Developing Online Communities the Centred Way

All communities start with individuals. The individual is the core constituent and what everything revolves around (this is kinda what I tried to say in centred communication).

However, we frequently ignore this and IMO the number one problem that we have in designing and developing online communities is that we tend to try to develop communities around things other than people. Yes, communities must have an ‘object’ at the centre of them, a common area, but the people are more important. Think about yourself for example, you’ll have a vast array of interests, likes, hobbies etc. etc. but you would *never* end up being in a community for each and every one of those things… you might meet people in an ad hoc way who share similar interests, you might form friendships and develop communities around them but that’s far more likely *not* to happen.

So, when we try to develop a community round this and a community round that in our online environments we’re trying to do something artificial, yes people should be able to establish their own communities but through independent (and, dare I say subversive ;) means rather than automated action (i.e. “I like beer” – ping you’re in the beer community – not good). Successful communities need energy, participation and commitment… so if you have a lot of automatically generated communities without much fire in them then you start to get the broken window thing rolling.

So what I’m getting at in a very convoluted way is that ‘designed’ communities need to be focused, energized and purposeful. In the educational context there are many great examples of successful community ‘themes’ around, for example, research, discipline, faculty, politics etc. We shouldn’t over look these. Also, the communities we create need to be focused around individuals rather than separate from them.

I think that while intelligent aggregation to central areas through tools like tags has its purposes, far more valid is the capacity for ‘participation’ through blogs with these functioning as the absolute core representation of a person rather than just another application or resource.

From a users perspective I’d see people having a posting area / dashboard (similar to WP) where they are able to select (and suggest… once 5 people have suggested then it gets put up) global categories that they are then added too as a member and are able to post to by their blog. They are also able to visit that categories ‘aggregation’ page by clicking on the category name and grab a general category ‘feed’. Different social software tools operate using the same global categories database and are linked into the blogging backend. Stuff like Technorati etc. is just aggregated in.

The point is that the individual is always at the centre of the experience, nothing more is needed than to log in to his or her blog – which will hopefully also have an aggregator… that’s something Winer has always been spot on with – and then participate in (as an individual) or travel from there too the communities. The WP dashboard even has a real capacity for becoming a display of different communities within the blogging tool.

I had a great thought as I was going to sleep last night about how I was going to start the next presentation I’ve got coming up at ASCILITE… it’s going to be a few slides on how life exists at the bottom of oceans, under intense radioactivity, even, perhaps, on comets and in volcanoes. And community can exist in discussion boards, learning management systems, wikis and other third party abstract environments too.