Does community exist in the NTEN-Discuss forum? Part 1

Each NTEN forum has a map of where members are based.

Each NTEN forum has a map of where members are based.

I was heading to the library self issue machine with a couple of items under my arm – one book on parenting, the other a computer magazine – when I stumbled on “Managing Online Forums” by Patrick O’Keefe.

There’s a whole wad of advice in the tome. O’Keefe promises to “show site owners and administrators how to create a safe and entertaining community that users will return to again and again”. It’s based on O’Keefe’s practical experience moderating forums and running something called the iFroggy Network, plus other forums he owns.

The book is listed as an extra resource for the current blogging assignment in the #FO09 course I’ve joined in. We’re looking for online community in discussion forums. Does it exist?

If my practices are anything to go by, I really do wonder. I tend to randomly visit forums and mostly only when I need something, rather than visiting on a regular basis. Although many forums require me to join, it’s such a low threshold to overcome: giving away my email address and agreeing to terms and conditions isn’t onerous. I don’t really feel bound to the forum ‘community’ just by signing up. Without a prod or peer pressure, it’s easy to slip in but not necessarily join geared up to participate.

I notice there are very active discussion forums around. Just take a look at on TradeMe and ones run newspapers like “Your Views” the NZ Herald or “Comment is free” at the Guardian: they’re incredibly vibrant. Some niche forums also thrive, such as the Black Dog Message board – set up “for people living with depression and other mental illnesses”.

Of all the forums I dip into I’ll talk a little bit about the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) member only “NTEN-Discuss” affinity groups. It’s one of the most regularly used of the 120 affinity groups set up by members. When I wrote 1,325 people were signed up, out of a total of a 5,996 NTEN members. Each affinity group has a blog, news feed, wiki and library, as well as a discussion forum. You can read posts online or contribute via email.

The beauty of the system NTEN use – for the technically minded it’s a social media enterprise platform offered by GoLightly – is the amount of choice I’ve got as a member: I reveal my address or not, let people see my profile and even add my location to a map. The setting for the group are very easy to see, and you can contact the moderators from any page.

There’s a fair amount of activity in the forum. Nearly 4000 posts in the archive, since the new and improved NTEN-Discuss forum was launched in September 2006.

The things I notice about the forum include:

  • Friendly conversational language, but it’s by no means bland as people forcefully express their views at times
  • Members have a visible presence, mainly through their avatars with anyone new to the group highlighted on the main page
  • Any conflict (if there is any) seems to be handled by members themselves, with very little visible intervention by moderators
  • A simple count of the number of posts made by each member gives some idea of peoples online reputations
  • The terms of use are easy to find, though there are not groundrules for this particular forum
  • A clear, though very general common purpose for the group is adhered to by members.

This list includes most of the things I’d expect in an online community: common interests or aims, rules and guidelines of some sort, adjudication if people misbehave and a means to have a social presence, and most importantly active participation. It’s a very comfortable place to be, with all the characteristics of an online community I’d suggest.

Looking at “Managing online forums” to see if any light is shone onto the presence of community I don’t find a lot of help. O’Keefe does not seem too interested in helping readers identify whether community exists in their particular forum. Instead he’s offering a step-by-step guide to ‘managing’ community. Facilitation doesn’t seem to come into, merely enforcement of rules.

My next step is to talk to a member of the forum about their opinions whether the forum might benefit from more active facilitation of some sort. I’m also interested to see what they say about whether there is a pulse, a lifeblood. I’ll report back soon.

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7 thoughts on “Does community exist in the NTEN-Discuss forum? Part 1

  1. Patrick

    Hello Mr. Blyth,

    This is Patrick O’Keefe. Thank you for picking up my book. I appreciate it and you sharing your thoughts here. In reading your post, I had some thoughts I wanted to share.

    Regarding the first part (the part not related to my book), I think the important thing to remember is that we’re all different. Some people prefer the interaction they receive on MySpace or Facebook, some people prefer their favorite forums, some people like both or some other mix. This is all good – there is no bad. I was just having a conversation with a member of one of the communities that I run where we function, in part at least, on a support basis.

    The member noted that we had a good number of members who came to get help and then didn’t post again. This is a natural part of running a community like this. You have a lot of people who are looking for a specific thing and once they get it, they are on their way. This is perfectly fine and is a part of the site. We then have a number of regulars who visit and are a part of the foundation of the community. But there are different levels of users getting what they want out of the site – and that is the key, what they want. I wouldn’t want people to participate in my community due to “peer pressure.” Sure, there are things you can do to encourage registration and participation, but there will always be a group who is looking for a specific thing and, once they get it, they go back to their happy life. 🙂

    I am sorry that my book didn’t deliver what you were looking for. My book isn’t so much meant to help people identify if community exists, but to help them manage and cultivate the community that they have or plan to have. It is a management book, written from the perspective of someone who is responsible for the community. It’s a lot more than merely enforcement of rules, though, and facilitation is a big part of it, but it’s also a big word that can have different meanings to different people – I am somewhat unclear on your usage of it. I wrote everything that I’ve had to deal with over the last 9 years of managing my online communities – from setting up a community and encouraging activity to managing staff and members, to dealing with troublemakers, with some promotion and monetization discussion, as well.

    Since the book did not provide the information you were looking for, I’d be happy to offer you my opinion or thoughts on any community related topic. Please don’t hesitate to ask here or via e-mail at patrick@ifroggy.com.

    I appreciate your time and thank you again for picking up the book.

    Sincerely,

    Patrick

    Reply
  2. Stephen Blyth

    Hi Patrick.
    Thanks for your comments and offer of further advice. Looking back at my hasty words it was perhaps unfair of me to offer a critique about what you didn’t do. I would have been on safer ground talking about what you offer, ie the enormous number of things you to need to think about running online forums.

    Your comment has prompted me to look in depth at your book.

    By the end of the course I’m hoping to be clear about my definition of facilitation, compared with moderation and forum administration, and where things blur.

    Stephen

    Reply
  3. Patrick

    Hello Mr. Blyth,

    Thank you for the reply. I appreciate it.

    It’s my pleasure to offer further advice, I’d love to talk with you. I’m really glad to hear that you will be taking another look at the book. I look forward to hearing any further thoughts that you have.

    Best of luck with your course and, again, if I can be of any help, please don’t hesitate to ask.

    Thanks,

    Patrick

    Reply
  4. sarah stewart

    Stephen, just a couple of quick questions. Does the forum/email groups have to be ‘communities’ – can they be networks & still function informatively? How do we as facilitators function in forums that are more networks than community?

    Reply
  5. Nancy White

    I think exploring the distinctions (and blurriness) between communities (which is for me by definition a bounded group with a shared interest or intent who interact together over time) is really important because both the design, facilitation and technology considerations can be quite different.

    More importantly, the way community often “nests” inside of networks has been very important in my work. I wonder if that shows up for y’all?

    Reply
  6. Sarah Stewart

    I like that idea of communities ‘nesting’ inside networks, Nancy. To be honest, I don’t think we’ve teased out enough of what a community is compared to a network…so thanks for that clarification, Nancy 🙂

    Reply

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