A decade after the dot-com boom, the recipe for a successful online community remains the same

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 Though their technology recommendations are hopelessly outdated, their other suggestions are still useful which perhaps shows that the technology change in the last 10 years hasn’t changed what it takes to make a good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.

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3 Responses to A decade after the dot-com boom, the recipe for a successful online community remains the same

  1. Pingback: Researching Networked Culture | The Cross-Cultural Rhetoric Blog

  2. Jamie says:

    I like how you juxtaposed your source’s model of a good profile against the modern standard, which is a profile with boxes, links to other social sites, and usability. The difference between what was good then and what is good now will be essential to constructing your argument about online communities. You do bring up a good point that there must be a constant force in what makes online communities strong because some of the communities that were strong in the early 2000s are still around today; perhaps some of th elements that make a real-life community strong are also needed in an online community.

  3. At first I was surprised to see that the same advice for building online communities ten years ago was relevant now, but upon further reflection, that actually makes sense. Building successful communities online has a lot of parallels with building successful communities in real life so the advice from a decade ago would be similar to the present day. Social groups that consist of people with similar interests, even if it is simply a desire for more knowledge would probably have more effective commentary than sites like youtube which attract everyone (crazies included).

    I am curious to know how exactly you will focus this project because it seems like a lot to take on. Are you focusing primarily on social networking sites or any site that has commentary? I am also interested to know how sites that require passwords differ from open websites and if you think that impacts success.

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