Saturday, April 27, 2013

The 4 Pillars of A Healthy Online Community

Whether we're reaching out to a specialized subject community or to a broad social network, we're looking to our contacts online for information, suggestion and recommendation all the time.

More of our lives is spent online in the communities we join and build, and more of our time is spent handling the issues that arise in these spaces. Communities exist on investing sites, shopping sites, health sites and entertainment sites. There is hardly anywhere online one can go where a community is not at least part of the equation.

The question then is - how do we build healthy online communities?

Defining Community vs Network

For the purposes of this article, I want to define how I am using the word "community" vs. "network." 

A "network" in this context is the web of contacts, acquaintances, friends and colleagues we acquire over time. These may be circumstantial - professional colleagues, coworkers, etc.;  or social - friends, relatives, acquaintances. Networks may be organic and/or intentional.

Communities are, for the purposes of this article, always intentional. A professional community may be an association, a personal community may be a group focused on a hobby or interest. Networks can grow without our specific intent to do so (a friend introducing us to another friend for example) but we seek out community with intention.

Groups on Facebook, subReddits, hashtags on Twitter and other smaller pockets of interest on larger platforms can function as communities, as well as focused lists, forums, sites and even whole social networks.

Online Communities are, therefore, groups of people we intentionally seek out in order to...what? 

People seek out community to gain/share/impart information.

The guy who tells you about this lunch on Twitter - he's imparting information. Not very relevant or targeted information, admittedly, but hey, there may be someone out there who cares that Taco Tuesday at the Taco Stand is outstanding. It might be noise to you, but it's signal to the guy who shared it.

So when we seek out community, we have the intention of finding folks who will share info that is more signal than noise - i.e., stuff we care about. This may be information of relevance to us professionally or personally, but the point is, we look for a "community" where this kind of information will be shared.  

When we join a community, we are all initially consumers of information. We might read FAQs, ask a few folks for their thoughts, read what is being said. We join to gain information.  We join as "consumers" of information. Over time, some people find themselves with the right experience or temperament to share or impart information. These people contribute information. (Contribution is sometimes rewarded with badges of achievement or rank.) Generally speaking, even new people can see that there is an upper class of users. These may be called senior members, power users (or the star-chamber cabal, depending on the level of resentment harbored by non-power users) and they will have both cognitive authority and be the object of resentment on even a healthy community.

Building a Healthy Community

Every community want to be a healthy community. Like our own bodies, there's a certain amount of health one can establish as a solid base on which to build. For a community, these include good moderation, inclusive policies, scalable architecture and a soupcon of humor when dealing with other humans. I.e., the hardware, the software and the humanware should be as flexible and scalable as possible.

On this base are Four Pillars that support the Community.

       Contributor                                             Contributor
Top-Down Communication
Peer Communication
    Peer Communication
 Bottom-Up Communication
        Consumer                                              Consumer

Consumers come into a community with a desire to know, learn or share.

Let's create a fictitious community called Labville, where high school students can discuss scientific experiments with other students and get prompts from older students and teachers.

Adam joins Labville first as a Consumer. He reads posts by Barb and Charlie, both students who have done the same experiment he's working on now. Adam asks a few questions, but mostly reads. He is a consumer involved in Bottom-up Communication. Once he's learned that Daniella is doing the same experiments and has similar ideas as he does, he starts to talk to her as a peer. Adam and Daniella are joined in their "Experiment Y" discussion by Eugene and Frieda. A peer group is forming between them and they generally don't reach outside of it unless they need help from Barb and Charlie. The groups now engages regularly in Peer-to-Peer Communication.

George arrives and he's...a problem. For whatever reason, he's taken a disliking to Adam and snipes constantly at his work. Whether Adam asks a question, replies to someone else  - and even though he generally avoids conversations where George is active - George goes out of his way to be rude to and about Adam.

Barb and Charlie, as Contributors, will try to hold the conversations on topic and maybe Harriet, a Labville Moderator, will step in.

These Contributors will shape the conversation through Top-Down Communication.  Because Labville is not a hobbyist community, but is focused around asymmetric relationships (people who know and people who want to know) Contributors contribute by answering questions, positing thought-provoking questions of their own and guiding and focusing conversation. Top-Down Communication serves to keep conversation moving forward, or restarts it after it stalls. One of the goals of Top-Down is to inspire Peer-to-Peer Conversation among Consumers by helping them over humps in their learning

George has been behaving, but after a few months, he's started up again. Barb and Charlie have both moved on as Contributors (as a natural part of the Community Lifecycle,) but Ike and Justine are now very active Contributors. As Moderator, Harriet needs a private place to warn them about George and ask them to let her know if there are issues. The Contributors need a space for Peer-to-Peer Communication of their own, to foster best community practices, share critical operating information, training materials and provide a space for them to discuss the Consumers who might serve the community well as Contributors or even Moderators.

Peer-to-Peer Communication at both Consumer and Contributor levels fosters teamwork (and cliques.) Top-Down Communication provides a steady hand at the rudder and Bottom-Up Communication means there's opportunities for Consumers to learn and grow in the community.

These four pillars, standing on a foundation of good community practices, will be stable enough and strong enough to support a healthy, sustainable community for a long lifecycle.
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