Mariamz

Community Success Factors 1: External Context

Posted on: June 26, 2009

This is Item 1 of my 8 Critical Success Factors for Virtual Communities post.

Communities do not and cannot exist in isolation: external context will inevitably affect their inception and the nature they take. Before forming a virtual community, or helping one to grow, external context should influence the design of any software, any community guidelines and the expectations you have of members.

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  • Your ecosystem
    • Yours will be one of millions of other virtual communities and overlapping information societies.  Are you trying to create another Facebook? Another iVillage? Another Digg? Another Freecycle? Why? Make sure you take a good look at the communities that your potential members are part of. Is what you’re proposing very different from what they have already? If not you may be barking up the wrong tree. With community, if a great place already exists that people are comfortable with, it will probably take the next big thing for them to move and learn to use a different tool.
      • If you can’t beat them, consider joining them. Trying to compete with an existing community may leave everyone involved with a sour taste in their mouth. An unfortunate example is Furl being eaten up by Diigo. (I still miss Furl).
      • That said, Drupal Modules is a good example of a community that started up to accusations of fracturing the community but has ended up extremely popular. Top 10 Drupal Community Sites. If you are confident your community can add value, go for it.
      • If you’re determined to go ahead be sure to piggyback on the success of others. Implement data portability techniques to allow people to use their membership of existing sites to sign up for your community more easily.
  • Regulation and legislation
  • Social, political and economic needs of users and producers determine participation.
    • What’s in, what’s out, what matters? Linje Mayozo has criticised the modernist tendency of people to try and avoid mentioning poverty in relation to Africa and to look at the multi-faceted character of people’s lives. He has argued that in some places, if you are not talking about poverty, people will not understand what you are talking about. If you find there is something uncomfortable about the reality of the your community members, don’t ignore it, try and embrace it. This can lead to interesting initiatives – such as MTV’s fantastically successful campaign to submit music tracks and raise awareness about HIV / AIDS. The Staying Alive Campaign.
  • Access to technology, competency to use it and time-poverty
    • What platforms will people access your community from and when? Are people able to reach you from their home, workplace or school? How fast are their connections? Be sure to consider the dramatic impact a slow-loading site over a slow connection can have on user experience.
    • Can your target members use the interface you are designing, and if not how might you help them / encourage them to learn? Sit with them, watch how they use the web, use your site. Even the most simplest of interfaces benefit from user testing. Google users wait for footer to load.
    • In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam argued citizens in modern America have a vastly reduced likelihood of meeting together and building ‘social capital.’ ‘Social capital’ refers to “features of social organization.. that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit” (Putnam, 1995: p67). Howard Rheingold (1993) and others (e.g. Shirky, 2008) have argued the lack of community in the real world is fuelling demand for virtual communities. Think about how can you convince your target members there is value to becoming a part of your community, when they work long hours and have only a couple of hours a day to interact with others. Consider facilitating offline as well as online interaction.

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