A3 Community Conference

A3 Community Conference

Figure A3.1. Beliefnet's community section offers many ways for people to come together: large open discussions, smaller closed groups, and personal groups used on special occasions for families and close friends.

(www.beliefnet.com, August 26, 2001)


graphics/common.jpg Background

MESSAGE BOARDS (D5) are only one part in creating an ongoing and thriving community. This pattern endorses responsibility and open discourse. As a place where people can trust one another to speak honestly and intelligently without fear of hooliganism, it can be used in conjunction with and integrated into VALUABLE COMPANY SITES (A7), PERSONAL E-COMMERCE (A1), EDUCATIONAL FORUMS (A8), and other site genre patterns.

graphics/common.jpg Problem

Community members want to share ideas, views, and opinions with other like-minded individuals, whether they live across the street or across the planet. However, a host of issues must be resolved, such as community usage policies, moderation of forums, anonymity, archives, interaction, trust, sociability, growth, and sustainability. The challenge is to strike a balance within the online community.

The ability to have ongoing conversations with anyone, anywhere, anytime, is one of the most powerful aspects of the Web. However, many issues that are intrinsic to online communities are very different from our everyday experiences in the real world. In this section we discuss many of the policy issues that have to be resolved for all community conferences.

Community Usage Policies

Managing online communities is not easy. It is far easier to set up MESSAGE BOARDS (D5) and let things just happen. Making any community conference work takes time and effort to organize, invite, give access, monitor, and facilitate. Which rules are important to the community? Should you remove off-topic comments from a discussion thread, or should you archive them to a separate location? What kinds of things are acceptable for people to post? What happens if a member breaks the rules?

Every community must declare its own standards and enforce those standards. Every community must also establish a set of FAIR INFORMATION PRACTICES (E3) on how personal data will be used, and communicate these practices through a clear PRIVACY POLICY (E4). Getting the members of your community to agree on rules can be time-consuming (see Figure A3.2), but once they have done so, our experience shows that their discussion will be more thoughtful and enlightening.

Figure A3.2. The online community Craigslist sets the ground rules for postings as soon as customers go to the list of forums.

(www.craigslist.org, August 25, 2001)


Synchronous or Asynchronous Communication

One immediate question with respect to community conferences is whether people must interact with one another now, or can respond to one another later. The former is an example of synchronous communication, meaning that all parties have to be online simultaneously and interaction takes place in real time. Examples of synchronous communication include chat rooms, video conferencing, and shared drawing spaces. The latter is an example of asynchronous communication, meaning that members can leave messages that others can respond to later. Examples of asynchronous communication include e-mail, MESSAGE BOARDS (D5), and community-created Web pages.

Each approach has pros and cons. Synchronous communication is more spontaneous and often leads to faster decision making. However, people with slow Internet connections suffer enormously, and sometimes it is difficult to keep track of who is saying what. Asynchronous communication can be more thoughtful (though not always!), and participants can reply to posted messages at any later time. However, because of slow turnaround it is sometimes difficult to come to a consensus on issues, and it can be difficult to manage and take part in the many continuing conversations.

You can support both synchronous and asynchronous forums, depending on the interests and needs of your customers. For example, it is not uncommon for Web sites to host MESSAGE BOARDS (D5), as well as several chat rooms. Also note that there is not always a strict separation between synchronous and asynchronous communication. A synchronous chat can be archived for other people to see, at which point it becomes an asynchronous resource.


Another question you will need to answer up front is whether your forums are moderated, and if so, to what degree. On moderated forums, messages are filtered and processed by one or more moderators that must approve all messages to make sure that they follow the established rules and norms. An example of a moderated forum would be a message board for people coping with cancer. The moderator in this case would approve all messages except for blatant advertisements and trolls (messages intended to inflame and infuriate others).

Unmoderated forums are free-for-all discussions in which anything goes. People can say whatever they want, and it is up to the members of the community to enforce any rules and social norms. An example of an unmoderated forum is an ad hoc chat room set up by a high school student where she and her friends can talk about whatever they want. The only thing keeping people from being viciously rude to one another in this case is the fact that they know each other and have an ongoing relationship, seeing each other in school.

There are many options between these two extremes. For example, an e-mail list could be moderated to the extent that a moderator has to approve the first few messages that everyone posts, but unmoderated in the sense that after someone has had three messages approved, her messages no longer have to be approved to be posted. As another example, a message board could be unmoderated except for a few spot checks to make sure that no one is posting copyrighted material. Furthermore, people can send complaints or notifications of usage violations to the owner of the message board, who can then act reasonably in handling the complaint.

The upshot is that there are many options with respect to moderation. Your choice of the level of moderation all depends on what kind of community and discussion you want.

Anonymous, Pseudonymous, or Identified by Real Name

Anonymity is an extremely important and sometimes contentious issue that you will have to deal with on community conference sites. The online world's capabilities for anonymity can be liberating (see Figure A3.3), freeing people from social norms and pressures. However, they are also highly prone to abuse, as potential sources of false and libelous information. Because anyone can create an anonymous identity, your customers can pretend to be who they're not.

Figure A3.3. Anonymous postings can be important on the Greenpeace Cyberactivist Community site, where visitors might want to participate in environmental activism without alerting their employers.

(cybercentre.greenpeace.org/t/s, August 26, 2001)


In a positive sense, anonymity means that community members can veil their identity or playact, giving them the opportunity to "try on" being a different person, similar to acting in theater or playing make-believe. This freedom is critical for people who need to hide their true identities, such as victims of abuse, who with anonymity can participate in online discussions without fear of reprisal from their abusers.

On the negative side, because it is difficult to trace activities that are completely anonymous online, people abuse complete anonymity for hostile and sometimes illegal purposes. At the annoying but benign level, being completely anonymous is a consequence-free way to digress and ruin an otherwise enlightening conversation. At hostile but not illegal levels, some people use complete anonymity to abuse others with angry comments. Tragically, when adults prey on children in complete anonymity, or commit other crimes online, the whole online community suffers. If you cannot restrict access by requiring participants to verify their true identities, abusive activities can go unchecked.

There is a fair balance between no anonymity, or real names (see Figure A3.4), and complete anonymity. When your customers inform you of their true identity and then assume a different name in the community, they can realize the benefits of partial anonymity. This is known as a pseudonym. By restricting access to only those individuals who are willing to divulge their true identities to the site operators, an online community fosters more responsible behavior.

Figure A3.4. In the WELL's community, like-minded individuals can share ideas, develop a rapport, and build strong, trusting relationships. Requiring real names and confirmed identities helps build this trust.

(www.well.com, August 25, 2001)


Table A3.1 shows what levels of anonymity are reasonable in different circumstances.


There are three basic questions to answer here. First, will messages be stored? Second, if so, for how long? Third, who has access to see and possibly delete old messages? For example, messages in chat rooms are usually not stored, but message boards often save all posts and make them permanently available for all people to see. On the other hand, it's not unheard of for chat sessions to be archived, or for message board posts older than one month to be automatically deleted.

There are many pros and cons to storing archives of past messages. Some messages represent useful knowledge, and searching for that information can be easier and faster than having someone repeat it over and over. For team projects, a message archive can be a record of design rationale, helping someone who joins the team later understand why a certain design decision was made. These archives are also useful to researchers, letting them see patterns of communication among community members and changes in those patterns over time.

Table A3.1. Reasonable Levels of Anonymity in Community Conferences
Conference Type Level of Anonymity Required Disclosed to Community Disclosed to Site Operator
Adult educational conference None Name and contact Name and contact
New parent support group None Name and contact Name and contact
K–12 class discussions Partial Anonymous or student-created user name Name and contact
Abuse victim Partial None Name and contact discussions

There are also some potentially serious disadvantages of archiving past messages. Some messages just aren't that valuable. There's not much point in archiving informal chats about computer games or gossip, for example. Also there is the danger that things people write will come back and haunt them many years later. It does seem somewhat unfair that people can search on someone's name and see something that he thoughtlessly posted 12 years ago. As a result, long-term archives might cripple open discussion and lead to potentially embarrassing situations in the future. In fact, it's not unheard of for a company's e-mail archives to be subpoenaed in a legal dispute.

This leads into the next question: How long should archives be kept? Short-lived archives can help people remember recent messages and avoid problems with those messages being taken out of context in the future. Long-lived archives are useful for finding important messages in the past. There is no single answer, unfortunately, and decisions have to be made on a case-by-case basis.

The last question about archives has to do with access. Who should be able to access the archives, and should they be able to delete old messages? For example, one possible policy is to let only the person who posted a message see his or her own messages. Another is to let anyone in the community search for and see all messages, and allow posters to delete their old messages. This decision should be part of your PRIVACY POLICY (E4), as well as your community's usage policy.

Trust and Sociability

It is true that some of the benefits and social cues of in-person contact are lost online. There are many benefits to online conferences, however: Your readers can be geographically dispersed; they do not have to be together at the same time; conversations can last weeks, months, or longer; and newcomers can join and read the history of the conversation so far.

Once involved, moderators must keep conversations on track and turn major digressions into their own discussion threads. Creating an online community is time intensive but well worth the effort when responsibility, respect, and a shared commitment to intelligent conversation are the standards.

Publish and follow these basic rules:

  • We seek thoughtful and intelligent people to enrich each conference.

  • Newcomers are allowed to visit and listen, and join in when they're ready.

  • Each member's view will be respected.

  • Personal attacks are not allowed.

  • People who are not respectful and thoughtful will be ejected.

  • If you ever feel harassed, you can e-mail the moderator and express your concern.

  • No single person will run the whole conversation because the community is not a personal soapbox.

Growth and Sustainability

Creating an ongoing and thriving community is a difficult task. The greatest obstacles are attracting people to your community and then getting them to participate. When first starting out, you will probably have to nurture and lead some discussions to get things going.

Ideally, you want your community to exhibit a positive network effect, where newcomers will join your community because there are already a lot of community members, all without much effort on your part. Most communities have a critical mass—that is, a minimum number of participating community members for the community to become self-sustaining, as already described.

Reaching this critical mass is much more important than it may seem at first because it marks the beginning of a fairly successful online community. This milestone has significant benefits for recruiting new community members because new people will come to see what all the hubbub is about. This could attract more visitors to the community and encourage them to stay longer. The longer people try out a community conference, the more they will become accustomed to the forums, discussions, customs, social norms, and people in the community. And most importantly, while it's easy for people to switch to a competing e-commerce site and buy something there, it's much more difficult for people to switch to a competing community conference. They simply can't switch their friends and chat partners as easily.

Additional Information

A great deal of high-quality information about creating, managing, and sustaining an online community is available. Use the sources listed in the Resources section later in the book to find more information about nurturing a community, running a large online community, hosting conversations, free speech, and many, many other issues.

graphics/common.jpg Solution

To make a community conference work, establish a clear community usage policy that specifies behaviors that are acceptable and sanctions that will be imposed on anyone who breaks the rules. Set up a variety of synchronous and asynchronous forums to suit you and your customers. Determine if the community will be moderated, and if so, to what degree. Agree on the level of anonymity your community will support. Decide whether messages will be archived, and if so how they will be archived and who will have access to them. Increase trust and sociability by keeping discussions on track and establishing social norms of behavior (see Figure A3.5). Promote growth by leading discussions and attracting new community members.

Figure A3.5. When you require nonanonymous sign-ins for access to community conferences, your community members will act more respectfully and responsibly. Managed discussions keep conversations on target.


graphics/common.jpg Consider These Other Patterns

Basic Community Conference

Make your FAIR INFORMATION PRACTICES (E3) clear to your customers through an understandable PRIVACY POLICY (E4) available on all pages. Ask all potential participants to create nonanonymous accounts using SIGN-IN/NEW ACCOUNT (H2). Verify the addresses of the individuals by sending an e-mail message to which they must respond, and if security needs dictate (and privacy policy allows), call them on the phone as well.

Place BROWSABLE CONTENT (B2) in the MESSAGE BOARDS (D5). Manage these message boards on a daily basis, creating new threads for major digressions.

Advanced Community Conference

Give members a way to understand how their values are being perceived. If you have hundreds or thousands of members, use a RECOMMENDATION COMMUNITY (G4) to let people rate each other on how insightful and helpful their assessments and views really are to others. This feedback will help newcomers better judge each person and give them the goal of earning respect.

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