Saturday, May 10, 2008

What is an online community?

From Wikipedia

A virtual community ... or online community is a group of people who primarily interact via communication media such as letters, telephone, email or Usenet rather than face to face, for social, professional, educational or other purposes. Virtual and online communities have also become a supplemental form of communication between people who know each other primarily in real life. Many means are used in social software separately or in combination, including text-based chatrooms and forums that use voice, video text or avatars.

Some people think mistakenly that an online community is a set of people where the people in this set do not change. However in an online community, the community is fluid where people with similar interests drift in and out of discussions and contribute and lurk in different ways and unequally.

And, John C. Dvorak wants you to think that the community is not real and is the application.

A good online community, whether it's Second Life, Twitter, or something new, is indeed fun to belong to if you have the time or inclination. But please do not take it seriously, and never believe that you're part of a true community. Get out of your house, and you'll find the community out there in the street. That's real.

He misses the point of online communities. Online communities, like physical communities, are about the people. Applications like Twitter, Facebook, or Second Life are not communities. People and the connections that bring them together make communities. The connections are made through similar interests, goals, opinions, comradery, and respect among the people in the communities. He is partially right in that you cannot take some people seriously, but that is true of physical communities, as well.

Like physical communities, some people within the online communities mean more to you and that you give more weight to some opinions than to others. Like physical communities, credibility and trust,can be built in online communities with time.

Like physical communities, people come and go within the communities. Online communities are fluid where people drift in and out of discussions. In the online world, some people may exist in several communities. For instance, I lurk in the public relations and marketing communities. I also lurk in the professional development community. I am a full participant in an Extension online community that is made up of IT specialists and other Extension professionals.

Online communities are not necessarily separate from physical communities. With the 14 to 17 age group, there seems to be little separation. To paraphrase, Mark Federman who said in a dinner conversation at the NETC08 conference, "Social networking does not mirror their (teens') real life. It is all the same to them."

While solving problems in online environments, individuals identify others who share interests and goals and build relationships with these other members. Contact with members of workgroups through social networking sites helps keep members connected when they are disconnected physically. Online communities help build and strengthen the relationships that I have with people I know, but see seldom. Also, online communities are not about the applications, but about the people.

As with any tool, social networking sites and other social media tools should solve problems easier and better than without them. Joshua Porter says in The Power of Niche Social Network Sites

The power of niche social sites isn’t just in connecting people, it’s in providing tools that allow people to do something better than they could before…

In fact, I use several applications to communicate, discuss, and share. Let me give an example. My participation in the Extension online community (beyond email lists) started January 2007 when I decided to blog. After a few posts and a few comments, I started having more conversations via emails and instant messages. It was when I started using Twitter that the online working relationships begin to grow.

At the ACE/NETC conference in June 2007, as I saw several people who had been conversing with me using Twitter, IM, and blogs, the first physical conversations at the conference were very easy. To quote Kevin Gamble, it was .."like we started the conference in the middle of the conversation". Before, during, and after the conference, I and others invited several of my colleagues to Twitter. During the next several months, our community grew. We sent Twitter messages--some with funny thoughts and some with resource links. I believe the phatic messages had the greatest impact in developing trust and recognition of the people as individuals. These messages gave me a glimpse into lives--where they spend their time and what they find amusing. As we became more comfortable, we found ourselves sending more resource related tweets, including answering questions and helpful links. The phatic messages helped me converse with them at our next conference--NETC08, then allowing easy transition into the work related topics

By the time, NETC08 proposals were requested, John Dorner and I were using instant messaging to discuss the NETC08 proposal requests, when one of us suggested that we needed to provide suggestions and methods for integrating and using these resources and social media into our organization. Although our conference is targeted for technology specialists, we wanted to introduce and begin conversations in how our organizations can use these tools.

John and I knew we could not do it all. In Google Docs, we loosely developed some ideas. We were 2 weeks away from the proposal deadline when I sent an email asking for help from 8 of my online NETC friends who were using tools. We asked them to read and edit the Google document and pick a topic or create their own and submit a proposal for NETC.

I was pleasantly surprised and appreciative of how quickly individuals marked topics they wanted to present, made changes to the document, and added topics. They sent the Google Doc link to others to contribute. 11 sessions were presented. 11 people presented with some people presenting more than 1 session. And, 26 people were eventually given access to the Google document. While this may seem like a small example, it is an example where the online community works.

We covered Flickr, Slideshare, Google Docs, Second Life, social media tools in online communities, Twitter, blogging, social bookmarking, blog analytics, and adoption strategies, Additionally, there were 3 people who contributed to this effort who I have never met personally. I found it amusing that Beth Raney of Penn State thought that Eli Sagor was from Alabama. He lives in Minnesota. Eli and I have never met personally, but through causal conversations and the respect we have for each other's talents, Beth had assumed we knew each other well. Our online communications took place with blogs, Twitter, Flickr, Slideshare, and Google Docs. This professional relationship is very real.

Our request was extremely successful. Sessions were well attended and had great feedback. Did everyone present? No, Did we accomplish our goal? Yes, Did several contribute to lighten the load? Yes, definitely. Did we give ideas to others within the Extension community to use social media in our work? Yes, definitely.

Carlo Scannella also believes that online communities are about people developing relationships for common interests and goals.

Positive, working communities can certainly develop both online and off, and to question an online community’s “realness” misses the point completely. The trick, it seems, when considering the question of community, is to figure out why they work, and how we can replicate these successes more often.


Anonymous said...

Hear, hear! As one of the contributors to the NETC '08 series, I want to say how much I enjoyed it. As you pointed out, I've never met (face to face) any of the other presenters. But I sure feel connected to you folks. I've learned a LOT from following tweets, reading blogs, etc. I read more than I contribute, so sometimes i feel like a bit of a sap, but nobody seems to mind... :-)

About prep for NETC, other than a couple of phone calls with Beth, all of the planning for our 45-minute session happened via Twitter and Google Docs. I enjoyed learning to use these tools to plan a presentation and am pleased with how it came out.

It's definitely a different kind of relationship interacting with folks solely through these media. In some ways definitely not as deep as more traditional friendships, but in other ways great. It would be hard for me to overestimate how much I've learned from my web 2.0 buddies.

I hear NETC '09 is in Iowa? Close to home. I hope we'll meet then, but look forward to many more contacts in the meantime.

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