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Summary:

When people ask what I do, I usually say “I’m a writer.” But I do so much more than writing articles and posting content on blogs. Since I first got online in 1987, I’ve been using the Internet (or at that time, Bulletin Board Systems) for […]

When people ask what I do, I usually say “I’m a writer.” But I do so much more than writing articles and posting content on blogs. Since I first got online in 1987, I’ve been using the Internet (or at that time, Bulletin Board Systems) for not only communications but for community building – for my own projects and for clients. Today, there are so many ways I’m building online communities and although the tools have changed over the years, the rules haven’t.

Here are some of my thoughts on rules of online communities:

1. You can’t own a community. A lot of people who start and build communities immediately assume ownership. They get lawyers to craft a Terms of Service that says that they own everything posted within a community. They set the rules in stone and police the community. While I understand why companies want to “protect their assets,” ultimately, online communities can be fickle and rebellious. They do not want to be owned. Trying to turn a community into a commodity is ultimately a recipe for failure.

2. Communities aren’t free. On the flip side, I think people who want to be a part of an online community must be cognizant of the fact that anyone hosting the platform for a community to be built has some kind of interest in seeing that community grow. Some people start a community that they wish existed and want to be in. Other selfless types start online community for the good of the people. (Beware of supposed selfless types). Still others have commercial interests in mind for the community (advertising, sponsorship). As long as the purpose of the community is clear, everyone has a choice if they want to participate or not. Nothing comes for free.

Ning3. Every community needs leadership. I know some people will debate me on this point but I don’t think a community can survive without some person in a leadership role. They don’t have to be “boss,” they don’t have to be “dictator,” however, there is usually one person who initiates a community and is the driving force behind that community. The community leadership could consist of several people, but leading by committee can bog down a community’s growth. At the end of the day, the buck must stop with someone.

4. A community dies if it is all about you. Often a community grows around a single person but that is really more “Cult of Personality” if the community continues to revolve around that person. Many blogs are activated by Cult of Personality. Successful bloggers nurture their comments sections so those who comment get the spotlight as well. Online communities may need a leader but they should not be reliant solely on a single person to survive. When that person goes, what happens to the community?

5. At some point, organic communities need roots. I’m still blown away by the power of the Internet to aggregate clusters of like-minded people. When those people keep coming back to continue the conversation from organic seeds, that is phenomenal. However, at some point, structure needs to be put into place to make sure the community is scalable if growing the community is desirable. Without some kind of structure, a community eventually implodes.

6. Community building is not all about the tools. But the right tools do help. These days, the right community building tools seem to be social networking features (friends), blogs or microblogging features, and even SMS features so the community conversation gets carried onto your mobile device. Bells and whistles don’t make an online community, but as people get used to using new networking and communications, they’ll come to expect them in the platform where they choose to start a community

But enough of rules. Here are some of the tools I use every day or that I’m trying out to build community online for my work.

Athena Isle Writers (Ning)1. Ning.com – I love the ease with which I can build what I call “private-label” social networks. NIng groups seem richer than Facebook or MySpace groups. They have a central group page but they provide blogging and social networking tools for each member of the group so they can build their own presence and brand. I’ve recently started groups as diverse as Survivors of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning (SoCaMP), Alaska Women in Business and Athena Isle Writers (who meet in Second Life.)

Athena Isle Women (Facebook)

2. Facebook Groups – I’m still on the fence about Facebook Groups. They seem less “participatory,” and I find I have much more success using Facebook Events to reach my groups. Still, I’m checking them out, getting a feel for them. By contrast, I’m not using MySpace Groups at all. I initially found them to be too spammy so have avoided them ever since.

3. Plaxo Groups - I’m also on the fence about Plaxo Groups but nothing ventured, nothing gained as they say. Athena Isle Women (Plaxo)Like Facebook, I’m not finding that people are very active in their Plaxo Groups, but for more professional groups, Plaxo could work out.

4. LinkedIn Groups – I’ve just created a new group – Athena Isle Women – to help women succeed in Second Life. It is still pending approval, but I’m thinking this may trump Plaxo Groups for best forum and tools for a women’s professional online networking group.

5. Second Life - There are many limitations to the Second Life “Groups,” namely that you can only belong to 25 – including the ones you join and the ones you create and the way groups are configured is not conducive to communications between members unless those members are online (using Group IM). Still, Second Life can’t be beat for virtual face-to-face meetings of community members. There is something so much more immediate and “real” when you are in a virtual space with other people’s avatars than when you are IMing or posting to a message board. No replacement for in-the-flesh meet ups, but sometimes the next best thing.

Almost every social networking style site gives you the ability to create a group. Many are very niche so instead of being for “professionals” as LinkedIn would be or for “the general public” as Facebook might be, they are much more targeted. I belong to some of these more niche sites as a member such as Maya’s Mom for mothers to WorkitMom for working women who happen to be moms. But I haven’t yet created groups on these sites even though the community building tools exist.

Bottom line: Online community building is about the people first, the shared interests or experiences next, and the tools are the means of bringing people together in new ways.

What tools are you using to build online communities?

  1. What about Meetup.com, that seems like a fairly powerful way to build community, especially the physical meeting part.

    The problem with a lot of these sites is that tons of people sign up and then never show up again. Deadwood maintenance is definitely a part of this community “building” excercise.

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  2. Mark – I do agree about Meetup.com with the online tools for meeting offline and reinforcing the community online. I actually stopped using it because it was fee-based and most of my communities are predominantly virtual. Also, using Meetup is configured to help facilitate a local f2f meeting and most of the communities I work with are global, cross time zone, etc.

    Totally agree about the deadwood maintenance, however, most successful communities have the vibrant core, the active lurkers, the passive lurkers, and the deadwood floating, don’t you think?

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  3. Sorry for preliminary notice, we are preparing a powerful tool for community building. Investing 5 minutes without diving into anything tech is fascinating for most people.

    Check us out and pre-register for the upcoming private beta: WackWall.com

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  4. [...] a post over on Web Worker Daily absolutely resonated to me, it discusses some “rules” for [...]

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  5. I think anyone who starts a community needs one quality more than anything else – Patience. We all know that Rome was not built in a day, and the Internet is not going to build Rome in a day either. Sure, it will help you build a community much faster, but sorry buddy, it still is gonna time sweat and perseverance to make a community a successful community.

    In terms of ownership, true people hate a social community owned by somebody, but in some ways most communities are owned – else tell me why I and the millions of community members contribute most all the content but someone else makes all the money?

    NS @ Geexoo – The Geek Feeds Hub

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  6. [...] Building Online Community Brick by Virtual Brick (Aliza Sherman) [...]

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  7. Aliza,

    Excellent post. You’ve provided a great list of advice and a good starter list of tools.

    Here’s a link to a post on Jeremiah Owyang’s site for folks who would like to do a deep comparison on the tools side of the topic. It lists over 60 community building platforms and tools showing that the space is clearly over saturated with options!

    Best, Jeff

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  8. Jeff or anyone else – please post the link to Jeremiah Owyang’s post comparing the community building platforms and tools! I’m still searching…

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  9. [...] Web Worker Daily » Archive Building Online Community Brick by Virtual Brick « [...]

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  10. [...] Worker Daily had a great post yesterday about building online communities: 1. You can’t own a community. 2. Communities aren’t free. 3. Every community needs leadership. [...]

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  11. [...] Web Worker Daily » Archive Building Online Community Brick by Virtual Brick « [...]

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  12. [...] HT Big Bulky Anglican quoting from this post about on-line communities. [...]

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  13. [...] Web Worker Daily » Archive Building Online Community Brick by Virtual Brick « [...]

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  14. [...] Sherman at Web Worker Daily discusses the rules for Building Online Community Brick by Virtual Brick and then provides some suggestions for social networks and other online destinations which offer [...]

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  15. Eliza (& Jeff),

    You got me curious, so I searched for Jeremiah’s blog post & found it, here:

    http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/2007/07/20/list-of-companies-that-provide-collaboration-platforms/

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  16. [...] Aliza Sherman’s blog on Building Online Community Brick by Virtual Brick are some nice thoughts about online communities. Basically, the idea is that ownership comes from the participants, that leadership is necessary, and again collaboration, sharing, and history/culture are key ingredients to the successful care and feeding of the community. So the adage “if you build it they will come” does not apply with communities of practice. [...]

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  17. [...] Worker Daily: Building Online Community Brick by Virtual Brick – Since I first got online in 1987, I’ve been using the Internet (or at that time, Bulletin Board [...]

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  18. [...] Worker Daily: Building Online Community Brick by Virtual Brick – Since I first got online in 1987, I’ve been using the Internet (or at that time, Bulletin Board [...]

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  19. As individuals, we can decide our actions instantaneously without having to sit down and think of another individual’s ideas. We are in a world of our own since our own perception is our reality.
    ———–
    Ella
    Link Building

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  20. Love this article!

    My name is Heidi Richards Mooney and I am publisher of WE Magazine for Women. We are always looking for great content and ! was wondering what your republishing policy is? I’d love to use this on our WE Magazine for Women website at http://www.WEMagazineforwomen.com

    Look forward to hearing from you,

    Heidi

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    1. Heidi — send me an email: simon at gigaom dot com

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  21. [...] Building Online Community Brick by Virtual Brick (source: Web Worker Daily / iLibrarian, [...]

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  22. [...] connecting people in various ways.An article I read back in April that gives more detail on is Building An Outline Community.I’ll find more and post later…the work day is upon [...]

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