Early days in online communities: access and social presence

The community staircase

The community staircase

This is a model of research community socialisation that I developed in a white paper for Virtual Surveys a couple of years ago.   I was inspired by two sources: first, the ‘forming, storming, norming, performing’ model of focus group dynamics that all qualitative researchers have drilled into them; and a similar five-step model developed by Gilly Salmon to account for online socialisation in online learning environments.

Most of the chat about community moderation skills focuses on the higher level issues of discussion and debate.   What I wanted to stress in this model was the importance of the two bottom steps, access (getting in) and social presence  (establishing your voice).

Access is probably the most-neglected element of all.  We might invite people.  We might screen them to find certain characteristics.  Whatever we do, participants do not arrive at an online discussion relaxed, chipper and ready to go.   Like the focus group attendee who’s late for a group, they’ve just been on a journey.  It probably involved an invitation and a link; then it may have involved some registration and some screening; then it may have required that they set up a profile.

If we are lucky, then the journey to community entry will have been smooth and enjoyable, like arriving on a clean train at a nice, well organised conference.  If we are unlucky, the whole experience will have been the satanic lovechild of Facebook, MySpace, and the worst online survey you’ve ever taken; and you arrive, bedraggled, twitchy and suspicious, in the online community space.

So, my first memo to community developers: please please put the same amount of effort in designing the entry journey (invitation and screening) as you do into the rest of the community. It will pay off in happy, soothed participants who are reasonably confident that they know who you are and what they’re doing.

Memo number 2 to developers is to think about your conversation feedback loops.   Assuming that your participants won’t be camped on the site 24/7, how are you going to tell them about new content, and how are they going to find out about answers to their own comments?   Emailed comment notification is usually a good idea; if you don’t use this, you need ways of being very sure that participants will visit and revisit regularly.

The last part of access is welcome.   Once you’ve made it in, it’s nice to get a friendly message with a bit of orientation thrown in, maybe a first task.  It makes you feel wanted and valued.

NB Apparently minor things in this journey can be quite important.   If you give no clues at all about the choice of a screen name (and there is another conversation to be had about that in the first place), do not come crying to me later about Bigbottom29’s sense of being bullied.  Think about your audience and their likely online experience.  The under 20s may crop and upload user images at the drop of a hat;  the inexperienced participant in your over-50s life insurance community may panic and flail. Give them some pre-prepared options they can choose from.

The second stage in community development is establishing social presence. For me, a true sense of social presence iss essential for proper discussion to take place.  This rather fluffy phrase means that participants can easily get a sense of what the community itself is like, what other participants are like, and equally are able to communicate themselves reasonably fully within the online setting.

In a community of passion – let’s say a Dr Who community – this will be done at a personal level through username, avatar/signature and point of view.

In a research community, the initial site content that a new recruit finds will be extremely important in helping them develop an understanding of what the community is all about.    How do new recruits create their own presence?  Usernames, avatars and profiles can all be helpful,  but I firmly believe you need to structure the initial online discussions carefully so that you and your participants can get a full sense of each other right from the start.

A good, simple way of doing this is to have a nicely-designed  Introduce Yourself thread.   Model the introduction carefully (model model model I would say) and (1) you’ll get some lovely data right there  (2) the participants will feel a little bit loved and valued and (3) the participants will start to come to life.  (Is this just me?  There is often a golden moment in an online discussion where you truly begin to understand who the other person is.  It usually comes out of authentic exchange, and it’s really what I’m trying to spark in those initial conversations).

What do I mean by model?  Usually there is some important story or introductory background that your participants want to get off their chests.  Let’s say you’re an online retailer.  You’re mostly interested in response to a new design concept; you’re tempted to rush on to that and make early introductions minimal.   If you leave intros entirely up to participants (perhaps in the interests of saving pixels) they will default to name, age, job that’s all 4 now luv u byeee!!!

You will have saved pixels and a bit of effort from the moderator, but your community will have a rather limited sense of itself;  having started out with brief comments and no strokes/feedback, they may never wind up to giving you more heartfelt or difficult comments on the design.   You didn’t appear to care about them, so why bother?   Good introductory experiences pay back tenfold, just as they do in a focus group.

A better self-introduction task would be to ask the participant to introduce themself and say a bit about the last item of clothing they bought, and their personal fashion philosophy.    If the moderator models this by talking about him/herself, or giving a full example, the participant immediately sees what you mean and has a go.    The participant has now contributed fully; add in a couple of replies from the moderator or another participant with similar tastes, and you are on the way to creating a community that will eventually talk without you. The trick is to pick something that is relevant to you and interesting for participants to do; and in the analysis you will probably come back to this thread more than any other.

Teaching my grandmother to suck eggs, I’m sure.

One final comment on the model: each step has participant views and moderator views.  The moderator just as much as the participant has to create a sense of genuine personality and social presence in the content that they write, the questions that they ask and the replies that they make.   Personally, I like moderators to be able to establish authentic contact, and that may mean disclosing more about themselves verbally than they would do in a face-to-face setting.

Still relevant? Do I need to tweak this now?  What else do you think needs to be in place during the first stages of community formation?

The meaning of silence in an online context

I’ve been pondering a few of the discussions I’ve seen on online versus offline research approaches:  Zebrabites’ thoughts on the need to understand users in person as well as hypertext;  Matt Rhodes of Freshnetworks’ recommendation that we understand people in natural online communities as well as specially-constructed research communities.   People share themselves and their opinions differently in different contexts.

We tend to treat an online conversation (on a message board, a blog reply, a social network) as an honest record, right there on the screen, of what Audience A thinks of Topic B.  Or, at least, we might elaborate, what Willing Contributors from Audience A think about Topic B.   As Katie and Matt suggest, it’s not quite that simple.

Why wouldn’t people say what they think, in an online network? Why might they keep quiet?  In my view, social pressures shape our conversations online just as much as they do in everyday life.  Indeed, some of those pressures to behave may be even stronger online.

The other day, I touched on discourse or conversation analysis, where you analyse a given conversation and you look at the way the participants frame their discussion.   You also look, as far as you can, at what’s missing.

What is the meaning of silence, online? (Or: have I gone mad in trying to express what I mean?)

Let me try and explain.  Online, we have talk (the posted conversation which we can analyse to our heart’s content) and we have silence (the large majority who read but don’t contribute).   The posted conversation may not be an accurate reflection of the whole, in the same way that conversations in a group discussion may not always be good representations of individual opinions.

What silences people who might otherwise contribute? Here are my top three.

The silencing power of strong opinions

If I read a blog with lots of passionate contributions, my decision to contribute will depend on my viewpoint and how I feel about throwing it into the conversation.   If I dislike loud online argument, and those who have already commented are arguing passionately with each other, I may choose not to contribute my dissenting comment.

Another example: a couple of years ago, I helped troubleshoot an online community that wasn’t working too well.  It was pretty unmoderated: new people joined but they rarely participated.  It turned out that the community was dominated by a small group of older, vociferous and rather right-wing users.   New users arrived, took one look at some of the ‘hanging’s-too-good-for-them’ rants, and ran away.    They didn’t feel welcome.

Perceived social disapproval

I may choose not to talk about something that actually excites me because I suspect that other people will be negative about it.   To take a minor example, I use the blog network, Livejournal, and I’ve recently become a convert to Twitter.  People on LJ are routinely scathing about Twitter.   When I first started using Twitter seriously, I didn’t mention it on LJ.   Eventually, I broke down and talked about it, and various of my LJ mates broke out and said ‘Ooh, yes, it’s great, I have one too and here it is! ‘

I would never have known if I hadn’t asked.

Online conversation persistence

In stable online networks, our conversations can be very, very easy to follow.   As a result it can be very hard to gossip: nothing is hidden.  In real life we can sit through a boring presentation and then have a whispered chat with our neighbour about how dull it was, before putting on a bright smile and congratulating the speaker as they breeze up to us and ask what we thought.

If we thought that the entire conversation with the neighbour would be retrievable later by the speaker, we might act rather differently. Online, a third party may be able to do exactly that.

The persistence of online conversations also leads us to be careful about expressing our opinion of someone who doesn’t appear to be present.   They might come along in 3 hours or 3 days (or 3 years), and get upset.

‘The lurkers are supporting me in email!’

They might be.

Silence is not necessarily agreement.  It can be curiosity, boredom, or dissent, at the very least.  All of us are lurkers (readers), as well as participants.  Sometimes, we watch the debate and we don’t join in publicly.

If a counter-opinion can’t be expressed openly for fear of social consequences, back channels can help participants let off steam.  Sites like PostSecret help some people express socially unacceptable views.   Private messaging options and quick polls (the kind where you can’t see what everyone else put) can make it safer to express yourself.

You can do all sorts of things to make a network a safe space in which to express opinions.   Ultimately, though, you might need to triangulate your findings by mixing methods: networks and one-to-one, online and in-person.    Lifting an online conversation straight from a ‘natural’ network  may lead you to some highly unreliable conclusions.

Thoughts? Have I managed to express myself on this one?

The business of making communities

On Tuesday I went to Freshnetworks’ session on online communities in retail. Incredibly interesting morning, with 3 different speakers talking about the use of social media from different perspectives:  Helen Trim from Freshnetworks giving her top tips on what to do (and what not to do) in terms of social media;  Joanne Jacobs on measuring return on investment; and James Hart from online fashion site ASOS, talking about the (internal) route to launching the ASOS Life community (apparently launch was this Wednesday so I hope he has recovered now).

For a long while, I used to feel that few people in businesses of any sort really understood what social media did and how it feels – from the inside – to participate.  It was so pleasant listening to these people talk knowledgeably about how to do this.  Helen Trim’s slides in particular nearly made me weep with gratitude.  Yes. This is exactly what it’s like.

Anyway, I chatted to a couple of the delegates who were tussling with the headache-making question of how exactly your brand has a ‘conversation’ with its users.   Can a luxury brand, for example, have any real use for the democratic, tell-it-like-it-is world of social media?  And can you use customer reviews when your CEO has a phobia about negative feedback?

Afterwards I also chatted to the cheerful guys who were making a video of the whole thing.  I may have been overenthusiastic. *facepalm*