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Front Porches and Public Spaces: Planned Communities Online

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Front Porches and Public Spaces:

Planned Communities Online

Susan Huelsing Sarapin


Abstract

This article presents and critically assesses the person-centered, non-technical mechanisms by which organic Internet communities are initiated and sustained, the principles and practices that form the foundation for these communities, and the methods used to maintain them and by which their viability can be evaluated. It first takes a look at the history of communities on the Web by tracing the origin of purposive community construction online to the WELL, The Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, formed as a commercial enterprise in 1985. It then addresses the characteristics, scale, and affordances of an earthly prototype, the first American planned community called Seaside in Florida. Finally, there is a discussion about the meaning of a “sense of community,” its components of membership, influence, fulfillment of needs, and shared emotional connection, and how these inform the core mechanisms and principles for building and maintaining virtual community.


Introduction

Where else today but in the cost-effective frontier of cyberspace can the average person construct a community?1 With widespread availability of open-source (free) software applications for just about any use imaginable, a person with minimal computer literacy, a few hours, and $20–30 a month to spare can establish the functional framework for an online community. Of course, anyone who has ever published a site on the Internet is well aware of the implausibility of the nineties’ ubiquitous catchphrase from the movie Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come” (Gordon, Gordon, & Robinson, 1989). That bromide could have had only a very small window of opportunity, if any at all, within which to be considered true in regard to online communities, and that window would have been in the early 1990s.

Cyberspace is chock-full of communities of every stripe, from social networks to professional information exchanges. If a site developed with community as a goal has not been well-conceived at the outset, adeptly moderated and maintained, and frequently evaluated to determine if refinements are needed, the “community” may attract dozens or hundreds of users for a time or two, but it will never achieve the critical mass necessary for survival. This paper will present and critically assess the person-centered, non-technical mechanisms by which Internet communities are initiated and sustained, the principles and practices that form the foundation for these communities, and the methods used to maintain them and by which their viability can be evaluated. In order to put these tenets of successful online community building into perspective, we will first look at the history of communities on the Web, and point to when and how social scientists began to involve themselves in the study of these organic entities.


A Brief History of Online Communities

The subject of online community is relatively new in academic literature because experimentation itself in the building of community into Internet “spaces” is only about 20 years old. Rheingold was one of the first people to write about the experience by describing what is commonly recognized as the grand, social adventure in online community building called the WELL, The Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, which was founded in 1985 as a commercial enterprise (Figallo, 1993). Although the WELL was not initially launched with community per se in mind, but rather as a Web-based affordance for public conversation in the form of a computer conferencing system, it evolved into what Rheingold later coined as a “virtual community” (Rheingold, 1993). Rheingold defines “virtual communities” as “[S]ocial aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace” (Rheingold, 1993, p. xx).

Cliff Figallo, another early netizen, writes about the WELL in terms of its community characteristics when he calls it a “small town on the Internet highway system” (Figallo, 1993). By way of explaining its longevity, Figallo (1993) states that it “has survived primarily through the online personal interaction of its subscribers and staff rather than through successful business strategy developed by its owners and managers.” Clearly, he is asserting that although the WELL wasn’t planned as a community, its ultimate transformation into one was due to the sociability of its participants.

The WELL spawned numerous other computer-mediated, social aggregations on the Internet, and as computer technology began to make advances in hardware and software applications, public gathering places in cyberspace became more efficient, user friendly, affordable, and ubiquitous. Much has been written about the WELL as the prototype for today’s virtual communities, but the theories behind the planned shaping of online social and networking behavior leading to community constitute a new area of communication research. Since as recently as 2000, just six years ago, the phenomenon of online sociability engineering has been a topic of serious research when a few social scientists began to look at it as an offshoot of real-world community building. Extrapolating from human behavior theories borrowed from the fields of sociology and social psychology, communication specialists have developed their own theories of and principles for building, maintaining, and evaluating online communities (Preece, 2000, p. 148). To better understand the dynamics and effects of interaction in cyberspace, it is instructive to review some of the sociological theories underlying human group interaction in planned, brick-and-mortar communities.


Real-World Planned Community

In the actual non-digital, physical realm, developers collaborate with city planners and forward-thinking architects to build residential neighborhoods planned to evolve into self-contained, self-governing, mixed-use pseudo-towns made up of a post office, entertainment venues, a “town” hall, and other public spaces. The channels of sociability are built into the physical framework of the community with human-scaled living as a guiding principle. The Village Tannin (http://www.villagetannin.com/) in Orange Beach, Alabama is just such a community that was built to simulate the town of Seaside (http://www.seasidefl.com/) on the gulf-coast panhandle of Florida, considered by most to be the granddaddy of this genre. These two “villages” are examples of what are called “planned communities.” They represent developments arising from the New Urbanism philosophy, which emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and are characterized by walkable neighborhoods, open spaces, architectural covenants and environmental aesthetics, modified street grids, greater facility for pedestrian traffic, a central square, a school within walking distance from all homes, narrow streets, and front porches (Congress for the New Urbanism, 2006).

Although this movement came out of a desire to find an alternative to urban sprawl and its objectionable sequelae by emphasizing physical layout, its planned communities market themselves as places in which their residents can enjoy a “sense of community.” The Village Tannin puts it this way on its Web site: “Getting to know your neighbors as a natural part of daily living lessens the sense of isolation so often found in today’s large, modern subdivisions and gives residents a greater sense of community and security” (The Village Tannin, 2006).

In providing a description of what the sense of community construct would include, Plas and Lewis (1996) quote Sarason (1974, p. 157): “the perception of similarity to others, an acknowledged interdependence by giving to or doing for others what one expects from them, the feeling that one is part of a larger dependable and stable structure” (Plas & Lewis, 1996, p. 1). Unger and Wandersman (1985) attribute three characteristics to the construct when they suggest “the social component, including emotional and instrumental support and social networks; the cognitive component, including cognitive mapping of the physical environment and symbolic communication; and the affective component, or the emotional attachment individuals have to persons living around them” (Plas & Lewis, p. 1).

The most frequently cited definition of “sense of community” as it relates to geographically oriented communities is that of McMillan and Chavis (1986). Their research has demonstrated that the four major elements of the construct are as follows:

  1. membership, whose five traits are boundaries, emotional safety, a sense of belonging and identification, personal investment, and a common symbol system
  2. influence, a feeling that what one does and says matters or makes a difference
  3. fulfillment of needs, shared values, membership status and what benefits come from it, perceived similarity to others, and an economy of social trade
  4. shared emotional connection

As we will soon see, these four components are strikingly similar to those posited by several communication specialists who have written extensively on the topic of Web-based community and communities of practice.


Shepherding Community Ideals on the Internet

One cannot even begin to think about launching a site intended for community until thoroughly understanding the elements necessary for community to happen. Consequently, we must do our due diligence by defining what community is. As Preece (2000) articulately cautions Internet developers,

[C]ommunities are neither designed nor do they just emerge. How software is designed affects community development just as the architecture of a house affects those who live in it. How people interact in a community shapes its long-term evolution. And though people’s behavior cannot be controlled, it can be influenced (p. 6).

Preece then identifies the two concepts she feels not only lie at the heart of the process of developing online communities but also provide the framework for evaluating them, sociability and usability (pp. 7–8). This discussion focuses on the sociability factor, the mechanisms by which large-scale interpersonal interaction is fostered in the enthusiastically anticipated evolution of community in cyberspace.

Consistent with but not identical to the definition proposed by McMillan and Chavis (1986), Preece (2000), a proponent of operationalizing the theories of sociologists and psychologists, proffers her own considered assumptions about the meaning of “community” as it applies to online constructs. She identifies the four primary criteria for deeming an online aggregation of people a community as (a) people socially interacting with each other in order to satisfy their own needs or perform specific roles; (b) a shared purpose that provides a reason for the community’s existence; (c) policies exemplified by rules, rituals, and protocols that guide people’s behavior; and (d) computer systems that support and facilitate sociability and a sense of togetherness (p. 10).

The fourth item in her list is more closely related to the technical or usability facet of the entire process as she typifies it, but it could easily be modified into a more sociability-related term by calling this the human moderator/mediator criterion. The computer systems and software are more like the houses, streets, and public buildings so necessary for the habitation of a neighborhood by an aggregation of people. They provide the infrastructure or “place” and “space” for people to gather, and it makes sociability possible, but it does not necessarily ensure a sense of community.

Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder (2002) provide a succinct definition of “community of practice,” and then explicate each of its components in much greater detail. They say that it is “a group of people who interact, learn together, build relationships, and in the process develop a sense of belonging and mutual commitment” (p. 34). Their definition includes the concept of learning together, which is essential in a group that comes together specifically to share knowledge. The sharing of knowledge, per se, is not necessarily the reason for other groups of people to form communities, but as we see in so many proposed definitions of “community,” shared purpose underlying social interaction is.

Powazek (2002), a writer, Web designer, and community consultant, concisely expresses his definition of online communities in only 23 words: “Web communities happen when users are given tools to use their voice in a public and immediate way, forming intimate relationships over time” (p. xxii). Just as Preece and Wenger et al. do, Powazek expounds upon his definitional elements by laying out the principles of successful community building, maintenance, and evaluation derived from them. And now that we have a firm understanding of what community is, we can investigate the principles for developing and sustaining one online.


Core Mechanisms and Principles for Building Community on the Web

Due to the nature of human behavior, these guidelines sometimes overlap, and can simultaneously contribute to the effectiveness of two or more foundational components of the community.

Membership. One of the overarching themes that emerges from most definitions of successful real-world and online communities is that of membership or the sense of belonging to something larger than oneself. Many considerations go into the development of belongingness.

Principle 1: The community must be geared toward a pre-determined, identifiable audience. Certainly, one of the first issues to be given attention in order to facilitate the sense of belonging is that of identifying the audience, the participants who will be targeted to engage in the site’s interactions and whose contributions will dictate the community’s purpose and help mold its personality. A developer must determine the demographics of the intended audience, what its initial unifying goal will be, the relevant topic of discussion that will constitute its theme, its members’ age range, cultural and intellectual make-up, gender distribution, and more. A catchy, clever, short, representative name should be carefully selected to most aptly identify the group and its purpose. Whether the developer likes it or not, the audience members will be the movers and shakers and molders of every characteristic of the community if one evolves.

Principle 2: The community Web site must be seeded with audience-relevant, engaging content that models the type of content expected of its participants. Another aspect that has a large impact on the membership characteristic of a community is its content. A site meant to serve a specific audience must be seeded with high-quality, relevant content before even the first person completes a membership form. The content is determined by the audience’s goals and purpose, and serves as the fulcrum of textual communication, models the quality and type of verbal interaction, and reflects the shared interests of the group so anyone coming to the site knows the community’s identity and voice right away. It is also through content that a common language, system of symbols, and acceptance of cultural differences emerge. Content also spills over into the area of participants satisfying their own needs by deriving pleasure and gaining information through the contributions of the other members and moderators.

Principle 3: Draw boundaries around the community and establish barriers to entry. The setting of boundaries is another facet of belongingness and identity. Part of making membership in a community meaningful is making it difficult for everyone to belong to it. If one must expend a certain amount of energy to join and truly become a part of the community, then he/she will have made an investment in something that a group is trying to build (Powazek, pp. 168–169). If anyone and everyone can join without any effort, then there is no cachet associated with membership and the identity of the group becomes diluted and nebulous. Exclusion is not necessarily a bad thing, and does not detract from the democracy within the community.

Intimate Relationships over Time. Wenger et al. (2002) agree with Preece regarding the impossibility of dictating interactive dynamism (p. 50). Acknowledging that communities are organic in nature, they state: “The goal of community design is to bring out the community’s own internal direction, character, and energy” (p. 51). Preece (2000) describes the sociological perspective as indicating that perhaps the strength and kind of relationships among its residents are the most promising criteria for defining community (p. 15). Although these interpersonal relationships cannot be contrived, social interaction can be facilitated.

Principle 4: Enable participants to coordinate, cooperate, and collaborate with one another by setting up features that promote emotion-charged interaction and foster the acquisition of social capital. Preece (2000) purports that community norms of reciprocity, social trust and safety, and amplified status facilitate the resolution of social problems in online communities and promote stronger ties between members. She continues: “Opportunism is reduced and opportunity for collaboration enhanced. ‘I’ centeredness tends to be converted into ‘we’ centeredness” (p. 24).

A part of this social capital is the members’ belief that their ideas, points of view, and personalities will be valued simply in their individual contributions to the make-up of the whole. The members must feel safe and trusting that cultural, religious, philosophical, and gender differences will be appreciated as beautiful pieces stitched into the fabric of the patchwork quilt known as their community.

Principle 5: Provide and encourage an environment of hospitality, sharing, honesty, empathy and growth for exchanges between two people and between larger groups of people. This is what the adherents of the New Urbanism provide with their front porches and compact design with the pedestrian in mind. While a resident is walking along a sidewalk or narrow, tree-lined street, he/she comes into fairly close contact with other residents sitting on their porches. Spontaneous conversation has an opportunity to happen. Perhaps in the course of the pleasantries, the pedestrian is asked onto the porch for a glass of iced tea or lemonade. An acquaintanceship develops, and if the people involved find enough similarity of interests, the new relationship proves to be but a prelude to real friendship.

The concept of trust and security overlaps into this area as well. An online community must be a pleasant place to spend one’s time. The moderators, hosts, and others in leadership must be gentle in their enforcement of policies and in their mediation of squabbles or other social dilemmas. In addition, those who have planned and continue to build and maintain the community must allow for the various types of communication within the community. For one thing, two people should be able to find a private place if need be, e.g., a chat room or a form of instant messaging, in which they can carry on a synchronous conversation out of view of the entire community.

Members should also be afforded venues for partially contemporaneous conversation such as what blog formats offer. These allow the “speakers” to review previous messages, reflect upon them, revise their own, and respond to others’ postings. The qualities of review, reflection, and revision allow the conversation participants to find common ground with one another in a sharing environment. The theory of common ground “can be used as a framework for determining how two people or a small group validate that they understand each other” (Preece, 2000, pg. 156).

Fulfillment of Needs. It must be understood by the community developers and leaders that people will become members at first because of their personal expectations of what the other members will be able to provide them. Each will come to the site with a list of needs to be accommodated, most often without even a conscious realization of the list. According to one relatively recent appraisal of why people “hang out” in virtual communities, “Humans have a need to belong and be affiliated with others (Watson & Johnson, 1972), because groups provide individuals with a source of information and help in achieving goals (Watson & Johnson, 1972)” (Ridings & Gefen, 2004, n.p.) Ridings & Gefen (2004, n.p.) also comment on the importance of friendship in online communities as a need that requires fulfillment for some:

Friendships in virtual communities can provide additional benefits beyond that of information exchange and social support. The feeling of being together and being a member of a group of friends comes with the notions of being part of a group, spending time together, companionship, socializing, and networking. Friendship in this context is about the value of being together, unlike social support that deals with seeking emotional help or helping others.

Some Web surfers will come across an attractive site, read the home page, and instantly become engaged by its content. Some will get involved only with reading the site’s blog entries because the subject matter is personally relevant. Another group will become actively involved in contributing content in the form of sharing personal and/or professional commentary regarding the topic of conversation because they perceive the community as vibrant and alive. And still others will share personal anecdotes, and receive in turn commiseration, validation, sympathy, empathy, appreciation, kudos, and more. Now these are just a few examples of why some online users remain at a site for a specified period of time.

Principle 6: Anticipate the need for the community to develop a history of its existence and textual interactions. If the participants never do, or cease to, get what they expected from the other community members, they will leave the community and go elsewhere to begin their search anew. One day, some of these transient members may come back to see if the community has evolved in any significant way that would bode well for a better “fit” this time within the group. Perhaps the intellectual level of the conversation has risen to meet the need for a more articulate level of discourse or a higher quality and reliability of shared information. Or maybe on the revisit, the user discovers a greater use of empathy or emotion in the messages…a more obvious camaraderie, good will, rapport, commonality, or familiarity. If the community seems to be different after a period of time, it has successfully adapted to the needs of the members who have guided the evolution. If it remains the substantially the same, but still maintains the same or greater number of members, than it can still be said that it has successfully attended to its members needs and possibly has added or enhanced features that the community demanded.

One way in which a newcomer to a community can evaluate how well the leadership has cared for its residents’ needs is through a perusal of the community’s archives, its history, so to speak. The history also serves to illustrate the community’s identity and identify those participants who have remained members since the community’s inception. So now that we have seen some of the more vital attributes necessary for building community online, we should take a look at some major aspects of sustaining a community.


Core Principles for Maintaining Community on the Web

Today, there are hundreds of thousands of Internet communities with more coming online every day, but their high failure rate points to either poor preparation and conceptualization before launching the site or poor management while the community is gaining traction and critical mass. In one research report on attempts to motivate online community members to contribute to the conversation, the authors explained that “in open-source development communities, 4% of members account for 50% of answers on a user-to-user help site” (Lakhani & Hippel, 2003, (Ling, K., Beenen, G., Ludford, P., Wang, X., Chang, K., Li, X., Cosley, D., Frankowski, D., Terveen, L., Rashid, A. M., Resnick, P., & Kraut, R., 2005, n.p.).

Principle 7: Find ways to make community contributors feel unique and that their contributions make a difference by fostering group ownership and a shared emotional connection. People are more likely to contribute to the community conversation when they feel unique or special (Ling et al., 2005, n.p.) Preece (2000) suggests encouraging community participants to verbally recognize the postings of others within the communication venue, acknowledge them in their responses, and reciprocate when one can. She also recommends that posters occasionally refer to the benefits they derive from membership in the community because it reinforces group commitment (p. 294).

Principle 8: Establish policies and rules of conduct using language and tone that indicates that the rules have been written to engender self-governance and a sense of personal ownership by the community members themselves. All virtual communities need rules, policies, and protocols for their survivability. This is actually a function of the development team before the site is launched, but at that time, the policies should be minimal and fundamentally nonrestrictive, and most important, communicated clearly and visibly (Powazek, p. 99). The role of good cop becomes a truly vital responsibility of the host or moderator once the group begins to see itself as a community. The policies are, and should be, fluid. They will be in a state of flux until the community has established itself as a viable and dynamic organism. The way the members want the behavior to be on their site will require modifications in order to model appropriate expression and action.

For example, if a person engages in an ad hominem attack (a.k.a. flaming) on another member because he doesn’t respect the other person’s opinions, the others in the group may feel that this is totally inappropriate behavior in their community. In order to maintain a civil and respectful tone of discussion, they would appeal to the moderator to create or enforce a rule against such attacks. Usually, a warning is enough to put an end to the bad behavior. If the warning fails to discourage the behavior, then the offending member is apt to lose his privilege of membership for a specified period of time.

Rules enforcing is but one responsibility of the moderator. How large a role the moderator plays depends on the size and complexity of the site. Powazek (p. 101) recommends small, compactly organized, and narrowly focused communities—which sound very much like the real-world, New Urbanist-style communities—in which the role of the moderator is abridged. A smaller community lends itself more manageably to self-rule.

Metaphorically speaking, instead of dealing with a city of millions of people moving around on foot, in taxis, on buses, and in cars talking to each other on land lines and fax machines, on cell phones, and by screaming at each other from vehicles and on the street…we can choose to establish a village or neighborhood of people who are able to walk to see one another within a few minutes’ time and communicate with each other by leaning out their windows or by meeting each other on someone’s front porch or at the post office or on the village square. If all residents know each other and understand the community norms, they are much less likely to behave or speak in unacceptable ways or to require mediation of disagreements. They can work things out on their own. Of course, the neighborhood association or town council still exist, but their roles become much smaller and less important.

Principle 9: Cultivate a sense of accountability, continuity, and flow. Explaining how to operationalize this principle is as difficult as explaining how people fall in love. Without anyone dictating these qualities, it will become apparent whether or not a community has developed them. It must come from within the nature of the developing community itself. Whether or not the members are anonymous, any one member should be able to alert the others to someone’s dishonesty or incivility or any other quality or behavior that does not live up to the group’s norms. The members force the “sinner” to be accountable, own up to his/her transgressions, and change or they can boot the incorrigible one from the premises.

Continuity and flow are qualities that are recognized over time. They are primarily concerned with the dynamics of the interpersonal relationships and how they are manifested throughout the ongoing conversation. They can be inferred through a reading of the archives and over a specified period of time in the present. The two attributes work in concert to make the experience exciting, engaging, and relevant to its members, new or old. Turner (1982) would probably attribute a great deal of the flow of a community to the presence of communitas:

When the mood, style, or “fit” of spontaneous communitas is upon us, we place a high value on personal honesty, openness, and lack of pretensions or pretentiousness. We feel that it is important to relate directly to another person as he presents himself in the here-and-now, to understand him in a sympathetic way, free from the culturally defined encumbrances of his role, status, reputation, class, caste, sex, or other structural niche. Individuals who interact with one another in the mode of spontaneous communitas become totally absorbed into a single synchronized, fluid event (p. 48).

These qualities cannot be forced upon the community, but they will evolve into the essence of the community. If either or both become disrupted, the moderator can and should step in to set them back on track. Continuity and flow will emerge as the site’s personality that infuses the community’s purpose, and how they are perceived will determine who joins, who remains, who leaves, and ultimately, how vibrant and viable the community becomes.


The Chief Principle and Mechanisms of Community Evaluation

Principle 10: Evaluations of community sociability and usability must be conducted during its development, soon after launch, and at specified times throughout the community’s evolution in order to assess the members’ needs and if they are being fulfilled, and to predict the community’s chances at success (Preece, p. 301). If one could select just one principle from all of the ones delineated in this paper, this could easily be considered the most critical to the ongoing success of a community. It is the principle that recognizes the inevitability of human error and the unpredictability of human behavior. A developer can plan to the nth degree for the best in intuitive usability and unfettered, democratic, egalitarian sociability, and still witness yet another failure of a group of people to morph into a community. According to Baym (1998), “It may not be possible to specify the specific factors that will combine to affect CMC outcomes in a particular group in advance of actual interaction, let alone what the impact of those factors will be” (n.p.). However, by defining benchmarks for success along the way, and taking the time and effort to evaluate various aspects of the community as a living, breathing organism, any part of the design, functional framework, or policies can be tweaked to better facilitate the growth and viability of the community.

There are numerous qualitative and quantitative measures available for conducting assessments of a variety of variables associated with the dynamics of online interpersonal communication. The ones selected for use will be determined by the goals of the evaluation and end-user of the results. Developers assess for the purpose of influencing the community’s evolution; managers are interested in the financial or business impact of the group; and researchers evaluate to answer basic research questions (Preece, p. 303). This paper assumes the developer’s position.

Developers typically use observation and interviews or surveys to obtain information about user needs and to verify that user requirements have been addressed and fulfilled as thoroughly as possible (Preece, p. 309). Infrastructure and software requirements are more related to the technical side of the community equation, so that will not be discussed here in our discourse about sociability despite the fact that objective usability is a much easier factor to measure than is the more subjective member satisfaction. Because statistical significance is not the aim of a developer’s assessment, the number of members interviewed or surveyed does not carry the import that it does in a researcher’s evaluation (Preece, p. 310). Generally speaking, the more members questioned, the better; the more frequently the evaluations are conducted, the better.

Open-ended questions related to sociability within a community could include the following:

  1. Can I express myself in the manner I choose? If not, why not?
  2. Do I feel that my contributions are being accepted nonjudgmentally? If not, why not?
  3. Is the moderator doing a good job of keeping the conversation on topic? If not, what do you think should be changed?
  4. Are the rules and policies clearly stated and easily found on the site? If not, how can we improve this situation?
  5. What policies or protocols do you think should be added or deleted?
  6. Do you find the discourse to be primarily civil and respectful? If not, what do you think we should do about this?
  7. Do you like being a member of this community? If so, why? If not, why not?
  8. How long have you been a member of this community and why have you remained a member?
  9. Why did you join this community? Under what circumstances do you think you would leave?

There are many other questions that could be asked, and they should be asked if their answers could lead to improvements in the quality of the social interaction. The enhancements may be related to the content, the perceived maintenance and support of the original goals, new trends, etc., but the sociability function is directly related to the usability function, so this interconnection should be seriously reviewed as well. By observing and evaluating traffic, the number and frequency of postings, and the messages themselves, other factors can be measured in more quantitative ways. Again, the methods that are employed will be dictated by the type of information wanted.

The time may one day come to make the decision to “kill” a community. The possible reasons for doing such a thing are many, but the final decision to do it and the chosen method for accomplishing this must be thoroughly and critically considered. After all, the community actually belongs to its members, and they should be included in the decision-making process.


Conclusion

This paper has laid out 10 major principles for building, maintaining, and evaluating online communities. One could easily posit 20 or even 30 such principles. Distilling these to only 10 was a difficult exercise, but I think the 10 “commandments” listed and explicated here are crucial if one hopes to imagine, initiate, invest, insure, and influence a thriving community. No matter how skillful one is at planning for every conceivable event in the life of a virtual community, just as in the real world, its inhabitants will define it and direct its course. In some curious and enigmatic way, it will forever bear the mark of every person who ever sat down for a spell on its front porch.


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There is no scientific consensus on the definition of “community.” For the sake of simplicity, this paper uses the Random House definition as follows:

[A] social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists (usually prec. by the): the business community; the community of scholars (Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 2006)

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