How To Build an Online Community

One key to the success of the NITRC web site is the strong community support we have from it’s target audience: neuroscience researchers.  This didn’t happen overnight.  There were a lot of steps that led up to where we are now, and a few mis-steps that we had to fix too.  But the good news is that we managed to build a community that works both for its members and it’s sponsors at the NIH.

Building online communities is a hard problem.  In addition to all the typical difficulties you will encounter building a web site, you also have a “chicken or egg” situation when attracting your early users. People generally don’t want to join your site if there isn’t some critical mass of people already there. Then once they do join, the problems aren’t over.  Now you have to keep all your friendly, productive users and try to discourage the trolls.

You might also have other goals than just keeping people active in your community.  For many commercial sites, this might be selling advertising or site subscriptions.  For a non-profit, the actual goal of the site owner is likely furthering its mission. Finding the right balance between those goals and keeping the community happy can be difficult.

I try to be a metric driven person. I don’t play the lottery in real life, and I don’t like to gamble on how implementing a new feature will affect our on-line community.  With NITRC we try to model our site improvements on other successful communities.  It’s not a perfect solution, but it is better than trying to make a guess.  

This is why I am so glad to be reading Building successful online communities: Evidence-based social design by Robert Kraut and Paul Resnick. The link above takes you to Dr. Kraut’s home page where, as of now at least, he is kindly providing PDF versions of a number of chapters.  Kraut gives both theory and empirical evidence to show how various changes to an on-line community will most likely affect it.  Much of the design advice in the book is backed up by real world examples.  I have seen many of the web sites and features he is pointing out, but I haven’t always had a deep understanding of what effects these features have on the site’s on-line community.

If you are building an on-line community you really owe it to yourself to give this book a read. If it saves you from implementing one ill-fated feature request, you will have a positive return on your time.  It’s also good for the intellectually curious: Anyone who is curious why Facebook is worth Billions but so many similar sites have faltered will find some answers here.  Hope you enjoy it.