Technology makes it incredibly easy to create online spaces where people can meet. Social networking has opened the door. You can create a community space in Facebook, Blogger, WordPress or a thousand other tools. You can do it with virtually no more technical skills than it takes to use Word, and you can do it within ten minutes.
Or, at least, you can create the infrastructure of your community that easily. It takes a little more work for people to move in.
Any addict of Sim City will know how easy it is to burn through your budget whilst creating retail parks and housing estates, marinas and power plants, but there is always the uneasy moment, as bankruptcy approaches, where you realise that nobody is moving in. The streets are empty and the park deserted.
Creating the space is the easy part. Creating the community, a dark art.
People are motivated to engage with and join a community for a variety of factors. I did some research a couple of years ago looking at how Photographers and Musicians used Facebook and MySpace to engage with their own communities. Some used it to ‘sell’ ideas and products, others used it in a more dynamic, two way process, as a creative sounding board, as a place to get feedback and new ideas and to share them with their audience.
In both cases, the community was transacting in ways that fulfilled the needs of all the members, but with different outcomes. To some extent, these outcomes were steered by the Mayor, by the figure who had established the space and steered the discussion. What was common in both cases was that the communities had grown rapidly, based on desires to engage with the creative process and to ‘sample the product’. In other words, there was a clear win for everyone. This is not always the case, particularly in corporate sponsored spaces, where there may be an element of direction t get people there.
The role of the Mayor (or the Moderator, or Champion), is important in any online learning community. The role is to structure the path of the discussion, although not to dictate the outcomes. Communities do not form themselves, although individuals may be highly motivated to participate, but it’s important to think about the different roles that people will take. As well as the Mayor, there tend to be a number of highly participative individuals. These may be subject matter experts or people with strong opinions, or simply the most technical capable individuals, but there are also a large number of silent witnesses. In some cases we see as few as 10% of the population participating and as much as 90% silent.
Finding ways of engaging with this silent majority is an interesting challenge.
The general rule of thumb is that ‘content is king’. In other words, if the content that is posted or generated by the community is high quality and engaging, then people will engage. If the content is poor quality, old, irregular or irrelevant, people will not engage, the community with wither.
With this in mind, from a planning point of view, it’s important to ‘prime’ the community. You need to ensure that, by whatever means, the community starts with some momentum, and this is a topic that we’ll return to in the future.
With so much choice, and so many competing demands for our time, we know that people will engage, but whether they will engage in our space is another matter.