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?


5 Responses

  1. Lots to think about here – I sent an email (hopefully to the right address!) w/a copy of a paper I wrote on online communities and their formation.

    • Hmmm, you know: I didn’t get it.

      alison at thehumanelement dot co dot uk???

  2. This is a great blog post… Your thoughts on how important the introduction is are spot on. We’ve noticed time and again in our research communities that if you spend some quality time in the introduction phase, it will reap dividends later on. It’s all about easing them in, regardless of the age. We also like to use a lot of video to get them really comfortable with who we are. That prompts them to open up quite a bit more.

    Thanks for posting! I look forward to reading other posts… (can’t believe I just found your blog now 🙂


  3. Off topic – Help with PM?
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  4. very nice information. thanks for posting this..:)

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