This post was written by a student in the Stanford’s Winter 2011 Networked Rhetoric class; it was designed to focus in on a particular source or research experience related to his project on social media and digital culture . See a more detailed overview of this assignment.
My project is about understanding what makes online communities successful. I’m trying to figure out why the comments on Youtube are so bad, but the answers on Quora are so good. I’ll turn those findings into a guide for making new communities. Engineers don’t start from scratch every time they have to build a bridge; instead they use their knowledge of a long history of bridgemaking and adapt it to the situation at hand. I’m trying to do the same for online communities.
As I started doing my research one of the things I noticed was that the book sources that most closely matched my topic were from the turn of the century, or published in the last two years. Two examples, Design for Community by Derek Powazek (2001) and Community Building on the Web by Amy Jo Kim (2000) were both written in the height of the dot-com era. This makes sense, I suppose, because this was a time where web communities were very new, and there was lots of investor excitement. Community books began to be published again in 2009, slightly behind new success stories of online communities like Flickr, Facebook and more. This time the commentary was supplemented in blogs, a format that didn’t exist the first time around.
It’s been interesting to see what’s changed in the last decade for online communities. Kim’s book spends an entire chapter on designing good user profiles, and includes advice like explaining what information will private and what public. While this last piece of advice seems equally relevant today (especially in light of recent privacy concerns with Facebook), community profiles in general have morphed away from many the text boxes of taste that Kim describes. Instead, we have Facebook with many lines of input, and our other online identities are rather sparse, like Twitter with only a link and a bio.
In general, both books seem surprisingly relevant today and fare well against their modern competitors. Though their technology recommendations are hopelessly outdated, their other suggestions are still useful which perhaps shows that the technology change in the last 10 years hasn’t changed what it takes to make a good community. This limited change is best represented by an interview with Matt Haughey of Metafilter in Powazek’s book. In 2001, Metafilter was a community blog and hobby of Haughey’s. Today, it employs Haughey and a team of moderators and developers. Its editorial format and layout remain much the same, it’s just a whole lot bigger.