First, what are they? Online communities can be defined as a group or social network of individuals who interact through online through specific media. I would say it simply as ‘an online network of individuals’. Although online communities have some common features, there are different ‘types’ of online communities. Two common ones are:
Discussion boards – where individuals typically share interests/ ideas on the same topic, (can be people with similar interests).
Social network and entertainment websites (such as Facebook).
Some of the features that I see that online communities have in common are:
- They provide the opportunity to maintain or build relationships. This will often will happen exclusively online, or will e exist alongside a ‘face to face’ relationship (such as what can happen on social networking sites.) For it to be a ‘community’, relationships need to be present in some way. Being on an email distribution list would not be considered being part of an ‘online community’ if it is simply used as a way of disseminating information.
- All online communities will have some ‘norms’, expected ways of doing things, processes that are followed.
- All online communities have some features in common with ‘traditional’ communities. Virtual communities resemble real life communities in the sense that they both provide support, information, friendship and acceptance between strangers. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtual_community
What, though are the features of online communities that are likely to lead to it being a successful online community? Successful online communities:
- Are well hosted/ facilitated. I like this quote that I found on a blog by Pamela Morris http://matei.org/ithink/2007/11/26/growing_community/
“An (online) host is like a host at a party. You don’t automatically throw a great party by hiring a room and buying some beer. Someone needs to invite an interesting mix of people, greet people at the door, make introductions, start conversations, avert fisticuffs, encourage people to let their hair down and entertain each other.” (Rheingold, 1998)
I agree that is so true!
- Have a clear purpose and reason for existing.
- All succesful online communities encourage positive interaction.
- Maintain momentum. Morris talks about ‘weeding and feeding, tuning and pruning’. People not only need to be drawn to an online community initially, but held within it, for it to be successful. This may happen, for example, through high energy discussion, which it is a facilitators role to encourage.
One of the things that interests me about online communities is that they have features in common with traditional communities. Some of the commonalities are that people will naturally take on ‘roles’, there are group norms, a ‘core group’ will often develop within the wider group. Also, they tend to attract ‘like-minded’ people, or people who identify with one another in some way. Equally, I think that the are elements missing from online communities. Some of these are the ability for people to express themselves through verbal expression and non-verbal communication, and the fact that online communities do not form within a ‘physical space’ or place. I find the lack of this second factor to be significant – human relationships often develop within a ‘place’ and that place can become significant within the relationships.
Links between online communities and online facilitation:
In thinking about this from an education perspective, a lot of learning (not just online) is done in social groups. For example, in a classroom people may be involved a small group discussion, and sharing of students knowledge and experience will ideally help all individuals in a group to learn more about a particular topic. In a similar way, online learning can mirror this to a degree. It is therefore an important role of a facilitator within an online learning environment to provide the platform for and encourage development of relationships.