Image Credits: IHS GlobalSpec CR4 | The Wire Association International, Inc.
Online communities are made up of people with similar interests and requirements who communicate electronically to discuss ideas and ask or answer questions. These groups are also called virtual communities and e-communities.
Functions of Online Communities
Initially, static web pages served as online repositories of information for users. With Web 2.0 came the possibility for users to generate online content. Many online communities use Web 2.0 technologies to promote creativity, collaboration, and communication across a secure platform. The term Web 2.0 describes a range of hosted services and product features that includes:
- Social networking
- Instant messaging
- Image and video sharing
- Other forms of online collaboration
Online Community Platforms
A community can be built on a commercially purchased, open source, or proprietary platform. Online community platforms are often programmed in PHP, SaaS, and .NET languages. Some functions of community platforms include the ability to:
- Post discussion threads or blog entries
- Post replies to existing discussions and link them together so readers can follow the conversation
- Share files, such as images, with the community
- Register as a member and maintain a community identity with a profile and avatar (image)
- Communicate with specific members of the community by sending and receiving private messages
- Receive notification of new posts
- Chat with other members in real-time using either text or video
Image Credit: Linking Semantically-Enabled Online Communities
Types of Online Communities and Networks
There are many different types of online communities and social networks.
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An online community typically focuses on an element such as a specific topic, geographic location, or purpose. Discussion is based on one or more of the following:
- Content in the form of blog posts, articles, product reviews, or how-to information that can be discussed.
- Forums where users can discuss and interact over certain topics at their own pace.
- Chat and instant messaging where users can communicate and collaborate in real-time.
People participate in forums in order to seek answers, help others, and have a sense of "belonging" to a community. CR4: The Engineer's Place for News and Discussion is an example of an online community that contains blogs, forums, and user groups, allowing like-minded individuals to meet and discuss topics that are relevant to them.
Traditional discussion boards (also called forums) may be administered by a company or academic institution, or by a third-party user with an interest in a particular product or service. Enthusiasts of a particular car manufacturer, for example, can discuss new releases and help one another troubleshoot problems.
Role-playing or gaming communities are used mainly for entertainment, but can also be used for training or educational purposes. Simulations can be useful for training medical students, for example.
Identity-based groups are based on factors like geographic location, ethnicity, gender, or some other personal characteristic. A corporation may maintain a blog to keep its employees up to date on news and events; the employees can comment on the posts right on the website.
Product reviews are another subject for online communities. CNET is a blog site that posts product reviews about consumer electronics. The members of the community can comment on the reviews.
Benchmark communities set standards for new feature sets. This type of community may feature a wiki, a collection of Web pages where users contribute and modify shared content.
Social networks are usually used by people who are interested in staying in touch with one another.
Image Credit: Adrian Dayton
Social networks encourage connections and interactions between people. Members can share content such as photos, videos, and updates with their connections. Facebook and Google+ are two examples of social networks.
Professional networks include networking sites like LinkedIn. Individuals can form connections and network with one another online to support their professional careers.
Participation in Online Communities
People may register as members of online communities and become active participants. Others simply read the community's content; they are known as lurkers. The majority of people who visit forums and blogs do not become active participants.
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A community's core participants are often made up of a small percentage of its members. These participants are highly active. They may informally take on the duties of welcoming new members and guiding them to gain an understanding of the community culture. They tend to respond to most of the posts.
Some sites employ paid members to generate discussions. Sometimes these paid members serve as brand ambassadors to promote certain products or services.
Site moderators review and act upon irrelevant, inappropriate, and negative content. Site moderation is a necessary function to keep a community on track. Moderation may include removing spam or reminding users of the site's terms of service. Moderators are often active members of the community. Site moderation itself evolves as a community changes.
Every community should have a community manager that oversees the operations of the community. From planning the content that appears on the site to guiding the discussion, the community manager keeps the conversation on course.
The community manager may work with a community architect to build or customize a software platform for use by the community.
Online Community Life Cycle
An online community may go through a lifecycle of four phases:
- Forming - The community is conceptualized.
- Storming - The community is created and begins to accept members.
- Norming - The community's content is self-supported by the members.
- Performing - The community begins to expand and/or break into more specific sub-groups.
Li, Charlene, and Josh Bernoff. Groundswell. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2008. Print.