That’s a major point that I took away from Tuesday’s opening keynote from EclipseCon. The speakers were Jeff Atwood, famous for his Coding Horror blog, and Clay Shirky, author of the insightful book, Here Comes Everybody, about the power of social groups in public life.
The topic was “The Social Mind: Designing like groups matter,” and Jeff and Clay found patterns in the success from their creation of StackOverflow, a user community for developers, and as well as successful communities like SlashDot and Wikipedia.
You should read Clay’s book, subscribe to Jeff’s blog, and visit StackOverflow. But before you do that, here are four best practices that Jeff and Clay offered regarding creating a successful community site – the headings are theirs, but the descriptions are mine.
1. Radically lower the bar for participation. Don’t make prospective community members jump through hoops to participate, or demonstrate specific expertise. Look at what makes Wikipedia successful – that it has contributions from the small number of experts who really care about a specific subject, and also smaller contributions from the huge number of people who have a smaller commitment. Anyone can start a Wikipedia page; anyone can change a page; anyone can add to a topic or correct a mistake. Make everyone welcome and let everyone participate, as much as you can.
2. Trusting (some of) your users. While you want a lot of participation, not all participants are equal. Some folks contribute more, some are more dedicated, some add a huge amount of value. Other folks contribute less. How do you know who is more valuable, more trustworthy? Find ways to let the community decide, whether it’s through rankings, karma points, or whatever. And then, provide the means for those with more trust to lead the community.
3. Life is the world’s biggest MMORPG. Successful massively multiplayer online role-playing games mimic real life. People work hard if they can see that they’re making progress… and if they have goals to achieve. Those goals might be to slay dragons, win karma points, or to accumulate gold pieces, or whatever. Build those mechanisms into your system, to encourage and reward behavior that you’d like to see in your community.
4. Bad stuff happens. Some people paint beautiful murals, and others spray obnoxious graffiti. That happens in the real world, and happens online too, as you can see by the abusive comments left on many online communities. The more general the community, the more people just like to go by and spray graffiti. Accept that this will happen, but also make sure you have ways to delete community-destroying nuisances quickly. Look at how easily Wikipedia contributors can ‘revert’ malicious content. In the virtual world, you can make it easier to delete graffiti than to create it.
Jeff and Clay suggest starting small, and getting really good at what you do – and then letting the community grow in a scalable, sustainable way. Think about how Google, or eBay, or Facebook started. That’s the recipe for success in a community, both in the real world and online.