online communities talks about how important user contributions are. Some - such as Howard Rheingold - say that the community should be owned by its members. This manifests itself in tangible strategies: users' contributions are encouraged and valued, for example. Yet still if we wander the web we find numerous communities all following there rules and yet which sit empty, or almost empty.

There are as many theories as to why this is the case as there are online communities. One suggestion given to me in the emails preceding this spruik is that people are not willing to share because they are competitive. Another theory - the one that most commentators talking about MuniMall , another community I designed and built, suggest - is that community members are too busy to comment. Another theory is that people are not comfortable enough yet to interact online, that they are uncomfortable with the technology. Some people even doubt that online communities can exist at all because it's just too much to expect people to add yet another level of society into their lives.

To all this I say: poppycock! I can point to dozens of very busy online communities off the top of my head, communities where the participants interact and contribute on a daily basis. Communities where the discussions, resource sharing and general good will exceed even the most popular community bulletin boards in the neighbourhood store. I am refering, of course, to mailing lists and email communication generally. According to IDC, an average of 10 billion emails are sent every day . Now granted, 8.7 billion of them are spam, but that still adds up to an awful lot of personal communication. It's not that people are not using the internet to communicate; what's happening is that they're not using virtual communities.

This leads to the second rule of virtual communities: make adding content to the community at least as easy as (if not easier than) sending an email. That's one of the reasons why Yahoo! Groups are so successful - you get a message in your email, you hit reply, and voila! Your message is posted to the site and sent to the other members of the group. To be successful, your online community must be at least this easy to use. Otherwise - and I can state this from first hand experience - people will simply send you an email rather than post a note to your site (ironically, in the case of OLDaily, it's easier to post to my chat room than it is to send an email...).

How to do that? Let me describe what I have planned for OLDaily. For those of you unfamiliar with the newsletter, it consists of a set of five to eight online resources sent by email every day. After each listing readers will be given three options - Refer, Research, Reflect. The 'refer' button allows a reader to send the resource to a friend. The 'Research' button takes them to a search page where the resource is analyzed and various avenues of research (e.g., by the same author, in the same publication, on the same topic) are offered. The 'Reflect' button generates reader contributions: it takes the reader to a very simple input form where they can type a short comment in less time than it takes to send an email.

This leads to one final rule of virtual communities. People won't comment if they have nothing to say (try it yourself: walk into a room full of people and say, "I'd like your comments now."). They need to be stimulated with ideas, opinions, questions or other nuggets of wisdom that will elicit a reaction (try it yourself: walk into a room full of people and say, "The current government is a bunch of wimps."). Putting something out there to which they can react is infinitly better than being bland.

So the third rule is: you - the community manager - are a real person too. Possibly the most important real person in the community. If you expect to elicit reaction, to stimulate debate and discussion, to encourage the sharing of resources, then you will have to (to some extent) wear your heart on your sleeve. You have to have (and express) a point of view. It has to be your point of view (people have long since been trained to shrug off corporate or government news releases). It doesn't have to be controversial (the controversy will come of its own accord, trust me), it merely has to be honest.

Too many virtual communities look like they were designed by the company information manager. The public position of the community is carefully, so as not to offend or to expose the company to criticism. In the presentation of resources, all points of view are taken into account and a carefully balanced selection is presented. The email newsletters - usually plain text or a comfortable blue and green - don't encourage a response and don't allow room for disagreement. Why would anybody interact in such an environment? What would you say? These communities and newsletters are not directed at real people: they're directed at stock brokers! (Just kidding).

I was asked in the emails preceding this spruik, "What makes a virtual community rock and roll!" My answer is: the same things that make real communities of real people rock and roll: people, colourful, opinionated, experienced, vocal and (sometimes even) vociferous people. Real people with real values and real beliefs. Remove the filters: have at them, and let them have at you back. It's not simply that this is the best way to create a virtual community. It's the only way to create a community. Any community.

I was also asked, "Will Virtual communities ever work?" From my own experience I can state unequivocally that they are already working. From lists like DEOS to Badbart to sites like Slashdot and even Salon to klatches like NewsTrolls and Free Republic to learning and information sites like WebReference and ZDNet they are working now. If your community is empty, it's not because of some particular trait of your community or because of some particular trait of your target audience, it's because you haven't beathed life into it, because you haven't given it a soul.

Oddly - though perhaps not surprisingly - that's the one thing we humans can do better than any software, the one thing that makes virtual communities fill with real people.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

Copyright 2024
Last Updated: Jul 19, 2024 6:21 p.m.

Canadian Flag Creative Commons License.