Magazine article Communication World

Be a Community Organizer: It's Easy to Set Up an Online Community, but It's Also Important to Nurture It So That All Members Benefit

Magazine article Communication World

Be a Community Organizer: It's Easy to Set Up an Online Community, but It's Also Important to Nurture It So That All Members Benefit

Article excerpt

The word community gets slung around a lot in our online and offline worlds, doesn't it? (Google it and you'll get more than 357 million results.) Podcasters don't have listeners; they have communities. Nonprofit organizations don't aspire to have thousands of followers on Twitter; they reach out to "peeps" who behave like a community of advisers or evangelists. Media organizations, bookstores and political organizations have similar needs.

But when we talk of social media and communities, we often get distracted by the word media, and pay lip service to the word social. I like to think of a community as a bunch of people gathered around a fire pit, swapping stories and building strong relationships without ever needing to reach for an iPhone. This is not to dismiss the value of technologies that give us a new kind of connective tissue, but rather to consider communities in terms of what gets shared, not how.

Building a community takes a lot more than automated invites to a Facebook fan page that takes about eight minutes to set up. I've joined, set up, run into and been invited to a few dozen of them over the past few years. Each one has a different dynamic. Some are clunky and badly designed, but have surprisingly great participation.

So what is a community?

Community as fire pit

If you reach back to early academic discussions on the "effects of asynchronous computer-mediated group interaction" (the phrase comes from a highly regarded 2002 article in Social Science Computer Review), you'll recognize that what we have today are ongoing experiments on how people gather around different fire pits to share ideas, argue and work out solutions.

Pat Elliot came across one the hard way. A Phoenix, Arizona-based communication professional, Elliot is someone who's joined several--70 and counting, she says--so-called communities.

As a communicator, she had heard about CaringBridge, a nonprofit web-based service that builds a community around someone facing a critical illness or undergoing treatment, but it wasn't until she was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), a rare form of cancer, that she signed on. More than half a million people connect through CaringBridge every day. Yes, it's a "family and friends" network, like many others, but that is where the resemblance ends.

CaringBridge gives Elliot an easy way to stay in touch with friends and family, doctors, researchers, and strangers from many parts of the world who have formed bonds. It also lets members maintain a journal and invite people in their network to visit and stay informed. By tracking back-and-forth communication, it eliminates the need to send or respond to dozens of individual e-mails or Facebook, LinkedIn, text and Twitter messages every day.

"If you suddenly find yourself having to deal with something you know nothing about--like a very rare illness-it's highly likely that there's support literally at your fingertips from others who've walked in your same shoes and will share what they've learned with you," Elliot says.

Online communities come in various flavors. Digg is a community for sharing and discovering content. Members of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) community share ideas on topics ranging from pet care to animal cruelty. Or consider Freecycle.org, a global community built around sharing and reusing items. Most often communities are all about empowering people through interactions, not commerce.

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