Building engagement in (online) communities

November 8, 2006 | Leave a comment

I thought I’d throw out a quick link back to an old Internet is People post about how to build engagement in online communities for those of you who are getting started with your own social network for the first time. It isn’t just a case of throwing up your site (and of course, we can now do that bit for you); you’ve then got to get people in and make sure they come back.

Being an American citizen, I’ve been engrossed in the election shenanigans over the past little while. I’ll leave my political leanings professionally ambiguous (okay, no I won’t: yaaaay), but it’s been interesting watching the administration’s popularity slowly ebb away (yaaaay). This has relevance for us, and it’s worth watching: the US is a community too, except instead of sharing information and connecting to each other, the desired behaviour is presumably for the participants to pay taxes, be productive and try not to kill each other. Nonetheless, there are common principles at work, and it’s important to not make the same kinds of mistakes when governing our own.

Web 2.0 makes the web – and each individual community – into a democracy. Users will vote with their feet, so it’s important to give them what they want – not what you think they need. You might have an overriding principle of how things should be, and a desire to constrain your community into that pattern – but if your users don’t agree with that view or that desired behaviour, they won’t use your community. Or at least, they won’t use it in the way you’d like them to; it’s as simple as that. You either have to adapt quickly to the demands of your users, or give the whole thing up as a bad job.

The second thing is, you’ve got to lead by example. In the case of government, if you’re promoting high moral integrity while not showing the same moral fibre yourself, fewer and fewer people are going to follow you, and eventually you’re going to turn into a laughing stock. In the case of online communities, if you tell people to blog, connect to other people, upload content and so on, you have to do that yourself. Probably more so than anyone else, because you’re the leader of that community; people will look to you for advice, and they will look to you for pointers on how to behave. (Eventually there will be a large enough body of users to provide those pointers with less involvement from you, but to begin with, you’re it.) This happens in every type of society, whether online or not.

You also can’t be what I’ll call an info-bigot: there are going to be lots of different kinds of people sharing lots of different kinds of content, and you have to be tolerant of different viewpoints and ideas. It’s one thing to call out a spammer or someone being malicious; it’s quite another to call out someone whose opinions you don’t agree with. If people feel you aren’t being as democratic as you ought to be, they will, again, vote with their feet.

And finally, don’t assume anything. You’re going to spend a lot of time being involved in a community, and will therefore know it inside and out; but nobody coming to your site will share your knowledge. There’s going to have to be a lot of hand-holding involved, and you’d be wise to build that into your interface as much as you can.

These are lessons that we’ve learned through years of running Elgg.net and talking to people using Elgg as a platform more generally. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts and experiences of running online communities, both with Elgg and on other systems – eventually it might be a good idea to build up a common body of knowledge somewhere.

(Yaaaay.)

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