The challenge of building online communities

In yesterday’s #whyopen Google Hangout, Simeon (@mtotowajirani), Cliff (@omcliff), David (@dvdgc13) and I wondered how to go about building thriving online communities.

What strategies would you employ to ensure that there is active participation, collaboration, the very essence of what we call open?

Simeon’s question triggered an exchange of experiences about how communities come together and what fosters participation within the network.

Network by Flickr user futureshape. Under CC BY license.

Network by Flickr user futureshape. Under CC BY license.

How do you get people on board?

As part of the course, we’re going to be engaging in open activities in groups. Unlike a traditional classroom setting, where most activities are bound by the physical environment, open activities should allow for a wider spectrum of participants to join in.

In our case, we could consider the student group to be a driving force behind the project (task force?), while people exterior to the course will be invited to collaborate on the project.

How do we reach out to the wider community to make this happen ?

  • Communicate about the project

People will first need to know what we are trying to achieve so they can decide whether they feel like joining us. Communicating about the project involves being open about who we are, what our goal is and what type of activities we’ll be carrying out together.

Being excited about it makes all the difference!

  • Use social media to connect people

Social media can be used to spread the word about our project as well as receive feedback from various sources.

Twitter, Facebook and G+ can also help to keep the information flowing between participants who might not be able to meet up physically or gather for a synchronous session.

As Simeon rightly pointed out during yesterday’s discussion, social media platforms are also fantastic at getting you in touch with people who may have skills or connections you need to harness for your project. If approached tactfully, most people will be happy to point you in the right direction, send you a link to a helpful article or just give you a tip on how to solve your problem.

  • Tap into existing communities

Our group is made up of people from diverse backgrounds. Why don’t we take advantage of existing communities with adjacent interests to find relevant information and maybe recruit new participants?

If our project has to do with education for instance, we’re likely to come across motivated individuals among the OER practitioners.

How do you keep the momentum?

Now that we have successfully formed a community around our exciting new project, we’re all bursting with energy. But what happens if the project takes longer than expected? What if we run into challenges? How do we keep our participants engaged?

  • A helping hand

Learning by doing is something that motivates people to join online communities but if the learning curve becomes too steep and nobody’s available to show you the way, then you’re likely to fall off the edge. A community should be a place where nobody is afraid to ask for help.

This is something I greatly appreciate at Global Voices: whenever someone encounters technical difficulties, has doubts about how to translate a certain passage, or needs guidance to draft a post, there will always be another team member ready to help. The knowledge base we have as a network is simply mind-boggling but the really amazing part is how generously this knowledge is shared.

  • Assign tasks…

To simplify coordination between team members and ensure that the work gets done, it can be helpful to assign tasks or let people sign themselves up for tasks so we’re all clear about who does what. This implies knowing each other well enough to match the skill sets with the tasks at hand.

When you’re assigned a task, you feel responsible for the outcome and tend to work at it with renewed interest.

  • …but keep it flexible

We’re volunteering our time out of dedication to the project but it should not become a burden. When someone is not available to contribute because of other commitments or just needs a break, they should feel free to step out for a while, confident in knowing that others will take over.

  • Sweets galore!

‘Give out sweets’ to keep up participation, said David in the chat window. The phrasing made us all smile but the idea that if participants feel that their work is valued, they’re more likely to continue being committed to the project does ring true.

Depending on the situation, a genuine ‘thank you’, a public endorsement or a badge, might be appreciated and encourage further participation.

What’s your experience of building communities or participating in one? Would you like to share what’s worked for you and what’s been rather disappointing?