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Building an Online Community: Just Add Water

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In: Articles

By Matt Haughey

Published on August 14, 2001

I'm frequently asked how MetaFilter came to be, what the secret is, and what I've learned in the process of building it. I didn't have a tidy plan or set path when I started, I watched several big communities grow from nothing and prosper and I took my lead from them, but a good lot of what I know now was gained from trial and error. During those first few months, I picked up a lot of experience in dealing with new members, and got a chance to try out several different techniques to help growth and deal with problems. I noticed a lot of trends, I made a few mistakes, but above all I learned a lot in the process.

I'm here today to tell you the dos-and-don'ts of building a website community, but I can only give general guidelines. Every community is different, and every administrator of a community is different, so an aspiring community leader needs to adjust adjust accordingly.

...In case you were wondering, the title is a bit of a joke, building a website into a vibrant community filled with many contributors is very difficult and is impossible to break down the exact steps, but I'll do my best.

1. Make sure you really want to do this

You know how interviewers ask someone who has lived a full life and they're near death, if they could re-live their life again, what they would do different? You have to ask yourself that before you lift a finger building a community. Are you ready to be a leader? Are you ready to do all the work necessary to create not just a normal, engaging website, but one that many others can use? Are you ready to spend every waking moment watching it? Are you ready to stay up all night re-coding main areas of the site after someone hacks the files? Are you ready to keep it up, day in and day out for as long as you can stand it?

I can't underestimate how much time you will spend on a community website. It will take longer to create, often months to get rolling, with constant tweaking and twiddling of the code to keep everything running smoothly. I was lucky when I started MetaFilter because at that point in my life, I had plenty of free time, I was itching to learn a new programming language, and I had a laid-back job where I could take lots of little breaks to check in on the site. If someone asked me if I'd do it all over again starting today with my current life, I probably wouldn't, because I don't really have the time and energy to start a new multi-user community site from scratch.

This is the most challenging point in the list, but it's good to get this one figured out before you plunge full speed into new development.

2. Have both a compelling idea and compelling content

There are lots of possible reasons to start a community, but generally it's good to focus on a specific topic. Having a specific topic means you'll have an easier time explaining your site's purpose, and quickly find like-minded people to contribute their thoughts and content to your community. MetaFilter was created with the loosest of intentions, to simply have a weblog that covered anything on the web, and it took about nine months of daily posting before anyone noticed it existed. I guess having comments and allowing others to post was a compelling enough idea that lead to a busy site, but a frequent question from first time visitors was (and still is) "what's this site all about?" If my site was a model airplane owner's group site, with a well-defined mission and idea for its purpose, I'm sure I could have found other members a lot sooner.

Compelling content is more important than you probably think. The most well-defined group purpose, with lots of motivated members, will go nowhere unless there is something to draw everyone together and get people contributing. This rule could go for any site really, but it's important to have the best possible writing, design, photography, etc. that you can, and update as often as possible. This is where community sites can excel over single person operations. With a diverse enough membership, you can have an expert artist, fantastic writers, great photographers, and senior programmers to build the best community site imaginable, and everyone pitching in can update the content on a frequent basis. It's not exactly easy to get big membership numbers on which to draw for ongoing content, first you have to convince people to join your site, and contribute or comment on other work, and for that you need to start with good content. It's sort of a Catch-22, but once you get a group of members creating good content, it creates a strong positive feedback loop that leads to growth, popularity and quality.

3. Seed content sets the stage

In the early months of a community site, it's important that there is good content there, and that the comments or audience interaction are as close to optimal as possible, so that others reading the site can get a feel for how they are expected to act. If you're building a site that covers politics and you're dreaming of lively debate with a specific slant, make sure your first few articles, essays, or threads cover a good topic, and that some discussion follows where users (more than one) are debating things in an intelligent way. New members will see what is currently on the site, and react accordingly. If there is considerate and helpful criticism, others will usually follow. If there are "first posts!" and posts making threats on other members, other such garbage will follow that as well.

If it's a company discussion forum, set up some threads and have some friends start discussions. If it's a community of airplane enthusiasts, try and find 2 or 3 people to help start the site off the same way, by finding content and discussing it in a proper manner. You're not shooting for having hundreds of fake discussion posts with no one, you're just trying to convey a code of conduct by starting with things you can use as examples, and new members can follow.

4. Create some basic guidelines and be as fair as possible

When you're the administrator on a community site, it's important that you set the examples to follow. Post regularly and intelligently, and keep a high profile on the site so others know of your presence (this keeps some troublemakers away, since they know that the site owner will quickly catch wind of their mischief). Follow the Golden Rule, treat others as you would like to be treated, and watch for unsavory patterns that form. If you catch something that's happening with some regularity, and you'd like to see it stop, make it part of the rules of the site, and explain somewhere why people shouldn't do it (start by putting a pointer somewhere near the posting forms, so curious contributors can read them if they like). Keep track of these rules, and put them somewhere people can easily find them on the site. When you have to enforce them, be nice about it, and show people the rules and how they broke them. The world isn't a black-and-white place, so a lot of things will be up to your judgement, but explain as fully as you can why you chose to enforce a certain thing, and point out what the person can do to prevent it from happening again.

What users of a community don't want to see is a headstrong leader who rules with an iron fist, and seems to take pleasure in enforcement. Users also don't want to see a leader that changes his or her mind from day to day, enforcing rules with some users, while letting friends or long time members get away with murder. Users don't want to be yelled at publicly when they make their first mistake, and they want to be given second chances. Fairness and consistency are key practices when you're running an online community.

5. Have a place to talk about the site, somewhere on the site

I've had a lot of success with a special section of MetaFilter designed to talk about issues around the site, bugs and features users wish for, or any etiquette that may have been breached, and I created it because I noticed people were talking about the site on the site itself fairly regularly. Gone unchecked, I noticed it created circular discussions where people talked about other parts of the site on the site itself and it appeared to be senseless navelgazing. Having a separate section conveniently allows that to run in an organized fashion, while at the same time keeping the main site free of looking like one big game of Duck-Duck-Goose. It doesn't necessarily have to be on the site itself, or even on the web. It could be a many-to-many email list for interested parties to participate in, if that will easier for you to implement.

6. Spread the work out as much as possible

If it's possible, have a few trusted friends act as moderators and administrators and allow people to contribute and streamline the code that runs the site. When the day-to-day maintenance can be spread out among several people, it's okay if someone goes on vacation, gets busy with work or gets ill, or takes some time off from the site. If lots of new features are being requested, several people can work on them, and debug them faster. This situation isn't always possible, and there are only a few projects that come to mind, such as evolt.org where a sizeable, diverse group keeps a site running.

7. Deal with troublemakers as quickly and nicely as possible

If you're running a community site of some sort, there's a good chance that people are going to try and mess with it, push the envelope, and hack at it for no good reason. The important thing for you to do as the administrator is deal with problem members as soon as possible and as carefully as possible. If you act rashly, or too strongly, you may incite a casual hacker into a full-blown making-your-life-a-living-hell type of hacker. You want to defuse any situation before it gets out of hand.

Start by emailing the person as soon as you can (but give yourself a little time to think, don't send anything too rashly or in the heat of the moment), and asking them gently if perhaps they didn't catch the guidelines pages, or that you'd prefer if they did their thing in a different way. Be careful of your wording in these emails - you don't want to sound threatening or patronizing in any way. You might want to have a friend review the message before sending it to make sure it's neither of those things. A short email reminding a trouble-making member of the error of their ways can usually take care of 90% of problems. Even if a member is doing something obviously malicious, they'll usually stop when called on it.

If that doesn't stop the problem member, the next thing to do is enforce some sort of penalty. This would usually be something like taking away posting rights or moderation rights, posing some new limit on their participation in the site. You will probably want to email them, letting them know what you've done, why you've done it, and most importantly what they can do to get the ban lifted. Hopefully, you'll never need to proceed after these first two measures, because a situation can quickly escalate into a war of willpower. If you have to start banning members, doing so will prove quite difficult. You may take all rights away from their account, block their IP address or range of IP addresses, and/or remove their contributions from the site. There are trickier means of hiding a problem user's activity from the rest, but I won't go into that here. It's not a path you'll ever want to take, and no one "wins" in the end; it's just a big waste of energy for all involved.

The bottom line is to stop unsavory behavior by defusing nasty situations as early as possible, in as nice of a way as possible.

8. Highlight the good, recognize the work of others

I'm still searching for the perfect way to do this, but you'll encourage good contributions by recognizing and highlighting the best your community has to offer. This is especially true when your community is larger, and you need something to point to as a casual "Hall of Fame" that new users can take their cue from. This can take many forms, you can use voting/moderation to let the community pick its favorites, you can utilize some sort of Brownie Point system where members earn credits for good contributions which are displayed somewhere (an ego stroking stop, basically), or if you're lacking the extra technology just keep track of them by hand in a "Best of" setting.

Building an inviting place that attracts users and maintaining high quality content on a bustling community site is far from easy, but these key points should help get you going in the right direction.

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Matt Haughey is the genius behind MetaFilter and an independent web designer.

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