My colleague Wiebke has lent me a couple of books which I have found useful in understanding online communites.
The first of these, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organising within Organisations by Clay Shirky, I have just finished reading.
Shirky’s book, which uses interesting real life examples, is an invaluable resource for understanding how online communites differ from other forms of expression.
Online communities allow collective action without huge financial cost and as much time spent as the user wants. How many other activities fit those appealing criteria?
He makes the point that a community should be responsive to user needs,providing the Flickr group Black and White Maniacs ( about black and white photos) as an example of a community that succeds in this.
Flickr is also praised by Shirky for allowing users to add photos and therefore create their own idea of how to arrange them, as with the case of Coney Island’s Mermaid Parade.
Online communities also give millions of users the ability to become publishers. Networks such as Blogger allow people to publish, link and comment on blogs, while social media sites such as Facebook allow people to share with others their photographs and videos.
Some of the shared content will be directly addressed to only some of the community (for example someone might post a comment on Myspace intended for only a couple of people) while other content will be addressed to a greater proportion
Here Comes Everybody highlights the new expansion of self-publishers with the example of Enron accountant Sherron Watkins, who unwittingly created a community of people aware of the actions of Enron when the email she sent to a handful of people was forwarded all over the former energy company.
Online communities must also offer a reason for people to use them, unlike the L.A. Times’ Wikitorial of editable editorials, which failed because there was no point in editing editorials from the paper except to cause mischief.
They must encourage people to gather and to share information and content, perhaps providing rewards.
Some people are dismissive of online communities, but Shirky provides the example of Egyptian dissidants using Twitter to tell the world about their treatment as an example of how online communities can be used to deliver important news that the mainstream media might not be able to transmit.
I’d also add blogs as an important publishing tool (one that many undemocratic countries across the globe are keen to censor).
Fifty years ago, only a few people were able to publish content and invite others to comment. Today, anyone can set up a blog, create a website or a Facebook group, and the most successful ones will become thriving online communities.