Have just spent a fantastic day in the first of two workshops I'm attending at this years WebStock conference in Wellington. This is the 3rd running of the currently annual 5-day Webstock conference, with a great collection of influential speakers, web design and development movers and shakers from NZ and round the world.
But back to the workshop. The title as you may have guessed was "Designing and Sustaining Creative Communities". I come from a technical background and for me it would have been easy to slot into the technical workshop track, but this time I thought I'd explore some of the softer, people and community oriented offerings, and I was very pleased I did.
The speakers were social media consultant Derek Powazek and Flickr community manager Heather Champ who between them did a fantastic job of presenting in an informative, engaging and entertaining way, as well as fostering a real contribution from the audience, encouraging discussion and sharing of personal anecdotes around the area of online community.
The workshop began with some definitions of community, with the suggestion that people will not really consider a site a community until they fully engage with it. There was a recommendation that you seriously consider who the community is for, what users will do there, and why they will do it, and that when looking at features as a designer to be careful not to add them just because they are offered by competing community sites.
There was a lot of talk about establishing privacy policies, terms of service and community guidelines so that potential members have a real and clear idea of what they can expect and be expected to do (or not do) as a member of the community, These policies need not be terse legal documents, in fact examples were mentioned where the tone can be quite relaxed. The important thing is that they are accessible, available early on and that a user is not required to register or engage with the site before they get a chance to read them. These important foundational documents are a statement of intent and present the form of the community to potential members. They are often living documents which change with the community, and that when authoring them you should consider them a bridge between the legal team and the consumer, a sort of textual ambassador if you like.
There was also much talk about more formal documents that might be applied to members following their registration or approval, and that many sites have documents known as Abuse Grids where community managers have a framework for evaluating member behaviour and establishing how to manage any potential disciplinary action. It was suggested that community managers consider not being too specific with policies as this often encourages some to try and game the system, push things to the limit as they know pretty much where that limit lies.
Waikato University has a raft of policies and guidelines for student and staff conduct with regards to computer systems and general conduct, but there may be opportunities for broader or public facing community sites where these lines are not quite as clear and for which these issues might need consideration.
There was an interesting discussion in the middle of the day around the problem of deciding the level of barrier to entry when building a new community, ie what skills, background, information or validation a potential member may need or have to provide to become a member. There are two obvious approaches: have a very low barrier-to-entry which encourages broad and rapid uptake but with a correspondingly low signal-to-noise ratio, or, start with a high barrier where membership uptake may be slower but you should end up with a better quality of contribution. And of course there's the hybrid strategy where you start with the 1st model and slowly progress to the latter. An interesting approach Derek mentioned was having a few pages of text a potential member had to consume and if they had the patience to read the entire text and you still had the candidates attention then they were generally a likely candidate for membership.
The session for the day which piqued my interest the most was definitely the one on The Wisdom of Crowds (James Surowiecki) which as an idea depends on (from my recollection of the talk) community Diversity, Independence (members not overly influenced by others), Decentralisation (not too much top-down pressure) and Aggregation (averaging the opinion of the group). Just how this would apply in a tertiary education context like ours I'm not sure (I'm a techie remember, not a teacher :-) but the idea of harnessing the greater body of group knowledge was a fascinating one for me. Although there was a warning to not be blinded by the group-think problem (where a large group with an established community and processes may not conceive of things going wrong. To be aware of the opinion of the minority in your community, and to make sure you really know the community and encourage new members to keep the Wisdom alive.
Some other interesting design considerations where mentioned around the area of selfishness, ie providing for tools or features that fulfill the selfish needs of members and in a way play to their desire for recognition, fame, publicity or award amongst their peers. Heather discussed the Flickr interestingness algorithm as an example whereby the system selects user content artifacts for display on certain high profile pages based on secret algorithms, not just "the most popular", or "the highest voted" or visited, or any other specific metric, but more a combination of weightings and even some randomness amongst the items selected so that members get some recognition but don't have the ability to unduly influence or skew the results in their favour.
Invariably these algorithms are hacked as people game the system, as was the case for Flickr, but they can be tuned and changed over time. The great thing about these automated mechanisms is they present something of much more interest than a traditional leader-board or top-10-best-sellers type of ranking or popularity system for surfacing content.
Speaking of games there was some talk about the natural competitive nature of community members, comparing ranks and weightings and popularity between one another, this is generally a healthy thing for a community site, in fact an essential one in a lot of cases, but you need to ensure that the competition is at a level where it is actually healthy for the broader community.
The day finished with some entertaining discussion from Derek and Heather and the attendees in the room around how to handle Trolls (don't feed the Trolls) and some governance and disciplinary issues, which although interesting is possibly not as relevant to our more closed-gate community within traditional class-based communities. There was an impressive diversity of attendees at the workshop from a wide range of public and private sector industries and right across the community size scale, but the majority of the represented communities were open public forums.
I thoroughly enjoyed the day, and welcome anyone to contact me if you would like to know more about any of the observations or sessions I mention here. Leave a comment by all means. Thanx for reading this far (would you like to join my community :-)