After talking to both Ian Runeckles and Gavin Clabaugh, members of the NTEN-Discuss online group, I really started thinking about the importance of ‘context’ to an online community.
Rather than concentrate on the current incarnation of the group, both Ian and Gavin talked about where it all started. The current group has it’s origins in meetings between IT advisors working with not-for-profit organisations which started being run in the 1990s. The circuit rider network included face-to-face meetings as well as a mailing list (which continues to this day, even if largely supplanted by NTEN-Discuss).
Face-to-face gatherings have grown in scale, with about 1,400 people attending the last annual NTC meet-up in April 2009. There are also dozens of small local chapters where people meeting in person regularly. Access to a member directory means any of NTEN’s 6,000 plus members can get in touch directly with others. Both the numbers involved and the many years events have been held over means during the life of both NTEN-Discuss and its antecedents many people have actually had contact with one another face-to-face.
Unless there is some form of annual refresh cycle, Gavin says he sees many groups die out over time so he firmly believes meeting face-to-face is necessary to “rekindle the essential human elements”.
As well as the offline meetings, people can interact with each other online in different ways, including attending regular webinars, contributing to multi-author blogs, and by adding material to shared resources in libraries, notepads, etc.
The discussion forum definitely doesn’t stand alone.
The official NTEN-Discuss moderators have light touch within the forum. Ian said he couldn’t see how additional facilitation services would benefit the group. By continually feeding discussion and setting the general atmosphere, the current facilitation approach kept things working.
Gavin was also sceptical about the need for more active facilitation. He says this was tried in the past with mixed success. And he points toward the nature of the group as not requiring more active input.
I am not sure the topics (remember that magic ingredient above — a clear focus and purpose and a shared set of goals and beliefs) would actually lend themselves to more active facilitation. The discussions are usually queries for information or referral. I often characterize NTEN Discuss as a giant random access knowledge management system: I can ask it a question and it coughs and sputters and (sometimes) shoots out an answer. The topics are relatively mundane and wouldn’t lend themselves to facilitation — at least I can’t think how.
A large volume of active contributors can actually undermine a forum. There is a sense that there is a natural equilibrium or balance for people to sustain their attention. Gavin suggested 200 was the maximum number of active and semi-active participants as with any more things go bonkers and people can’t handle a discussion with more than this number. A specific number wasn’t mentioned by Ian, but he sees a ratio of active to inactive participants as constant across all forums regardless of the total number of members.
Understanding the wider world in which NTEN-Discuss inhabits helped me reach the conclusion that more active facilitation is probably unnecessary. I wonder how this insight informs other discussion forums?
Thanks to Ian and Gavin for taking the time to share some history and thoughts.
BTW: This post is the second of a two part assignment exploring whether the NTEN-Discuss forum might benefit from more active facilitation of some sort. See part 1 and more details about the Facilitating Online course.