Thoughts about Community
I've been doing a lot of thinking about Community lately. It has been an interest of mine for a few years, but now that I am in a development group that only makes tools and services geared towards the Community space, I have been doing even more thinking and research along those lines. A lot has been written about how to make online Communities successful as well as how to make them better. What I have read has more to do with the dynamics of online programming - scheduling and programming events and activities for people to engage in - rather than how, as designers, do we make better tools for people. I think the phenomenon of Napster is an example of a successful enabling tool - even if the record industry would like it to be otherwise. And other peer-to-peer tools will eventually follow along.
Some of the research mentioned by Peter Merholz - That Sneaky Exponential - Beyond Metcalfe's Law to the Power of Community Building and Why Group Forming Matters is extremely interesting to keep in mind as we design and build community tools.
Derek Powazek (designer of the Blogger site) is currently working on a book about Design for Community and is exploring such topics as Moderation and Computers as Intimacy devices as well as other topics. I will be interested to see what he proposes are best practices and techniques to move the role of designer forward.
There are several levels of community - chat, message boards, groups / clubs, photo albums, polls, homepages, listservs- devices and "places" that fall into the community category. They each build on the next and in essence require more and more personal contributions to be successful. The concept of publishing - one to one, one to many and many to many seems to be one of the key components of the community definitions. A person publishing a web page - or a blog - hopes that people come and read the page. Other than looking at site logs, how can you be sure you aren't publishing in a vacuum? At what point does it become a "Community"? When someone besides you read it? If more than ten people read it? If they come back more than once?
Transforming that single publishing experience into a place where others can also participate - message boards, listservs - seems to be the first step into gathering real online communities. There are conversations and engagements. These types of experiences have been around a lot longer than the web has - usenet groups,ICQ and chat spaces. The site NuBlog has some critical words to say about the fact that analysts are just now getting the concepts that have been around for awhile.
I would like to believe that the tools surfacing in peer-to-peer products and places like Plastic.com, take these spaces a level further with the conversations being rated by other members - thereby elevating some people and their thoughts above others. In the long run will this create too much exclusivity or is there currently too much noise in the space for people to find conversations of quality therefore validating the necessity of such tools. Do these rating tools really help elevate the content and keep the conversations high quality? Careful watching of these sites and exploring how scalable and flexible the concepts and technology are when applied to other types of sites will help prove whether these ideas are valid or worthy.
And where does chat fit in? - at AOL, chat is king. There are thousands of chats going at any one time. AIM and ICQ also contribute to the real time conversation phenomena with AIM and ICQ being more focused on talking with people you know rather than the unknown element in a random chat room. What types of tools can be built to make this experience better? Does it need to be better? I have mused on this in earlier writings and still have no answer - although I have done a lot more research and found some interesting places to visit. The MIT Sociable Media Group is exploring technology and visualization of chat and chat environments. But these postings and papers are almost two years old. What progress is being made? How are these ideas being applied in real world situations? How do we make them scalable? Maybe you can't. The Chat Circles project is a visual experience to chat with small clusters of conversations visualized by color and the size of the circles. I wondered before how this could be applied to chats with hundreds or more people. Back in the space of AOL I am reminded that chat rooms can only have 24 people in them before rolling over to a new room. This small number is ideal for a concept like the circles. But is it really needed? Can an idea like this succeed on a large commercial site? Is it intuitive enough and easy enough to use? The people who chat are used to the non-sequiter appearance of conversations and have managed to "get it" for a long time now. How much change can you make people take if eventually it helps and improves their overall experience?
My sister points me to a site run by Sara Diamond, an artist and discourse theorist and researcher. Code Zebra is an experiment into the chat space - initially geared towards bringing scientists and artists together in conversation, it also brings to the table the concept of conversations and personas taking on patterns based on what you talk about and who you talk to. The patterns shift and change and grow as you participate. It's all very theoretical, backed by the imaginings of an artist, but it is very interesting in that each person develops a unique pattern that grows and changes as they interact with others. This idea is compelling and worth watching. Imagine if you could take an abstract representation of yourself with you into diffferent conversations and that as you converse, the representation changes and shifts and grows.
So much about chat and message boards...Posted by erin at 11:14 PM | in Community