Building Online Community Brick by Virtual Brick

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. – 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?