I just had another discussion about the amount of media attention (or lack there of) the Occupy Wall Street protest was seeing. There have been slews of reports that Twitter may be blocking the trending topic. I just did the most basic of tests. I searched over and over again for both #OccupyWallStreet as well as many of the current trending topics. Over and over again, it seemed clear to me that #OccupyWallStreet was experiencing far more posts than any of the trending topics… by a considerable margin. Check out the post times in the following image capture:
Definition of a Virtual Community
I could simply post a link to wikipedia’s definition of virtual community and leave it at that. The free encyclopedia says:
However, I think it important to carefully consider the scope of this definition. In 1910, an information technology called ham radio began to connect groups of people. Ham radio communities are different from our modern view of Internet based virtual communities; however the idea is the same and still fits our definition. Thus, ham radio users formed their own “virtual communities”.
But, the idea could be even older than ham radio! Hundreds of years ago, American Indians used an information technology known as smoke signals. (this connection was mentioned at sxsw) Perhaps native Americans used these smoke signals to form virtual communities of their own.
I suspect one could reach further into history and find an endless slew of arcane virtual community examples. However, in our world and our time, Internet based virtual communities have come and gone in numbers far beyond my desire to estimate. I think its safe to assume that the Internet is by far the most popular virtual community platform in history.
Examples of Internet based Virtual Communities
Here is a brief and random list of technologies that support various types of virtual community on the Internet:
Forums: Forum software has grown to be the de facto solution for building an instant community. Generally speaking, forums work much like mini versions of Usenet. The advantage of using a forum solution is the ability to quickly provide a standard yet powerful communication platform. The disadvantage is inheriting a batch of common social problems that seemingly result from the design of the technology. Generally, the only way to overcome many of these social problems is via constant moderation of the system. This can often times turn what seems like a cost effective solution into an extra expense.
IRC: Internet Relay Chat is the oldest underworld on the Internet. Servers and networks are generally provided by enthusiast instead of corporations. Chat networks of all kinds have come and gone, meanwhile the world of IRC always persists. It is not uncommon for IRC communities to grow significantly large. While the technology has slowly evolved, the core of it remains mostly the same.
Blogs: Perhaps mostly successful because of their self-promotional nature; Weblogs have grown into this creepy Death Star esque concept called the Blogosphere. With Blogs, the supporting technology seemed to have slowly converged instead of suddenly being invented. While the pointless ramblings of the Blogosphere may be filling the Internet with seemingly trivial and pointless data, all the fuss brought us innovations in technology such as the wonders of the RSS feed.
Social Networks: Somewhere along the way, someone decided to start looking at ways we can map our relationships within virtual communities. The weblogish site known as Live Journal does this by allowing users to maintain friends lists. This feature allows a user to explore posts made by friends, friends of friends, and so on. The concept goes a step further on MySpace: a conglomerate of far too many trendy communication technologies that encourage the exploration of the social network via photos. These sites have often become brave new networking grounds for various industries. MySpace, for example, seems to appeal to performers – ranging from bands to porn stars – who are looking to promote their talent.
MMORPG: Multiplayer computer (and video) games are popular foundations for virtual communities, but none more than the massively multiplayer online role playing games. This technology provides a very natural aspect to community development – the aspect of space and time. Where many communities allow users one-click instant access to another section of the community, an MMORPG provides a conceptual world where a user must spend time moving from one location to another. This concept of space is the key factor in how human communities began forming in real life. Remember, without information technologies, communities could only form among groups of people living close together. This suggests that the aspect of space and time should greatly influence the social development of a virtual community.
ARG: Alternate Reality Games probably aren’t as new as they seem. In fact, being more of a game than a technology, ARGs might not be appropriate for this list. However, the realm of ARGs seems to be a popular foundation for many recent virtual communities. Perhaps one of the most recent and popular ARG related communities is Our Colony. In my experience, these games/communities are generally marketing driven campaigns. I would love to see examples of ARG communities that are not related to a corporate agenda.
Wrapping It Up
The information above is not comprehensive nor particularly uncommon knowledge; however, many of the ideas I’ve pointed out are good foundations for future discussions. There’s so much more I’d like to talk about and I think it might be fun to see how long the above list could be; so I invite comments about stuff I missed.
In the future, I’ll offer extended dialog on the social and technical aspects of various virtual community types and try to note some things that can be learned from each.
It’s been a few days since I returned from SXSW. The trip as a whole was wonderful. I enjoy being in Austin no matter the reason; and this trip was particularly rewarding. However, the Interactive Festival itself was less than I had hoped for.
I hoped I would find myself surrounded by scores of seasoned professionals. Rather, I found myself waste deep in blogosphere evangelists. Instead of being excited by the potential to interact with people from all over the industry, I found myself slightly creeped out by hundreds of Apple laptops sending blog updates through the air around me.
The First Day…
Jeffrey Zeldman provided my introduction to the event with his keynote. I enjoyed it. From there, many of the panels were very good. I found Digital Convergence in Central Texas to be very informative, although I would have liked a little more time for questions. Social Software and Shades of Trust was probably one of the most technical panels for the entire event, but I felt a bit out of place. Both panels were well done, and got me inspired about the rest of the event.
The Second Day
About that time, my significant other showed up. She works in promotions, so we hit Open Source Marketing next. Things started to break down. One of the panelists seemed more like a used car salesman than any kind of information technology professional. Meanwhile, too many questions from the audience were preceded with a discussion of their personal blogs. But, at the very least, there was some value in the panel on the whole.
I was involved in several start-up companies, but I was never involved in investor relations; so we attended the panel on How to Obtain Start-up Funding. The panel was great, but the crowd was so thin. It seemed I’d finally escaped the blogosphere zombies, I guess they’re not interested in business. Anyway, “Social Software” was the whisper on a handful of lips in the room. The panel was one of the best panels we attened. I left feeling excited.
The Third Day
Optomistic, we took a bold step and attended a panel with “Blog” in the title. As it turns out, Blogging While Black was full of excellent panelists. I do, however, miss an Internet that seemed to be colorblind. I really enjoyed the days when online characters lacked ethnicity, race, age, or even a face. I suppose those days a long gone, and I think it’s a little sad that the next generation will never get to experience it.
Design Eye for the Idea Guy was almost good. Somehow I got the impression that it would be a live redesign, not the analysis of a redesign done shortly before the event. Too bad.
We woke up early for the last day, and we raced our ways to the biggest let down of the entire event. I was stoked about a panel called Web Design 2010. I was ready to chew on statistics and hear from educated industry professionals and scholars about the current online trends. I was not impressed. It wasn’t that the panel lacked interesting, talented professionals. Doug Bowman‘s work is a big inspiration to me and I have much respect. Just, somehow, the panel was completely inappropriate for the subject matter.
The moderator’s first question to the panel was simply dumb, “Are Web apps going to happen?” As a developer of Web apps, I was shocked by the question, and more so by the answer, “That depends on how you define Web apps.” There I was, sure that someone had defined the term “Web application” already – silly me. Eris Free dodged the topic with a comment about not having had her coffee. What ultimately followed was a horrid discussion on technology with gross misinformation. Panelists constantly referred to the Internet as the Web. They also referred to network applications as Web apps. It was obvious that the panel lacked having a single software engineer or even so much as a server side programmer. The panel did not seem to understand the basic infrastructure of the World Wide Web much less networks in general.
The panel would have been much better if the subject matter related to topics the panel actually knew a little something about. I felt bad for some of the panelists as they were obviously uncomfortable. More so, I felt really bad for the attendies, as many of them were eagerly learning horrid misinformation. In that regard, I was really upset by the panel. So much so, that I couldn’t address the panelists afterwards, even with my significant other urging me to do so. I feel better knowing I wasn’t the only attendee left disappointed.
We barely managed to dodge Blogging Versus Journalism. Whew!
We made it back from lunch just in time to slip GearboxSoftware.com in the hat for the Accessibility Shootout. When the panel tore into the first site they picked, I suddenly wanted to take mine out of the hat. It was too late, and I ended up in the spotlight. For the most part, I really enjoyed it. The panel was well informed and really dug into the details of the site – I learned a lot in the process. In the end, they told me I was doing a good job and headed the right direction. Given our target audience, I felt real good about where we were at with accessibility. Before we left, my significant other managed to get an autographed copy of Joe Clark’s new book.
SXSW in Summary…
SXSW was not what I had hoped. I must admit, for a film and music festival, they’ve worked hard to make the Interactive aspect work. However, coming from a technology background, the event wasn’t the focus I was looking for. I feel there is a missed opportunity in Texas for a gathering of information technology and Internet culture specialists.
The Trip in Summary…
The best part of the trip, for me, was catching up with two extremely talented Austin developers, Kirk and Vito. My breif time with each of them provided more depth and insight into our industry than every panel I attended combined. Mixed with a little time spent enjoying Austin with someone I love, and you have a very wonderful trip indeed.
It snuck up on me a lot faster than I thought it would… I barely finished upgrading our forums to vBulletin in time to go…
Tomorrow morning I’m off to the SXSW Interactive Festival. Many of the interactive panels have sparked my interest including: The New New Economy, Web Design 2010, Digital Convergence In Central Texas, and Open Source Marketing. The interactive segment of the event has really grown since I spoke there in 2001. Even Wired is talking about it.
Time to finish packing and snuggle into bed, the 5 hour drive awaits me in the morning.
Every industry has it’s own jargon. It follows that the Internet, and every industry built around it, has it’s own jargon. Jargon develops because early adopters of – something – have to find words to describe the new concepts they discover, learn, or create. I’ve just reached a point where I may need to create another word for our Industry’s jargon.
But first, let me tell a story (warning, I’m about to brag). Around 1998, I “came up with” a term to help me explain part of the website development processes to a client. This term was “Information Architecture“. Later, I continued to use this term while working in a different studio. Sometime after the demise of that studio in 2001, I noticed the term listed in the resume of a fellow x-employee. Not long after this, I started to notice the term used here and there. Finally, I found the term in Wikipedia. If you reference the history of the entry, you’ll see entry was first added as a term in Feb 21, 2003. But it wasn’t until May 25, 2003 that a Web centric definition was added to the entry.
Well, now I am once again looking for a new term. Given the scope and nature of what I’m doing, and more so, what I plan to do at Gearbox, the title “community manager” seems inaccurate. The title implies management over the community itself – the populous. Lately, I’ve been very concerned with the foundation of that community – to be more specific, I’m talking about the software that allows the community to exist. While researching the subject, I found myself looking for an appropriate verbal container for this discipline.
As I pondered a new, more appropriate title – three came to mind:
“Community Designer” in my mind, suggests visual design. Perhaps I have this connotation because I mentally relate to “Web Designer”. That, alone, turns me off on the term.
“Community Architect” initially appealed to me. I connect Architects to buildings, and buildings come together to form cities… and cities hold communities. An artistic touch, so to speak.
“Community Engineer” seems equally satisfying. I think of “software engineers”. While it may not have the same clever community connection that Architect has, it does more technically define the role I’ve visualized.
I’m unaware of any previously defined title, and I see this discipline growing into it’s own all over the Internet. While most companies pile their online communities onto message board software, there exist a wide variety of unique virtual communities. Some of these try something new and different while others just collected a lot of good ideas and mash them together. Once you open the scope of online community up to any Internet technology, the whole idea of what a community really is becomes very broad.
From blogs to games, virtual communities are diverse both in function and in audience. Occasionally, they even have a purpose! How long until an industry evolves around the design of custom communities? Not long, because it’s starting to happen right now.
Now we’re “Building” Communities….
Have you used MeetUp.com? Have you found it to be a success? I tried it. I spent months failing to find any of the groups I hoped to; but finally, I attended my first meet.
For anyone who doesn’t know, MeetUp is all about finding groups of people who meet locally. These groups are based on a particular interest. Groups range from politics to hobbies. After all, Time Magazine said, “No matter what your interest, there’s a Meetup for you.” Time loved the site so much, they listed it in their 50 Coolest Websites.
However, my experience hasn’t been “cool” in the least. I started my search with some of my hobbies. Perhaps it’s my geographic location, Texas, but snowboarding just isn’t popular enough in to get a meet going. Fair enough, but I know mountain biking is popular in my area. However, it apparently is not popular with the Meetup user base.
After searching long and hard, I finally found what appeared to be an active Meetup community – the Dallas PHP Users Group. So, I took the time to attend the next meeting. At 185 members strong, I was excited about meeting a group of PHP professionals and hobbyists in my area. Granted, the meeting was a “leadership” meeting, and that would suggest a smaller turn out. However, I anticipated the small turn out to be comprised of leaders in the community.
In total, 8 people showed up. Most of them (if not all) were PHP novices. Furthermore, I felt like youngster in the group. I think, perhaps, generations older than me are more accustom to learning directly from other humans, rather than from online sources. While these mature folks were a wonderfully nice group, this was not the Meetup I’d hoped for or expected.
Later in the meet, I learned that the largest meet thus far approached 30 attendees – a little more than 15% of the Meetup group count. It also became clear that the attendees were mostly comprised of PHP beginners looking for mentors and teachers. It’s no wonder that so few advance users sought interest in the group’s activities.
From my experience, Meetup.com has ample room for improvement. While the tools themselves could be more robust, that does not seem to be the core problem. The community simple does not have the draw it needs to be successful. One of my early suggestions for the Meetup staff – long before the much needed visual overhaul – was to work with other existing community sites. Basically, Meetup.com is competing against almost every special interest community on the Web. Why not offer tools and APIs that allow other community sites to integrate Meetup.com features in their own Web space? This could be mutually benefitial both to Meetup.com and hundreds, maybe thousands of existing online communities.
Understanding and developing online communities is, perhaps, the fastest growing concern among Internet professionals today.
I’ve been working as Gearbox Software‘s community manager since July 12th, 2004. My job at Gearbox involves being a liaison between the developer and community as well as managing the development of the community itlsef. With the upcoming launch of Gearbox Software’s first original IP title, Brothers in Arms; we expect massive growth in our community.
Being a developer of popular games, Gearbox has a fast growing community. My challenge is in growing the community larger while maintaining stability, and finding ways for the developer and community to further benefit from each other. Over the past 8 months, I focused on analyzing the current environment and preparing changes to the landscape of Gearbox’s online infrastructure. During this phase, I’ve launched two new tools.
The first tool is an online Developer’s Diary I like to call Gearblogs. The diary was originally launched as a independent site, but will soon be absorbed into the rebuild of Gearbox’s main site. New entries are posted at least once a month, providing original content that gives the community a view inside the culture and business of Gearbox Software.
The second tool is a sub-community known as the Gearbox Fans Nexus. It’s difficult for a busy development shop to stay in touch with a large number of fansites. The Nexus focuses on providing fansite webmasters with information, media, and a line of communication with Gearbox.
Both of these tools are merely stepping stones for a long term plan of community support. The next stone will be laid in the next few weeks when I launch a new primary Web site.