Creating "Places" from "Spaces" in Online Communities

Most of us who regularly peruse the Web have encountered good and bad examples of sites that aim to connect us with our peers in an online professional community. Today's Web 2.0 technologies have made it easier than ever to build these resources, yet many fail to sustain the sort of user engagement necessary to sustain true "community". So, what's the key to an effective online community?

No single answer exists, to be sure, but we can learn from the challenges faced by those attempting to build engagement in our cities and neighborhoods. Online, virtual communities face many of the same obstacles as our physical communities as they attempt to become a "place" for users (or residents) to engage with one another.

In his book "Native to Nowhere", Timothy Beatley outlines the attributes of a geniune physical community. Immediately, I thought of how these same qualities can be helpful when developing an online community:

  • Recognizes and emphasizes the unique qualities of the community: What are the unique assets of the users that you hope to engage? What does this professional community have in common? Emphasizing these traits allows your target users to quickly identify a virtual space as someplace that they can both learn from and contribute to.

  • Understands the environment(s) in which the community is situated: Are the people in this community close in proximity? If so, how can the virtual community build upon and encourage face-to-face connections? If not, how can the virtual community overcome challenges of distance and physical disconnection?

  • Understands and celebrates unique histories: What's the context of the community? What's happened before? How can the virtual community build upon and recognize work that's been done by community members?

  • Fosters artistic impulses: Taking a wide view of "artistic", how does the community let its participants express themselves? Do users feel empowered to add their contributions? To what extent do the protocols and restrictions in place on the Web site suppress participation?

  • Emphasizes local products, entrepreneurship, and ingenuity: How does the online community support problem-solving between users? How is expertise within the community made available to others? How do users become aware of the skills and expertise available?

  • Encourages engagement and participation: How is the design of the community accessible to participants? Is it easy to participate? Does the community appear to be dynamic to users?

  • Designed to facilitate active lives, foster social interaction, and development of deep community: Are barriers to participation incompatible with other professional demands of your intended audience? Can users communicate using tools that are most accessible to them? Are users able to communicate offline, or must everything be in public view?

  • Strives for social inclusiveness and revels in and nurtures diversity of many kinds: How does your community engage those outside your professional group? How are divergent perspectives encouraged? To what extent is there an atmosphere of "insiders" and "outsiders"? How does your community facilitate learning from those outside your intended audience?

These are lofty goals by any measure, but all online communities can benefit from considering these issues. Ultimately, we all want our online communities to be a "place" that people feel connected to, rather than just a "space" where seemingly random and disconnected communication occurs.


In September 2008, Aaron Ray joined our extended network of alumni.