Do online communities work?

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Since the turn of the year I’ve been thinking a lot about online communities and let me just say, right here and now, they are bloody hard to get your head around. I’m pulling together a developer community website for my company, with technical information and knowledge sharing being the core aims. It’ll be used by customers, partners and our own internal staff (fingers crossed!).

The simplest part to digest is the technological aspects, as you can map your requirements directly and let that drive your choice of tool. You can make decisions based on feedback from prospective users and ultimately most tools can be made to do what you want (ohh didn’t I say, this is utopia where you get all the resources and time you need… ahem).

Content is another thing to consider, with both the creation and manipulation of content key to making sure your new website thrives. I’m planning ahead and hope to have a few articles that can be published at a regular rate and then see where it goes after that. I’m certainly hoping that it won’t solely be a push driven website.

Audience next, and luckily for me I’ve a fairly good idea of the scope of the audience. They’ll be technically minded, as it’s a developer community, and I’m going to be playing on that as much as I can. From the SUPA event I attended a few weeks back – – “some of the aspects of web 2.0 communities, and how providing ‘achievement motivation’ is a key method for enabling learning and helping build the ‘need for mastery’ “

At this point it becomes a little harder to predict what the community will want from a website. I’m happy to adapt plans and add new features if required but I need to make sure that, from the outset, there is enough ‘stuff’ to attract repeat visits to the website.

And this is the point where my train of thought leaps the rails as I veer from how to manage the new content (where is it created and stored? WHO creates it? who OWNS it?), how to manage the current/legacy content, how to enable the community, how to sustain activity, how to tie the website into our corporate presence, how to creates paths of information and support informal learning, how to allow sharing of ideas with a level of control (or none?) and on and on. It’s a very long list that grows every time I look at it.

Thankfully there are many good examples of online communities that work. However the one disadvantage we have is that the bulk of our audience (our own staff) already have resources they use for this type of interaction – internal mailing lists – and shifting them to the developer community will be a challenge.

Further reading:
The architecture of participation
Here comes everybody
Clay Shirky talks about his book, Here Comes Everybody (vid)
Interview: User participation and social networking (MP3)