What are Online Communities?
I was in San Francisco a few months back and I mentioned to an old friend that my Masters program was focused on online communities. I noticed that every time I mentioned the word “community” he winced. So, being the brat that I am, I tried to fit it into as many sentences as I could till I brought him to the point where he wanted to punch me right in the face. Outright he said, “I hate that word.” The fact is, THAT word has beaten people over the head here in the U.S. for many years – both as a platform for politics and neighborhoods looking to reinvent themselves. It didn’t matter to him what the purpose online communities serve, just the fact that it related to the word community was enough for him to not listen. For those who have never heard of the term or who don’t really understand what it can do, read on.
Online communities allow people to organize and communicate in a virtual setting. It is a place that is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and people can get information, ask questions, look for answers and feel like they belong to something. Everything that a real community offers, a virtual community satisfies. Except, of course, the element of face to face communication. By realizing the lack of this physical connection, you can embrace the fact that this attribute is also a limiting one. How many people can you fit in a room? How many people can actually hear the message you are trying to discuss?
Let’s be clear though. There isn’t someone sitting at desk waiting for your email or message. Picture a huge bulletin board in a long hallway. You get a lot of people walking buy and reading the odd article or two. If it is a popular community you may have several people looking at the same bulletin board at the same time and that can facilitate some realtime communication. Most communities operate in a monitored fashion so that when someone does particpate or reachout for the first time, some notification process happens so that another participant(s) realize some sort of contribution has been made. The participants can then choose to communicate or add to the discussion.
If you are still unclear about what an online community is and how useful it can be, let me give you a good example. Health is a topic that is relevant and independent of technology and time. One of my best friends growing up was recently diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. Her and family and friends had a lot of questions. I stumbled upon an online community rich with video, links, chat rooms and forums. Pretty much everything you wanted to know about Fibromyalgia. The site allows you to be involved by participating in discussions or simply to use it as a research tool. Although this site started in 2004 the web-landscape has changed so much that getting a community site together takes less time, less money and less technology.
Here are some other popular online community topics: hobby oriented, professional, weight-loss, relationship driven, and health. As you can see that even in these five topics, the sub-topics are really endless. You can form a community around any issue or topic and your community members don’t have be participants to be part of that community. Remember, the only two requirements to starting an online community are: you have to make sure that people can find you and that you have people interested in the topic. Other than that, the ways that people discuss, absorb and communicate in the community are just features of the community. So explore, get answers and if you feel up to it start your own community.