Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Future of Online Communities

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

Within online communities, there are different types of users with different levels of engagement. These might be called "power users," "contributors," and "lurkers," and this tends to apply to everything from Wikipedia to political discussion forums to Amazon reviews.

However, within these levels of engagement (measured in edits, comments, visits, or whatever), there are also different motivations, and this should have an impact on how we consider digital communities, crowdsourcing, or engagement.

A rough divide:


This group is largely agnostic about engagement methods. Their motivation centers on the recognition that a given community represents a means of advancing their goal: connecting to an audience, or getting the ear of key players. Strategists could be those building goodwill with communities as inbound marketing, lobbyists looking for influence avenues, or activists looking to have their voices heard.

Subject Matter Enthusiasts

These are the people for whom the community ostensibly exists. They are part of a give and take of knowledge, learning, and contributing. The health of the community strengthens their field and enables networks and relationships. There may be a degree of strategy among this group, but it's secondary to enthusiasm about the subject matter.

The Collaboration Community

It is unlikely that those Wikipedians with 100,000+ edits are either subject matter experts or economically rational time maximizers. They are instead part of the Collaboration Community, those who contribute based partially on subject matter interest but primarily on community interest (if you’ve never watched The Internet is my Religion, please do so). That is, they are interested in the network itself and want it to succeed. This happens on the Government of Canada's internal networks, as well. Regardless of the topic, alongside the subject matter experts there's always a noticeable contingent of "usual suspects".

Novelty Explorers

Novelty Explorers are the group that engages because the opportunity to engage is new and exciting. A chance to help scientists make discoveries, a way to see their name and contribution immortalized on the internet, or an opportunity to weigh in on the activities of their government. This is the logic of "Holy ___ — [large organization that I read about in the news] wants my input!"

The Attention Economy

Novelty Explorers are a particularly fascinating group, because government is increasingly asking for the time and attention of citizens at the same time everyone else is: citizen science, crowdsourcing campaigns, crowdfunding campaigns, TripAdvisor, Yelp, as well as all of the discussion forums and Usenet groups that came with the early internet days.

But now everyone wants people’s input, and asking for it isn't special anymore. This fact demands recognition and a change in tactics. People are contributing at their whim, and the novelty will wear off. Not all explorers will turn into collaborators, strategists, or experts.

So far online communities have thrived* through experimentation and a sheer volume of potential collaborators. But as demand increases and novelty doesn’t, those asking for the time, attention, and effort of online communities will need to up the ante in the years to come**. The question will move from “How can we get people to engage?” to “Who actually needs to engage, and why would they, in particular?” 

*Relative frequency of “thrived” versus “throve” since 1800:

**Blaise pointed to the concept of Evaporative Cooling in online communities before, an interesting read about how communities inexorably become less valuable to precisely those people that provide the most value to them. Which raises interesting questions about the value of such communities.

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