Why Do So Many Online Communities Fail?

May 2, 2013 By eJP

Why Do So Many Online Communities Fail?

by Naava Frank

The good news is that technology has created unprecedented opportunities for people to meet like-minded peers to learn, collaborate and support each other. The bad news is that so many of these well-meaning and inspiring projects that have enormous potential to help people and strengthen causes, are failing. Not just in the Jewish community, throughout the nonprofit world, hundreds of thousands of dollars (at least) have been spent over the past decade on designing systems that ended up not being utilized. I don’t mean to point a finger – my guess is most of us have participated in, dreamed of, sponsored, or funded one of these projects. And there is no simple answer to explain what went wrong. What I would like to present today is a way of thinking that in my experience has helped communities succeed.

The idea is that when we focus on building a technology infrastructure, we often neglect to build an accompanying relationship infrastructure. The word community can be defined as “a group of people with a common background or with shared interests within society.” Those interests may be shared geography, affiliation, values, purpose, enemies or problems.

When you bring a group of strangers or acquaintances together for a gathering, a party, you don’t expect them to suddenly bond, reveal their secrets or foibles, or become best friends. So why do we expect that if we build a website or community platform which is even more remote than an in person gathering, people will jump in and participate? An online space has fewer social clues such as age, clothing, body language or accent than a face-to-face gathering. When we go online the only social clues we usually get are an email address or name, and if we are lucky a small image of the person. We all know how resistant we are to completing the profile section of online social platforms, even though it would help a lot.

So what would you do if you were a host or hostess at a cocktail party? You would circulate and get to know people, introduce people to each other that have shared interests, maybe set up some games or some interesting conversation pieces. You might encourage a few of the more gregarious folks to help make people feel comfortable. There might be some people you would not invite because they cause trouble.

In order to make online communities successful we need to pay attention to the relationships not just the technology infrastructure. We need to help people find each other and connect around shared interests.

What does relationship infrastructure consist of? Roles, protocols, norms, expectations, motivations, mission and purpose and other social structures. (Think about Daniel Pink’s work on motivation.) Note I said motivation – not incentives – research has demonstrated that incentives are only good for simple tasks not for complex knowledge based tasks. So let me be concrete about what relationship infrastructure looks like:

This past week I was working with the Helen Keller National Center – they are just finishing up a platform for a national community of practice that includes representative from 50 states. They want to introduce the platform to their 20 staff members. We talked about the usual approach – a technology training – letting staff get in the site and press buttons. The focus was on technology. Then we asked ourselves, how can we do this in a way that develops relationships – both relationships between people and relationships to the mission of the organization? We came up with the following protocol.

  • We paired people up – intentionally thinking about who might benefit from doing this work together – make sure someone who is technology averse is paired with someone who is technologically comfortable. Maybe pair people who work on the same team? Or maybe pair people across teams?
  • We sent them into the platform with an assignment. While they are in the site and “kick the tires” we helped them imagine what it would be like driving the car. We gave them some guiding questions to think about.
  • Name 3 ways this platform can help you forward your mission.
  • Name 2 technology improvements you would like to see for this platform.
  • Name 1 surprise from this experience.
  • We asked everyone to post these responses in the site so that others can see how their peers respond to the experience. (Thereby giving them another opportunity to get to know others – by reading their responses.)

Relationship infrastructures have to be carefully matched to the culture of the community, stage of development of the community (how well do people know each other) and many other factors. Just like technology may need to be revisited and upgraded, the relationship infrastructure needs to be revisited and changed as the community changes.

So next time you think about designing a technology platform for a community – don’t forget to take the time and effort and get the expertise you need to build the accompanying relationship infrastructure that will ensure the success of your investment.

Naava Frank, EdD, is a consultant and researcher focused on the impact of communities of practice and networks. She can be reached at naavafrank1@gmail or knowledgecommunities.blogspot.com

  1. Jonah Gabriel Rank saysMay 2, 2013 at 4:17 pmBrilliant and thoughtful piece! Thanks for writing this, Naava!
  2. Kevin Martone saysMay 2, 2013 at 4:54 pmNaava-Thanks for posting this. Great insight to think through the relationships at the outset and actually have people connect in the physical world and in the community to start building relationships immediately.Where possible, connecting at in person get-togethers (or online video calls with a subset of participants?) with the launch of a community could also help connect people in constructive ways.Kevin
  3. Miriam Brosseau saysMay 2, 2013 at 5:19 pmSo simple and so poignant and so important. Love it; thank you, Naava.I think we all need to remember that social platforms – however shiny, however cool – are just trying to catch up with the depth and nuance of real human relationships (think of Google Plus introducing Circles to better reflect the way we think about the different groups of people in our lives, or Twitter not requiring a “mutual follow” because not every relationship is equal in the real world – why would they be online?). So we need to teach the tech, yes. But it’s even more important to learn how to bring the humanity into that technology, and not confuse/conflate tools and strategy.
  4. Rabbi Hayim Herring saysMay 2, 2013 at 6:24 pmThanks for the lucid reminder that it’s more important to be enamored of people than technology if we want to build online communities. Especially appreciate the concrete example of how you provided an experience of how technology could serve the needs of individuals.
  5. Jennifer Weinstock saysMay 2, 2013 at 8:20 pmNaava-You make such excellent points. As a Community of Practice facilitator for development professionals I tried to make sure we had at least one annual face-to-face meeting. After the opportunity to build personal relationships we were much more likely to maximize our virtual ones!
  6. Dave Neil saysMay 2, 2013 at 10:25 pmNaava,Thank you for such a wonderful article- so on target and so helpful!
    When building websites which aim to create community, rally people to a particular cause or help professionals in the same fields connect you really hit the nail on the head- the difference between success and failure will often amount to how much time is developed in helping to foster the relationships behind the scenes- in real time phone follow-up conversations etc. to help real people connect to one another… that is the way these websites which aim to accomplish so much will be successful and without that behind the scenes personal investments- many of them will fail. I’m really glad you brought this to light as one of the most effective benefits for improving Jewish education both formal and informal- is encouraging teachers and informal educators to share their best practices… but the lesson applies to any other area in the professional world where best practices can be shared by collegues.
  7. Naava Frank saysMay 2, 2013 at 10:39 pmSo glad this was helpful and appreciate all the wisdom added by each of the comments. In the Kehilliyot CoP funded by Covenant Foundation we asked for volunteers to be welcoming buddies. Whenever someone joined the community they received an email welcome with someone offering to help them get comfortable. At a well-planned party, we would expect to have someone greet us, take our coat or show us where to put it, point out the drinks the restroom. We talk about doing that for members at congregations. And we can all use that same wisdom online. Look forward to continuing our learning together.

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