Archives for category: Online Communities

What would happen if a battalion of US marines found themselves transported back in time and forced to fight the Roman Empire? It was a question casually asked on Reddit, expertly answered by a Reddit member and now reportedly set to be turned into a Hollywood movie.

The writer, James Erwin (who, by day, is a financial industry software manual writer), provided a brief and detailed account of the first 7 days of the confrontation during his lunch break and quickly racked up thousands of comments. Afterwards he asked the community what he should do next and they responded by requesting a sub-reddit for the story to develop.

Erwin wrote the eighth day on the new subreddit, including some material from fans on how the story could develop. Shortly afterwards a whole culture emerged with fan fiction, artwork and logos all appearing. It wasn’t long before Hollywood came knocking and advised Erwin to stop posting any more updates on Reddit and instead work on a secret screenplay for a blockbuster movie – a deal he accepted. To read a more detailed account of Erwin’s story check out this Wired article.

Reddit is fertile soil for crowdsourced flash fiction to grow. Anyone can post a compelling question, anyone can write a response and anyone can chuck in suggestions. This method of collaborative ideation is also something that established writers have begun to capitalise on.

Writer Neil Gaiman recently took to Twitter to call out for suggestions for a new collection of stories. The writer has described the project as a ‘ping-pong’ match between himself and his fans: he will write the tales, but the ideas and illustrations will come from his Twitter following. Brett Easton Ellis also conducted a brainstorm via Twitter while thinking about a sequel to American Psycho.

This is a method of writing that could only realistically happen on the internet; a place where readers can ‘write back’ to the writer in real time. As such this is an entirely new type of authorship – one that is in tandem with the profound changes that we see as a result of the digital revolution. This is a writing that comes from the logic of the screen as opposed to that of the book – and also a writing that destabilises the notion of a text coming from one single author.

Is this all that new? Could this development echo Roland Barthes essay from 1967, ‘The Death of the Author’? Barthes argues that it is never really an author that speaks. That the author was just an invention which emerged into modern society after the middle ages alongside the advent of science and mathematics.

Barthes made a call for the primacy of the author to be removed, for the convenient anchor of authorial intention to be thrown from the ship. According to Barthes, writing is where subjectivity slips away, where identity is lost and language speaks, not the author:

“The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.. [The authors] only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them. Did he wish to express himself, he ought at least to know that the inner ‘thing’ he thinks to ‘translate’ is itself only a ready-formed dictionary, its words only explainable through other words, and so on indefinitely.

Will we see the emergence of a new literature? Is the first classic collaborative piece of storytelling around the corner? What will it look like? Will it ever be ‘complete’, or will it be like Wikipedia – growing daily with thousands of contributors?


I listened to an interesting talk/Q&A with top community manager Justin Isaf who spoke, among other things, about what he called Soapbox Trolls.

These are the kind of people that aren’t joining a community to have a healthy debate about something, but rather want to wax lyrical and discourse at length about what they think.

They’ll often be incredibly well informed and will quote facts and figures at length. What they will often do is take the conversation that is taking place and raise it to a level higher – what Justin calls the meta-conversation.

Justin deals with these soapbox trolls by deleting their comments and banning them (note – this is not all the time, context is important). They aren’t there for the conversation, they are looking for the opportunity to talk about themselves.

The great thing about the internet is that everyone can have their soapbox. Everyone deserves a soapbox! But, as marketing legend Seth Godin states, ‘everyone doesn’t deserve their own audience’ – and they certainly don’t deserve your community as an audience.

Whereas Soapbox Trolls are not worth a community managers time, people that use bad language or are abusive are not to be banned outright. These people can often be turned around to become the most constructive members of a community. The important thing to remember is to teach people what language and behaviour is and isn’t appropriate inside your community.


More often than not, the purpose of building an online community is to gather large amounts of qualitative data. This post will look quite broadly at how you analyse and code qualitative data.

Analysis of qualitative data involves looking for themes, patterns and relationships within data. Taking an organized and thorough approach to the dataset ensures that nothing is missed out or wasted. Whilst it is important to take a structured approach to analysis, it is equally important not to become too formulaic – flexibility and fluidity is crucial.

The goal of analysis is to ‘distil the essence’ of the data you have available, and this essence will vary based on the type of project you are working on. For example, an advertising or PR company would want you capture the creative or inspirational essence of research, whereas insight and reliable evidence might be the goal with public sector clients.

To get to the essence of the data it is necessary to dissect, scrutinise and label chunks of content and place them under relevant headings so that relationships can be discovered.  This process is called coding and there is a lot of software that can help you do this, from free open source programs to expensive feature rich packages. Alternatively, a spreadsheet or word-processor can often be just as effective if you are working with a small dataset.

When coding, the first distinction to establish is whether you will take a deductive or an inductive approach to your project. Inductive means that your code scheme will come from the data itself whereas deductive refers to approaching your data with some theoretical ideas or concepts.

Most of the time you will be using both approaches. A deductive approach will allow the coding to be defined by a combination of a researchers own personal knowledge (acquired from their own reading and experience), the research brief and the contents of the discussion guide. This would be followed by an inductive approach where the contents of the dataset go on to determine part of the coding scheme.

The questions that you ask when coding qualitative data can be categorised into three approaches:

  • A literal approach – what words, dialogues, actions etc are used?
  • A interpretative approach – more analytical: what are the values, norms, rules, etc of what is being said?
  • A reflexive approach – what role have you as a researcher had on the study e.g. does the way questions are worded have an effect on the response?

With this in mind you can begin to approach your data by asking these basic questions:

  • What is going on?
  • What are people doing?
  • What are people saying?

Once these basic questions are addressed you can begin to probe a bit deeper:

  • What assumptions are people making and what are they taking for granted?
  • How does context affect what is said or done?
  • What particular words are being used and how frequently?
  • What concepts are people using to describe things?
  • What words are used in which contexts?
  • What are the repeated words and how often are they repeated?
  • What metaphors and analogies are people using?
  • Where are people attaching significance?
  • Where are people placing emphasis?
  • Are there instances of slang or colloquialisms?
  • How are transitions used– such as pauses, changes of tone, new sections and topics?
  • What pronouns do people use e.g. do they use I or us to describe an emotion?
  • How does a term or expression compare to something similar or different in other instances in the text?
  • What linguistic connectors are used to create relationships between words – e.g. because, before, after, next and ‘for instance’?
  • Are there any noteworthy omissions – something you expected to see but is missing?
  • Are there contradictions between different parts of the data?
  • What interesting stories are in the data?

These questions will help you create a code-framework that should cover all the salient parts of the dataset. Remember to keep an open mind when coding and don’t think of your code-framework as fixed – codes can be expanded, combined, split into subcategories or simply thrown away. Bear in mind that the same chuck of text can be coded more than once and that there are no rules on how large or small a highlight should be.

During the your second or third round of coding, new relationships will emerge and your code scheme will become more refined. You will want to begin using codes to highlight good verbatim’s that you will want to highlight in your final report.

Once you have chopped up your data and organised it into a strong coding frame you are ready to reassemble into a report.

For an organization, an online community can provide a wide range of benefits that would be difficult or impossible to acquire through any other means.

Below is a (by no means definitive) selection of some of the benefits that can guide your thinking about a community.

1. Voice of the customer

Every day organizations make important decisions. Most of these decisions will be made through a combination of gut feeling and talking with team members. An online community improves this decision making process by allowing you to run choices past a group of interested and communicative customers.

It allows you to put your customers voice right at the heart of your organizations decision process. It also allows you to ask things that you wouldn’t normally have the budget to research.

2. Painting a rich picture

At the core of an online community is the regular member – someone who logs in regularly and contributes content over an extended period of time. This relationship allows a community owner to make regular measurements of a members opinions, behaviors and attitudes.

This longitudinal approach to understanding a member builds a deep profile and allows researchers to chart changes in perception over time. This depth of information can be complemented by linking profile information to survey responses and other social network activity.

3. Increasing Loyalty

Offering a community environment to your customers or supporters will increase their loyalty towards you. By providing them with the means to enter into a prolonged discussion that help shapes the company or organisation, they will feel valued and much more a part of your organisation.

There is every reason to expect the community team to become friends with loyal members – after all, meeting new friends is a key community motivator! These friendships mean that you can generate significant word of mouth benefits.

4. Building the face of your brand

By making sure that you build a community website that oozes style, sparkles with ideas and bursts with activity you will significantly improve the image of your brand.

You will be viewed as an organisation that listens, that cares about it’s customers and is more like a person and less a faceless

5. Crowd-sourcing

An often quoted anecdote relates the story of Francis Galton’s surprise when a crowd of people accurately predicted the weight of an ox at a county fair. The average of all their guesses was closer than any individual guess.

A well designed community can allow you to create the conditions necessary (diversity, independence, decentralization and aggregation) to tap into the collective intelligence of crowds to solve a range of problems.

6. Co-creation and inspiration

People want to help you build! Communities allow you to develop a system of collaborative engagement with stakeholders that can be used for any number of creative design projects. Find your customers that have special skills or unique personalities and use their differences to aid your creative process.

Alternatively, just observing a community having a conversation about something can be a rich field of inspiration. By encouraging members to open up and by moderating them with the correct techniques you could find the direction you need.

7. Rapid reaction and instant input

A community is available at a moments notice to either collect immediate reaction to news stories and events or to help out with the day to day grind of planning larger research studies.

The quick accessibility you have to your own community means that you can fire ideas off them, get the members to discuss something whilst you brainstorm and any other task that needs a quick response.

8. Gathering unique replies and unique respondents

Running your own community will enable you to communicate with people in a way that removes interviewer or audience bias. Members can hide behind an avatar and can express thoughts and feelings in a true and honest way that they might not be able to in other research surroundings.

Furthermore, you will find that many people that would not be happy taking part in many other types of research are more than happy to take part in online community activities.

9. Creating a cross section

Whilst you may think that a community should be made of your customers or campaign advocates, a community can equally be composed of a broad range of people. This can be a groups of people that would never want to be involved in your organisation or those that are using your competition.

Limiting your community membership can be detrimental if you wish to use the community  for competitor analysis or for tracking broader societal trends. Having an amalgamation of different members will let you see what is really going on in society and in the marketplace.

10. The undefined

One of the greatest benefits of having a community is just to see what happens! Not having too much of a set goal can give you the freedom and flexibility to let your members define what the community becomes.

All communities should facilitate serendipity and create a space for the unique parts of your community – the members – to inspire completely new ideas.

Before diving deeper into the structures and methods involved in creating good online communities, I thought it best to highlight an important and recurring theme across community management websites.

The 24 hour rule states that any comment left by a member during a community discussion should be  replied to within 24 hours of initial posting.

Ideally the comment would be replied to by another member of the community as part of a rich and flourishing discussion. This, however, isn’t usually the case, especially in the early days of a community.

In the early days, there is a lack of commitment to your community. Members are still assessing whether or not this is something that they want to be a part of. They are conducting profit/loss sums in their head to work out if this is the place for them.

This is why the 24 hour rule is so crucial to a successful community.

You need to show members that this is a place where their effort will be listened to. Members need to see that your community is a bustling, busy and engaging place that they want to be part of.

Ignoring the 24 hour rule is a hallmark of companies with failed communities. They haven’t invested enough resources into ensuring that contributions are valued. Instead they have a forum ghost town with long lists of unanswered member posts.

Ensuring the 24 hour rule is adhered to is a key responsibility of the community manager. If a comment is left in the community and no-one has replied to it, then a good community manager will leave a reply.

As a community grows you can furnish experienced members with the responsibility of upholding the 24 hour rule.

It might seem that an online community is not something that can be engineered. A website can be made to look and function in a particular way, but a community is made up of people and people aren’t so easily programmed.

This is not the case. Across the web there are many different communities. Some of them spring up from the grassroots of the internet, and others are designed and managed using proven community building tactics.

Successful community building involves following a set of well documented techniques based on theories taken from a range of disciplines, as outlined in my previous post.

You start with a clear objective or mission statement and a desired outcome. From this, a community manager makes important decisions about the design of the community focusing on the following community levers.

Size and structure of site

There are a wide range of structural considerations when planning or running a community. For example, deciding to create a community with a small population will help foster a sense of exclusivity whereas a larger community may be harder to micro-manage.

Structural considerations such as the number of topics discussed in the community, the number of sub-groups and how members are recruited and screened will all determine the type of community that develops.

Form and types of content

Will content on the site be collected from outside sources, created by the community management team or generated by the users? Most likely it will be a combination of the three, so what percentage will come from each?

Will members of the community submit blogs, status updates, contribute to forums, upload media, fill in a profile or leave comments? Each of these different forms of content will have different effects on the dynamics of a community.

Organisation and management of content

Enabling community members to find the content or tasks that are relevant to them and preventing user distraction is key to a good user experience of a site.

Presenting particular bits of content to particular groups or individuals will ensure relevancy whilst implementing a way to monitor and remove offensive content is essential.

Relationships to other websites

What relationships will your online community have to other websites and social networks? Will you pull in profile information from Facebook or Twitter and will your community broadcast using these networks? Will you leverage the unique designs of sites like Tumblr and Pinterest? Will you tap into your members social networks to pick up new recruits?

It might be necessary to create relationships with other websites, such as syndicating the content of a news site to provide discussion material for your members, or tapping into another sites readership for recruitment.

Membership screening

By using registration forms and by recruiting through targeted websites and networks you can fine tune who becomes a member. Do you recruit people with similar demographics, attitudes and outlooks, or do you want diversity? Will you assign new members a series of tasks before they are accepted as part of a community?

Membership screening is particularly important in research communities as they often have very strict guidelines about who is a member. If a community has strict recruitment criteria then it is important to pay close attention to registration communication and make sure that expectations are well handled.

Allocating roles

At a basic level, you will want to have two tiers of community membership – member and non-member. This can evolve over time to include any number of roles. Experienced members should have their site privileges increased and an appropriate title such as administrator or elder should be awarded.

With these new roles should come an increase in responsibility and opportunities. Experienced members can begin taking over some of the management of your site and can help resolve conflicts. Furthermore, a clear path into these senior roles can motivate new members to contribute.

Rewards and sanctions

If you are directing a community towards a particular purpose, then capitalising on the power of rewards and sanctions can be really beneficial. By rewarding and highlighting the kind of behaviour and contributions you are aiming for whilst providing feedback and sanctions on undesired actions, you will be able to mould the shape of your community.

Rewards don’t necessarily need to be monetary – they can include highlighting and publically praising individual members contributions or awarding an increase in responsibility. Care should always be taken when delivering feedback, as you don’t want to put people off!

Framing and branding

The way a community defines itself, the way it asks questions and the way it writes copy are all major factors in how a community will develop. Fun, jokey or satirical content will attract a different crowd from content with a professional, official and serious tone.

How a community postitions itself in relation to other communities is important – is it in competition or collaboration with similar sites? Logos, typography, colours, taglines, images and other design considerations can all be used to brand and define a community.


These are 8 broad areas that are all within the control of the community management team that can be used to engineer the shape and growth of a community. Within these elements there are hundreds of different variables and choices, each with well documented outcomes.

I’m back.

After a long hiatus from this blog I’m breathing life back into it again.

So, I hear you all ask, where have I been?

I’ve been spending the last 7 months diving into the world of online communities. I’ve been trying to work out what makes people gel together on particular websites, exploring what makes some of the top communities so good and seeing what I can learn from community building guru’s.

The core lesson I’ve learnt is that the way to understand online communities involves taking bits of knowledge from a wide range of disciplines. For example:

  • Psychology offers deep insights into the motivation and drivers of community involvement.
  • Sociology provides a way to understand and measure the dynamics between groups.
  • Web development will help you choose the right kind of tools to manage and build a community.
  • Market research gives invaluable advice on how to motivate people and word questions.
  • Network science supplies some useful metrics to measure and visualize an online community.
  • Marketing provides invaluable copy writing tips to make your words attractive to members.

These are just a few of the areas that community builders and managers can learn from. Stay tuned as I explain some of the things I’ve learnt, share resources that I uncover and discuss (where possible) how some of the client communities I run are coming along.