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9 Timeless Principles For Building Community

Erecting The Social Scaffolding

By Amy Jo Kim

Web communities come in all shapes and sizes. Some are cozy and intimate; others are large and impersonal. Some are hidden behind firewalls; others are open to everyone. Some are extensions of real-world communities; others take place exclusively in cyberspace.

Regardless of how they start, all Web communities need "social scaffolding" to grow and thrive. Social scaffolding refers to those aspects of a site -- roles, rituals, features, events, leadership -- that facilitate community development. Much like a trellis enables an plant to grow, social scaffolding enables members to become progressively more involved in the community.

As Jonathan Steuer points out in "Tools for Building a Web Community," on page 44, the tools for community building are becoming easier to use and more widely available. Consequently, a growing number of online businesses are adding elements of community to their Web sites. But opening a chat room doesn't automatically launch a community, no more than purchasing land will automatically result in a beautiful garden. You have to know what you're trying to accomplish, sow the seeds at the right time, manage the growth, defend against attacks, and (most importantly) be prepared to improvise.

Most Web developers are familiar with the technical and design aspects of creating a great site. This article builds on that knowledge, and provides an overview of the social aspects of a thriving, successful Web community. The following nine design principles are drawn from my experiences designing Web communities for a wide variety of clients. These ideas can help you address the social issues you'll encounter as you create, build, and run your own Web community.

Define the Purpose

More than any other issue, successful Web communities are characterized by clarity of purpose. All too often, would-be community developers are distracted by flashy technologies and high-profile events, and forget to focus on delivering real value to their target audience.

The first step is to understand your audience. Who are they? What kinds of content, activities, and services do they want? It may be helpful to construct a few user scenarios, each of which takes an imaginary (but highly detailed) user through a typical visit to the community. These scenarios will help you think about the experience of becoming progressively more involved in the community -- as a visitor, a new member, a regular, a host, or a leader.

Once you've defined the target audience, it's time to write a mission statement for your community. A good mission statement articulates a clear purpose and vision, but is flexible enough to grow and change as needed. You'll probably want at least two versions of this document: an internal version that articulates the shared vision for the community-building team, and an external version that's intended for participants in the community. Third Age provides an external version in the form of a short catch-phrase on their home page that captures its focus, "The Web for Grownups," and then links to a more-descriptive mission statement deeper in the site.

Your mission statement can serve as a jumping-off point for developing the site's personality. Visitors will form initial impressions within the first few clicks. The look, naming scheme, and featured activities all work together to communicate the site's personality. For example, HotWired (see Figure 1) has a strong, identifiable site personality that says "edgy, intelligent, and techno-savvy."

The community's backstory can be a powerful way to shape members' expectations about the purpose and personality of the site. In filmmaking, the backstory is everything that happened before the first frame -- "Long ago, in a galaxy far far away..." A community backstory is the tale of how that community came into being. Telling this "creation myth" to newcomers is one of the key rituals of community building, so make sure there's something to tell. Over time, those who were once new members will tell this story to the next wave of newcomers, and your community will start to develop a shared sense of history, depth, and soul.

Create Distinct, Member-Extensible Gathering Places

All communities need a mixture of public and private gathering places. On the Web, these places needn't look like physical spaces; many rich communities have developed around mailing lists and bulletin boards. Whatever your underlying technology, it's best to launch with a few key gathering places, and allow members to extend the space according to their interests and needs. This is not, however, an excuse for uncontrolled, undifferentiated growth; members should earn the right to customize the environment by demonstrating appropriate behavior and ongoing commitment to the community. Otherwise, the overall quality of the community will suffer.

Distinct, clearly defined areas are especially helpful to newcomers who are just starting to find their way around. Larger sites sometimes have "neighborhoods" -- content and discussion areas that cluster around particular interests. This helps visitors quickly find the conversations and content that they're looking for. For example, Parent Soup (see Figure 2) has special sections for parents of newborns, toddlers, and teenagers, each of which contains content and conversations geared to the particular needs and interests of those groups.

It's also important to offer a bird's-eye view of the system (for example, a table of contents, terrain map, or site index) that shows the overall space and links directly to areas of interest. A more advanced option is to give members their own personalized map of the system. This is most useful after someone has gotten an initial overview of the terrain. For example, Yahoo! is organized around a hierarchical index of Web sites, but the related My Yahoo! Site allows members to create their own customized view.

Create Member Profiles that Evolve Over Time

A robust, evolving member database is possibly a Web community's most valuable asset. If handled with integrity, this collection of profiles will provide substantial benefits to both members and owners.

The first hurdle is getting people to register. Make clear to potential community members what their rights and responsibilities are, and let them know how their information will be used. One of the most annoying experiences on the Web is being asked to divulge sensitive personal information without a good reason. By explaining the membership situation, you'll be introducing trust into your community right from the start, and trust is a key ingredient in any thriving community. Both Cafˇ Utne and Third Age offer this kind of information to their members upon registration.

You can remove another barrier to entry by asking your members for minimal information at registration time (just name and email address), and then offering them the opportunity to create a progressively more detailed profile as their participation deepens. For example, it's easy to register on the Hotwired site. After that, you can create a personal profile by filling out a more detailed form. And you can go even further by entering the "Geek of the Week" contest which requires filling out an entry form.

Along with the current Geek winner, Hotwired displays the most recently edited member profiles, which encourages people to edit their profiles. Up-to-date member profiles add value and life to the community. Some types of information (length of membership, hosting status, skill levels, and so on) can be updated automatically by the system, and add even more currency to the profile. For example, TEN (an online gaming site) automatically updates and displays length of membership and game rankings in each member's profile; see Figure 3.

Promote Effective Leadership and Hosting

One of the most effective ways to increase the quality of a Web community is to populate it with well-trained hosts. There's a dramatic difference between a moderated conversation and an unmoderated free-for-all. Good hosts are invaluable; they welcome new members, keep discussions on-topic, and deal with troublemakers before they destroy the fun for everyone else. These skills require training and practice, but the results are worth the effort. For example, the WELL has an established and mature hosting program, with a hosting manual, hosts-only discussion areas, and an "uberhost" who offers guidance and support, and helps to diffuse particularly difficult situations.

In a flourishing online community, distinct subcommunities will often emerge. A different hosting style may be appropriate for each subcommunity, so build flexibility into the rules and regulations. On the WELL, the cultural norms between conferences differ vastly, and the hosting style varies accordingly. There are high-level guidelines for how to behave, but the "local flavor" of each conference is up to the host and the participants.

Volunteers often make the best hosts, because they're doing it for love, rather than money. Volunteers always appreciate being acknowledged for their leadership and commitment, so be on the lookout for ways to reward them. You can make your volunteers feel like privileged insiders by giving them perks like unique identity markers, special discounts, and advance notice of software releases. For example, Adobe runs technical support forums on AOL and CompuServe that are largely staffed by volunteers. These folks have their bios and photos posted on the Adobe site, and receive free software, product updates, and preferred entry into beta programs.

Define a Clear-Yet-Flexible Code of Conduct

Every community has its share of internal squabbling. If handled well, conflict keeps the community lively and interesting, and actively shapes the emerging culture. It's all too easy, however, for disagreements to spin out of control and tear a community apart.

Handling conflict can be difficult, emotionally draining, and highly contextual; what appears to be friendly, competitive banter to one person may be perceived as harassment by another. That's why it's crucial to establish community standards that describe acceptable and unacceptable conduct, and to empower the staff to enforce these standards. Although this may seem like overkill for a new system, it will quickly become apparent that this policy will save the system operators and the members a tremendous amount of time and grief. For example, Talk City makes sure that everyone who enters its chat rooms is aware of the community standards, which are clearly stated in plain English and consistently reinforced by the hosts.

It's also important to realize that stifling all conflict is not only impossible, but counterproductive. A lively community strikes a delicate, ever-changing balance between chaos and control. Conflict is the wellspring of change, growth, and cultural development, not to mention drama, controversy, and scandal, time-honored topics for juicy conversation. Hosts need to learn how to foster productive debate and allow people to let off steam, while keeping troublemakers from spoiling the fun for everyone.

Accommodate a Range of Roles

At any given time, a community includes people who are at different stages of the membership lifecycle. By definition, everyone starts out as a newbie; after that, people may become regulars, leaders, and even owners.

Addressing the needs of newcomers without alienating the regulars is an ongoing balancing act. Newcomers need a controlled experience, not only to help them feel comfortable, but also to minimize the "newbie annoyance factor" for the more experienced members. It's helpful to provide a "safe place" where newcomers can learn the ropes and ask questions without fear of ridicule. For example, both NetNoir and Talk City hold new-member orientation chat sessions, hosted by experienced staff members. Another approach is to offer a guided tour of the community, as Mplayer and Third Age do. Castle Infinity (see Figure 4) and Meridian 59 go even further by providing a safe, structured play area where new members can learn how to navigate the gaming environment before venturing into the public areas.

In addition to offering guidance to newcomers, a community needs to provide a variety of leadership opportunities for ongoing members. Any robust, thriving community has members with the time and interest to take on more responsibility. At Cafˇ Utne, for example, such members can "mentor" a newbie, host a topic, or even become a full-fledged member of the support staff. Always remember to recruit from within -- community members can make terrific job applicants, particularly for hosting, sysop and tech-support positions.

Regulars are the lifeblood of a community, and it's important to offer them a variety of ways to attain status and recognition within the community. You can reward regulars with increased access to system-level facilities -- persistent places, private events, customized mailing lists, hosted Web pages, and other advanced features.

Facilitate Member-Created Subgroups

A sure sign of a healthy, thriving community is the presence of member-created subgroups. Community builders can make their environment attractive to such groups by offering infrastructure, tools, guidelines, templates, and server space. Although this can turn into a substantial undertaking, making your site subgroup-friendly will drive lasting member loyalty, and help to distinguish your community from the competition. For example, Ultima Online has an established program for members to create and register their Guilds, and devotes a large section of its Web site to highlighting these groups. Third Age features member-created "clubs" that offer access to chat, discussions, and home-page building tools.

Events and contests can also be effective in solidifying group identity, recruiting new members, and keeping the ongoing members interested. If possible, give member-created groups within your community access to organizational tools such as calendars, mailing lists, galleries, and ranking systems. For example, Tripod has interest groups, called "pods," that are one of the fastest-growing areas within their Web community. Pods allow several levels of involvement: members (anyone who wants to join that pod), publishers (anyone who wants to have their Web pages included in the pod), and "Poderators" (leader of the Pod). Each week, a "Best of Pod" award is given to a Pod Publisher, and that person's URL is featured on the Pod's home page.

Communication features like buddy lists, private conferences, paging (instant messages), and member-created chat rooms can also help develop small-group dynamics. For example, on Mplayer, groups of Quake players, called "clans," meet in private rooms to plan their mayhem, and alert other clan members on the site using pagers and buddy lists.

Organize and Promote Cyclic Events

For many people, regular meetings are a familiar, time-tested ritual that they associate with community experiences, such as attending church, meeting with a support group, or participating in a sports league. Community organizers can leverage this association, and build up loyal followings through weekly, monthly, or even yearly gatherings. For example, Talk City hosts a wide variety of meetings, including several 12-step groups that have been meeting online for many months. This site also offers a flexible, searchable calendar of events, a must if your community has a large number of meetings and special events.

When planning your events, consider the existing habits of your target audience: With which professional and hobby groups are they affiliated? What TV shows do they tend to watch? At what hours are they typically free to log onto the site? You can start with educated guesses, and then refine your assumptions with feedback from your growing member base. For example, TEN, which has a devoted following of twenty-somethings, has hosted a highly successful late-night gaming tournament. By contrast, events on Parent Soup take place in the evening (after the kids are in bed), or during the day (while the kids are at school).

A different type of event is the periodic community survey. Ask a simple, relevant question that members can easily answer, and post the results. Doing this monthly, weekly, or even daily will help your evolving community to develop a coherent identity, and will further reinforce the sense of shared purpose. For example, the ZDNet community area offers a "Quick Poll" that changes regularly and is linked to an online discussion of the topic.

An important part of belonging to a community is having an audience for your accomplishments, a place where you can get feedback and appreciation as your skills evolve over time. Contests are a great way to do this, especially if the contest promotes a skill that reinforces the purpose of the community. HotWired's "Cool Geek of the Week" contest communicates the idea that status within this community can be gained by "being a cool geek." Geocities has a "Cool Homestead of the Day" contest for the best member-created home page, and Mplayer announces the Player of the Week on their home page, to reinforce the theme of multiplayer gaming.

Integrating with the Real World

The more time people spend in cyberspace, the more important it's becoming to integrate the online-community experience with the traditions and rituals of the real world. By reflecting seasonal changes, celebrating important holidays, and acknowledging personal transitions, you'll be laying the foundation for a true online culture.

A big part of community identity is shared holiday celebrations. Make sure to acknowledge holidays and events that are meaningful to your audience. Post background information about how those holidays came into being; provide helpful tips for dealing with the holiday; decorate your Web pages to reflect the celebration -- this helps to establish a shared context, and makes the community feel connected to the real world. And while you're celebrating holidays, don't forget to acknowledge the launch date of the community itself!

For some people, online relationships are best kept online. But many communities can be made stronger and deeper by encouraging people to meet each other in real life. Host regular gatherings in the relevant places; create special promotions that allow the winners to meet one another; create areas for members to announce local real-world events.

All Web communities offer their members a shared context within which people can develop personal relationships over time. Whether occasional, superficial, opportunistic, or romantic, these relationships are at the heart of any successful community development. Hopefully, the ideas discussed here will help your Web community grow and flourish.

Amy is founder and creative director of NAIMA, a design studio that has designed online environments for America Online, Fujitsu, Nickelodeon, Oracle, and Yahoo!, among others. She teaches Online Community Design at Stanford University and is the author of Secrets of Successful Web Communities, due shortly from Peachpit Press. Amy can be reached at

Copyright © 2003 CMP Media LLC