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In: Articles

By Daniel J. Cody

Published on August 14, 2001

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man." -- George Bernard Shaw

Since founding evolt.org nearly three years ago, I've been called unreasonable more than a few times: "A non-commercial website that relies on its own members for content?! Get real!"

Looking back, I can see why a lot of people may have seen it that way. Choosing to cut ties with a well funded, happenin' web development community to start my own -- doing things that I thought would best serve the web development community -- does seem a little unreasonable now.

And yet, here I am, theorizing, sharing with you what I've experienced and what I've learned about creating and sustaining online communities. As unreasonable as I may or may not be, progress has been made, and lives -- both personal and professional -- have been altered, because of the sharing and growth that true community fosters.

Maybe I make it sound too easy. Who doesn't want some level of personal and professional growth? Ironically, the reasons that make it sound easy are sometimes the same reasons that true online communities can fail. Sure it sounds like cupcakes and roses and dreamy good times -- after all, I'm here postulating about how great it all is, aren't I? The fact of the matter is that it does not come easy. In fact, truly being part of a community takes a lot of work on your part too.

Let it roll baby, roll

If you join a community on the Internet, you don't magically gain all the advantages of joining immediately -- some of the advantages take time, and feedback. For example, when people join the evolt mailing list, they're instantly plugged into vast amounts of knowledge for free. They can take as much information as they want, and they're welcome to do so. They may even start to feel at home with some of the other members of the community.

The problem, though, is that this can remain a one way street -- a lot of receiving, but no giving, and giving is what really makes you a part of a community. Giving something back lets the other members of the community know that yes, you are ready to take the next step and make it a two-way street. You're willing to roll your dice, you're willing to bet that you have something to contribute. The great thing is you don't have to be the smartest or funniest person on the subject, you simply have to contribute when you can and everyone will see your willingness to share, and this increases your value to the community in the eyes of other members. People strive to be valued in the eyes of their peers; billions of dollars a year are spent on products to help us do just that. What we often miss out on, however, is that sometimes the most basic human interactions -- offline or online -- create the strongest bonds and the highest levels of appreciation and worth in the eyes of others.

From the bottom up

If you've got a niche and are thinking about starting your own community, buckle up. While joining and becoming part of an existing community is one thing, creating your own and succeeding with it is quite another. I started evolt.org with an idea, a lot of free time, and 20 people on a mailing list. Today, evolt has grown into a mailing list of nearly 3000 people, a website of 5000 registered members, and numerous side projects. The power behind evolt is a common belief, not only in what we're doing, but also in how we're doing it. This belief is extremely important, and if you can harness the energy created by that kind of belief, your online community starts with a powerful foundation. If you've got a strong foundation in place, here are some tips for building on it:

Love what you're trying to build, and love it for the right reasons. I know this sounds like the sappy ending to the "ABC Afterschool Special" but don't discount it easily. If you're interested in building an online community solely to increase banner ad rotation, as a gimmick to drive traffic, or to exploit personal data, I can show you the Chapter 11 filings from many other companies in the past five years that had similar ideas.

Evolt, Metafilter, and NewsTrolls are just a few examples of online communities that love what they're doing, are having fun doing it, and succeeding as a result.

You may also realize that these sites share another factor. They were started by one or two people who had a vision of what it is they wanted to do, and they have a larger support base that shares and understands this vision and helps to achieve it. Although I founded evolt.org, there have always been 15-25 "admins" who share the vision, believe what our community should be, and share the load of the massive amount of work that's involved.

Listening to your community

The community often decides for itself what it does and does not like. Matt Warden (also an evolt admin member) describes a perfect example of this methodology:

The evolt.org website is based upon the voluntary contributions of its members. There isn't a panel of writers caged in a cement-walled cellar cranking out content, and we don't bribe anyone with anything (except fame!) to write articles for evolt.org. The site is simply a house for the voices of our members. Because of this, evolt.org as a whole depends on our members who choose to speak up and write an article. There are two problems with this, both of which were supposed to be solved by a project named AnswerThis.

The first problem we faced concerned the nature of how we normally receive new content submissions. Recently, we had a spell of three days in which six articles were submitted. In the following twelve days, we've had one new article submitted. We do our best to evenly distribute these spurts over a period of time, but ideally we'd like to get to a point where we have a constant content stream. The second issue is a little more complex.

Within the evolt.org website, we have categories of articles, such as design, code, backend, usability, etc..There were certain categories which were naturally more popular for which to author articles than others. In order to be a better resource, we needed to build up those lagging categories in a way that didn't make it look like we (the admins) were pimping for content from our voluntary contributors.

I was conversing with Michele Foster, friend and fellow admin, about these problems. Together, we thought that adding a bit of competition into the mix could be the ticket. We developed an idea called "AnswerThis". Every so often, when new content was lacking or if a specific category needed more articles, a member of the admin group would author an article in the "AnswerThis" category.

The article would detail a hypothetical problem tailored for a specific category. Our members, in turn, would write solutions, in the form of articles, and submit them to that category. The author of the highest rated of those articles would be rewarded. On the surface, this sounds like an excellent way for our admin team to prompt certain articles during certain times. On the surface, it looked like this might be the solution we were looking for. Below the surface lies the reasons why "AnswerThis" failed miserably.

Evolt started as an email discussion list. Members ask questions and other members respond with answers. The members of evolt have always been used to solving real problems. I had thought this would cause AnswerThis to fit well, when in reality it only added to the confusion. Members didn't understand that the problem was hypothetical and that the intention was to prompt an article, despite this being outlined clearly in the AnswerThis category definition (posted as an article in the same category). In addition to this, some feedback from our members suggested that the problem article itself was too vague.

Because of the expectation from our members of a tight relationship between problem and solution, members began to give two-line suggestions in the comments of the problem article, rather than solutions as separate articles. We also left too much up to the solvers. Not only did we leave the programming language up to them, but also the method in which they would attack the problem. This led to partial solutions that only hit one aspect or the other.

Following our "voice of the community" attitude, we took AnswerThis down very quickly after receiving explicit negative feedback and noticing the confusion our members were experiencing. However, we haven't given up on the idea. By examining why AnswerThis failed, we can better devise a project which will succeed.

Matt's story is a fairly typical problem among those who run their own communities: how to solicit contributions from the community without coming across as overbearing in your efforts to do so. In this case, negative feedback ensued from the community but we ended up turning it into a positive experience, as Matt points out.

Don't Stop

Obviously, this is a topic that could be expanded upon a great deal. Three things should be able to get you through any situation: never forget that you're still a member of the community whether or not you founded it, never stop having fun, and always thrive on interaction with your peers.

Whether you're building one, or becoming a part of an existing community, the rewards can be awesome. I'd challenge you to find out for yourself just how awesome they can be by either laying the foundation for a community of your own, or enjoying the two-way interaction an existing online community can provide. Unreasonable as it may sound, you'll make progress -- trust me.

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Related Topics: Community, Web Design

 

Daniel Cody is a certified Unix Systems Administrator who founded evolt.org, a worldwide community for web developers, and f2o.org, a friendly, open environment for the Internet community, and developers in particular, to host their websites. He currently lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, works as Director of IT for Starkmedia, Inc., and enjoys listening to obscure Jim Morrison bootlegs. Dan's personal website is at http://five2one.org/.

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