Let communities choose their own path

Unless you’ve been sleeping in a cave for the past several years, you’ve undoubtedly heard a fair bit about the notion of “community”.

“Build a community,” the common wisdom goes, “and they’ll come to your Web site in droves-you’ll need to upgrade your server!”

Common wisdom also holds that communities are easy to build: simply put up a chat room, install a bunch of mailto fields so people can e-mail you, and set up mailing list software such as Listserv, Majordomo, or Lyris so people can exchange information. Voila! Bob’s your uncle.

Unfortunately, the common wisdom is wrong – or at least misleading. Part of the problem lies in defining the concept of “community”.

Communities are people with a common location, shared philosophy or heritage, consensually developed code of conduct, and shared characteristics or interests. Communities often consider themselves distinct from other communities based on these factors and on their unique needs.

Forging a community begins with an understanding of each of these aspects of the definition: your Web site provides the common location; the Internet culture’s underlying assumption that you exist to provide something free represents the shared philosophy or heritage. The concept of netiquette, which includes notions of privacy and security and mutual respect, serves as the code of conduct. And your content addresses the common needs and interests that bring people to your Web site.

That’s a good start, but even coherent, homogeneous communities comprise a diversity of individuals. Surfers with cable modems may cheerfully ignore your elaborate animated graphics and constantly changing banner ads, but technopeasants like me, who still make do with 33.6K modems, chafe at having to endure this visual pollution.

A student with time to burn can hang out in your chat rooms, hoping to meet someone who can solve today’s problems, but we busy wage slaves simply want to escape with the information we need, and we’re going to call your 800 number if we don’t find that information fast.

And the corporate buyer who visits because “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM” has little in common with those of us who visit solely to find out why we shouldn’t switch from IBM to a clone maker with equally good products.

So, if you create a community around your Web site, look beyond providing the outer semblances of community: design a site that can potentially work the way each of these very different members of the community wants it to work. The growing ability of software to let us customize a site comes just in time, as witnessed by the popularity of “My Yahoo” and the competitors being offered by most major sites and service providers.

But don’t stop there. Automated systems won’t approach the ability of human customer service representatives to respond to the unexpected any time soon, and until they do, you’ll have to figure out how to fake it. That means keeping a close eye on how people are using your Web site, but it also means planning to adapt to your audience’s unforeseen or changing needs.

More than half a century ago, some an unsung architect completed the design for a campus, but omitted the paved paths between buildings. When the client pointed out this oversight, he replied that it was intentional: by letting people pick their own pathways through the grass, he’d learn where the walkways should be installed.

The approach worked like a charm. The beauty of the approach lies not in its value as an anecdote, but rather in the elegance of the solution. Though the architect could have produced something reasonably functional by making assumptions about the users, he produced something much better by letting the users themselves show him what they needed. Listen to your users and let them show you how to build your community.

Hart (geoff-h@mtl.feric.ca) is a translator, technical writer, editor and a senior member of the Society for Technical Communication. He lives in Pointe-Claire, Que., where he works for a forestry research institute.

Horner is a partner at Sierra Systems Group Inc. He can be reached at alhorner@sierrasystems.com.