[OReilly] Seven Golden Rules for Building Community

Date view Thread view Subject view Author view

From: Adam Rifkin (Adam@KnowNow.Com)
Date: Wed Oct 11 2000 - 04:11:59 PDT


Seven Golden Rules for Building Community
By Stephen R. Figgins

I do not believe it is possible to create community. Rather, community is
something that happens… It happens only in an environment of freedom and
openness ... honesty and tolerance. Community happens when people care
about one another and when they are willing to take responsibility for
themselves as well as for each other.
- From University of Berkeley Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl's 1998 inaugural
address. (http://www.chance.berkeley.edu/cio/chancellor/sp/inaug.html)

Community is built indirectly. You cannot force it into existence. It only
emerges when the right elements are in place. Put those elements in place,
and community may emerge. If you are missing those elements, community will
elude you. Empty discussion rooms lie about like ghost towns, silent
testaments to how tricky it can be to build and maintain an online
community. Understanding the economics of community and these seven golden
rules will help you avoid a similar fate.

Let's start with a concrete definition to clarify what we mean by community.

Community: the self identified members of a support economy.

You need interaction to build a support economy. Interaction online happens
through conversation, on message boards or in chat rooms. A group that
continues to interact may, over time, form relationships and bonds of trust
that lead to exchanges of support. That support brings value back to its
members, and to you, their host. This ongoing giving and receiving of
support is the support economy that turns a group of people who share an
affinity into a strong community to which its members feel they belong.

Any economy, whether based on currency or support, depends on openness,
freedom, honesty, trust, and tolerance. This is why business relationships
are so important. If you don't treat your customers and business partners
right, you are going to be out of business. A support economy depends on
these elements even more, because what is being traded is much more
personal and much more intangible. Community emerges within this context of
exchange. It emerges in an atmosphere of trust.

You cannot build community directly. You can, however, encourage the
environment in which community happens. These golden rules will help you
build and safeguard a strong and supportive community.

1) Plan it first.

You need a detailed vision of what you are building, what you expect from
it, and what its members can expect from joining it. Your plan should
include your focus, the style of the community you want to build, and the
rules or terms of service under which you will be hosting the community. It
is important that you have a clear vision before you begin building your
site. Write out your vision, share it with others.

To build this vision, start with a focus.

Focus: Competition on the Internet is fierce. Your members will need some
shared affinity to draw them together. Maybe that affinity is the use of
your product, and you want to build a support community. Maybe it is
something that supports the larger purpose of your business, or maybe it is
just something that interests you intensely. Whatever it is, it will define
your audience.

Style: To understand your own place in the community, you should know the
style of your proposed community. Will you take a leading role providing
the topics for discussion and guiding the community, or will you be sitting
back and counting on people to talk about what interests them? In his book,
Hosting Web Communities, Cliff Figallo describes these two styles as the
Theater and the Café. In the Theater, you provide content and the community
discusses that content. In the Café, the topic could be anything. It isn't
an either/or situation, you might be somewhere in between these. Knowing
your style does make some difference in your planning. If you are running a
theater, you will need to put in a lot more effort and be more careful
about stepping on people's toes who came expecting a greater freedom. This
brings us to…

Rules: You had better put some thought to them. How much responsibility are
you taking for the content on the site? In this litigious society you might
want some disclaimers. Your discussion members also need to know what is
okay and what isn't okay. What are your terms of service? When might posts
be deleted? When might you remove a member from your site? The more up
front you are with your rules, the fewer problems you will have down the
line. Nail them down. Write them up and display them in an accessible place
on your site.

2) Grow incrementally.

Imagine you are out on the town and you want some good conversation. Across
the street you see a café. It has a flashy front and looks lovely, but
inside you find it deserted. You probably walk on by. Down the road you
come across a happening place. It looks like a dive, but the people inside
are having a great time. That's the place you are going to want to be. A
happening place is better than a pretty front.

You want to safeguard your vision, and you want to build a welcoming site.
The way to do that is to start with a core group of people who understand
and share your vision. Invite them to “warm the room up by entering some
discussion topics and replies on your site”. This will do three things: 1)
give the room a lived in look when it goes public, 2) allow you to
establish a tone and style of post; and 3) give you a chance to test things
out and make sure they are working well. Once the room is warmed up, invite
a few more people in. Build it in stages. If new people come too fast then
all that good work you put into setting the tone of the room will come
undone. You may be eager for mass appeal, but don't let the room run away
from you. Let people get the hang of the room and get a sense of the
vision, then add more.

3) Use it.

As your growing group grows more experienced online, you will find rough
spots in your initial vision and rules. Your early users will let you know
as they chafe against them. You must react to that, and where warranted,
adjust things. Show that you take their feedback seriously. Your community
will help guide the direction of your site just as you helped guide the
development of the community with your vision. Together you will build
something better. If the community is related to your business, get your
employees using it too. This will help strengthen your ties to the community.

Maybe having your employees involved scares you. What if an employee says
something you regret? What if they make promises you can't fulfill? Whether
or not you host and encourage your employees to use an online community,
this is sure to happen eventually. As pointed out in the Cluetrain
Manifesto, there is a conversation going on out there about your company,
you can either join it, or be left out.

Hosting the community is a great way to join in the conversation.

Growing incrementally will help you feel more comfortable with this as
well. Through your use of the group you can explore company policy and set
guidelines for participation, before bad habits become deeply seated.
Having your employees involved in a company-related community is a real
asset that will help build strong ties between you, your employees, and the
community, but you also need to make sure it doesn't consume all of their

4) Celebrate it.

If you have followed the previous rules, you should see your community
beginning to form. As you become involved with the group and respond to
their suggestions and complaints, you are forming bonds of trust. The
members of the group will begin to trust each other.

They will come to the group for help with problems, and others will gladly
provide that support. Now is the time to celebrate it. Back up your online
experiences with real life experiences.

The Well, one of the pioneers of online communities, held parties for its
members. Not everyone could come, but it gave a real life grounding to the
relationships that were forming and deepened them even further. Consider
throwing a party; a first annual picnic. If your group is getting huge
consider making it a convention. An online community needs something
tangible to hang on to. Give it to them.

5) Record its history.

Recording the history of your group gives it context and memory. Some of
your core members will have stepped out, others will have stepped up to a
leading role, and new members will have joined. For a community to survive
these changes, it must have memory. A history helps new people understand
the group. It gives them some context for their belonging. Therefore, offer
profiles of members. Get your members' perspectives on events and include
them as well. Make a brief history available for new members to read.
Consider hiring or appointing a group historian. Take pivotal messages and
give them a special place on your site where new members can find them.

6) Host it professionally.

As the community manager, you may have been the driving force in starting
your small community. As the community grows, it will exceed your ability
to care for it. To maintain the integrity of the community and to keep
things going at a good pace, you need hosts. If the community is tightly
tied to your business, consider hiring and paying hosts. If you can't
afford that, consider offering something to members of the community
willing to take on this role. Hosts can help keep community enthusiasm
high, keep conversations running, and be a liaison between the community
and the managers of the site. Formalizing the role of hosts allows for some

Draw up guidelines of what you expect from hosts and create a host's
handbook for your community. Just as the rules needed to be clear for your
users, they also need to be clear for the hosts. The more effort you put
into training hosts, the more you can be assured your vision will remain
intact and the community will continue to thrive. If something ever goes
wrong, the hosts will be your first line of defense against the unraveling
of the community.

7) Keep the trust.

Trust underlies all the golden rules given here. You need to establish it
in the beginning and you need to safeguard and keep it throughout the life
of your community. All communities are based on trust because the
underlying support economy is based on trust. If the community members’
trust in on another is broken, the support economy will fail, and your
community will slip away fast. To nurture a community you must protect the
safety of its members.

As stated earlier, you establish your community by being open and honest
with them about your vision and the terms of your relationship. Trust is
also maintained by giving back to the community. If the community's trust
in you is broken, then you may see the community you built galvanize
against you. If you mess up, fess up. The community will hound you until
you do. This is probably the biggest risk of building a community: that it
might some day turn against you. If you come clean and find ways to make
amends, you will restore their trust.

Where to get more information

Together these seven golden rules establish and safeguard the trust
necessary for a community to emerge. There is more, however, that you
should consider. There are decisions to make on the right choice of tools,
where you will place your community on your site, how you will promote it,
and how you will gather together the techniques you will need to host your
community well.

Cliff Figallo's book, Hosting Web Communities, which I mentioned above, is
a great place to start. Figallo was a community manager for the popular
online community site, the WELL. He offers great insights based on that
experience. Moving beyond the online focus, look for books on group
dynamics and facilitation. A good online resource for community managers is
Full Circle Associates’ Online Community Toolkit. It can be found at
http://www.fullcirc.com/community/communitymanual.htm. Finally, consider
turning to a community yourself. Look for others using the same software
you are using, and building their own communities. O'Reilly and Associates
hosts a community for WebBoard users at
http://webboard.oreilly.com/support/support_boards.cfm. If you are a
WebBoard user, this is a great place to bring your ideas and questions.
Other messaging software producers offer similar resources. Use them.

Stephen R. Figgins is a freelance writer and computer consultant who cut
his teeth on online communities in the late 80's as the sysop of a
successful bulletin board system. Communities were a major focus of his
studies at the University of Kansas and remain a strong interest to this day.


Server maker CacheFlow has signed a deal to acquire Entera for about $440 million in a move that highlights the increasing importance of propagating audio and video information across the Internet. The acquisition will bring Entera's video and audio streaming software to CacheFlow's hardware, which "caches" information around the Internet so it's closer to the people requesting it. That proximity, while important to quick response times when dishing up Web pages, is critical for delivering streaming video or audio. Specifically, the Entera buy adds the ability for CacheFlow to send out streams of information encoded in Microsoft's Windows Media format and Apple's QuickTime format, CacheFlow chief executive Brian NeSmith said in a conference call Tuesday. CacheFlow's current servers can handle only RealNetworks' format. The deal is one of a series in an increasingly feisty market drawing the attention of companies all over the high-tech landscape. Among those signing partnership and acquisition deals are Internet infrastructure companies such as Inktomi; specialized server makers such as Network Appliance, SGI and Compaq Computer; network equipment makers such as Cisco Systems; and software companies such as Novell. At stake is which company gets to sell the hardware, software and services of the Internet of the future, a network that analysts expect to carry increasing amounts of information currently handled by separate networks for television, telephones and radio. Three major camps are emerging to try to gain the upper hand in distributing information across the Internet. In August, Inktomi launched its Content Bridge, which a few days later was followed by Cisco's announcement of its own Content Alliance. Both alliances take on Akamai Technologies' own network. And Akamai's tentacles are extending further as well. Novell and Akamai announced a deal Monday to bring Akamai's content delivery acceleration software to Novell's caching operating system Akamai also announced a partnership with Scale Eight, a start-up that has two data centers that serve as the central repository of video and audio information. Under that deal, Akamai will use and resell Scale Eight's services, which can adjust automatically to speed up the streaming of the information that's most popular moment by moment. CacheFlow is another Akamai partner. CacheFlow recognized last year that speeding up Web page downloads wasn't sufficient and that it needed to work on streaming video and audio information as well, NeSmith said. "We realized about 15 months ago that from a CacheFlow perspective, we clearly needed to work on streaming." The $440 million price tag is worth it, said Yankee Group analyst William Hurley. "You wouldn't want to lock yourself out of those potential distribution opportunities," he said, and developing the software would have cost CacheFlow time and money. The deal, approved by the boards of directors of both companies, is expected to close in November. CacheFlow exchanged 3.7 million shares of common stock for all of Entera's outstanding stock, NeSmith said. The deal will hurt CacheFlow's earnings by 4 cents to 5 cents a share in the next quarter, which begins Nov. 1, and 2 cents to 3 cents the quarter after, NeSmith said. Earnings should increase the quarter after that as a result of the deal, and CacheFlow is keeping the same schedule for its expected crossover into profitability in its fourth quarter of fiscal 2001, which ends April 30, 2001. CacheFlow had revenue of $22.4 million in its last quarter, ended July 31. The company's net loss, including one-time charges, was $25.3 million. -- http://news.cnet.com/news/0-1003-200-3156609.html

Date view Thread view Subject view Author view

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Wed Oct 11 2000 - 04:20:49 PDT