Tag Archives: virtual community

Online community in NTEN-Discuss? Part 2

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.

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.

Week 1: what is an online community?

The thing that has been troubling me as I grapple with a definition of online community is the bits that are missing (or not immediately obvious) compared with face-to-face community. I’ve been taking my existing definition of community (which I’m remixing on the hoof and without reference to any texts) and comparing it to what I see online.

Before I start I’ve got say that community is a loaded term. Often a discrete geographic area is labelled a community by someone in authority – but on the ground there isn’t actually a community. Few of the critical elements of community life are present (about which I’m about to list). There are also assumptions about there being a singular ‘community’ with ‘community leaders’, often self-appointed, rather than multiple communities with organic power distribution.

In my rough whiteboard notes, here’s what I see as the characteristics of community:

  1. social norms, shared beliefs and values (eg fairness, reciprocity, love, tolerance)
  2. systems for transmitting values (eg lore, law, education, myths, art)
  3. methods for monitoring adherence to values
  4. systems for investigating and applying sanctions for breaches of social norms (eg courts, tribunals, obudsman, complaints procedures), including opportunities for redress (eg right appeal)
  5. methods for distributing resources to enable participation.

Of these characteristics I can easily see the first four in online communities. Chromatic writes in his article “Building Online Communities” (21 Oct 2002) about the dynamics of setting rules, methods for resolving disputes after inevitable spats and frictions, and loss of face or reputation. Into this neat system dive able and willing members.

Mark Pesce is far more mysterious when it comes to framing community (see “This, That and the Other” 27 September 2008). He implies that in community people know each and are capable of productive joint action. Disillusioned with mere mobs or crowds, who wait for someone else to do things for them, Pesce clearly believes communities can achieve great things.

The oil that greases the wheel – resources to enable active participation – is seldom talked about. When barriers to participation emerge, in whatever shape these may arise, is help available to overcome them?

Online it isn’t easy to find evidence of people sharing resources to help someone else who wouldn’t otherwise be able to join in by paying the power bill and ISP charges for them to stay connected. Or help put food on the table. Scarce time may not be available to both work to earn a living, and allow time to meaningfully participate in an online community.

Would online community members be willing to take steps outside of the community to help someone out? Send a cheque? Make a sacrifice with some future expectation without immediate reciprocity?

The degree to which relations extend beyond the confines of a particular community space with people sharing resources in the real world is a sign of a healthy community.

This relies people connecting and staying in touch one-to-one, in addition to any interaction within an online community space. When bonds and friendship build then people will go to some lengths to help one another. This means members must feel comfortable asking for help and acknowledging problems. It’s also important for people to be able to ask who is missing from the conversation, and what will it take to get them on board.

I found an illusion to this sort of thing happening when I read Nancy White’s recent post about how she uses social media (4 August 2009). She talks about how “online relationships can be real, how they get real, and how they break and fail.”

If communities are merely well ordered places where people talk nicely with agreed rules, that seems to me to be a bit weak. What is often missing are both the means and motivation to contribute resources to move a community from offering just an opportunity to participate to actually providing practical help for people to join in.

[Find out about the Facilitating Online course I’m participating in, see my FO09 page.]

91 insightful seconds about online community

If you’ve got a spare 1 minute 31 seconds take a look at this short video from Nancy White. Logoactivo sums it up in his comment: “That´s great advice: “getting good at asking questions”. Incredible, in less than 5 seconds she´s made it clearer than any 2 hour social media conference!”

Pithy, to the point. Why say anything more.

Though if you do want more, interviewer Robin Good introduces the video in a post about “Online Community Building Strategy: Good Advice from Nancy White”. He interviewed Nancy in his home town of Rome where Robin runs Ikonos New Media.

(BTW: I’ve been following Nancy’s work since meeting she visit Wellington last year, see my post “Dags and dingleberries”, 24 August 2008.)

Moving on from CommunityCentral

New CommunityCentral website banner

As I gaze out my home office window (which I do in exceedingly rare moments when I’m day dreaming turning over thorny ideas) I can see a kowhai gently bending with the breeze. The plant is a farewell gift from the partners behind CommunityCentral.  My paid role Project Manager came to an end last week after over 18 months involvement.

In the week of my departure we released two much awaited features: Private workspaces and Discussion networks. The features are set up to allow people to use a secure online spaces to support their work, learning and conversations. They’re in part about productivity, and part building connections.

If you login in you’ll see there are already people using these spaces. For instance, Tracy Kenyon, of Presbyterian Support Northern, has set up a Discussion network to link volunteer managers and coordinators. Her aim is to build up online community. You’ll see the names of Private workspaces, but that’s about all as these are for committees or project teams. They’re very much about internal workings of organisations.

In the latter half of the project my role was primarily focused on software development and setting up internal processes. My head was truly under the hood of Drupal as we endeavoured to wrestle the generic organic groups modules into something we felt would work for community and voluntary sector audiences. There also some cosmetic changes are well – in evidence in the banner above.

There is more to do, and likely a few rough edges here and there. We established a firm policy of being open to feedback. A suggestions forum has been added to the About section as a one way of collecting members’ comments and ideas for new features.

The project is now switching focus. As it says in the latest edition of the email update:

… attention is now turning to helping all members make good use of the platform, and telling lots more people about what is available. So, now is the time to spread the word!

I got an enormous amount out of working with a diverse group of people to turn the idea of community hub into a nascent community. Although it seems pretty obvious, I’m a signed up member of the supporters crew. It’ll be hard to forget, especially with a kowhai waving to me outside the window.