My latest shiny Web 2.0 toy is Ning. Up until about a month ago, I'd only dabbled in it, mostly visiting and joining other Ning communities, but in the last few weeks since I started Building a Better Blog, I've had Ning on the brain. I've since started Beyond the Glass Ceiling, as well as two other networks for clients I'm working with. So I'm getting a lot of experience with it and thought it was time to jot down a little of what I'm learning. This may turn into something longer/more comprehensive at some point, but I'm following Amy Gahran's advice right now to let my blog be my "back-up brain" So here are some of my preliminary thoughts:
- It's a lot easier to start a community when you have a group that's formed for some other reason. Both Building a Better Blog and Beyond the Glass Ceiling are supporting/extending projects that began in other ways. By that I mean I can't imagine just throwing up a community and hoping that people stop by. I think that there has to be a real sense of common purpose for it to work, and that purpose will probably have to develop elsewhere before moving it to Ning.
- Finding the balance between facilitating conversation and running the show is hard work. Every day I find myself wondering if I'm doing too much or too little to keep conversation flowing. Do I look like a control freak or am I not providing enough support? Sue Waters and I have discussed the issue of needing to seed your community with conversation starters and I think that's really necessary to keep things flowing. At the same time, you have to encourage other people to be taking ownership and starting the conversations, too. I hate it when I see my photo next to too many forum posts.
- I think it's important to use the "push" and the "pull." Ning networks are destinations that you have to decide to visit, (the pull). But I've decided that I still need to "push" messages out to the community to remind them to come visit and talk. So at least a few times a week I'm sending out broadcast messages to the groups, letting them know what's going on and giving them reasons to come visit (I hope). I'm not just relying on the "pull' of assuming that they'll come to the site when they need/want to use it.
- Which brings me to another point, which is what attracts people and keeps them engaged? I've realized that an online community like this isn't like a party where you just invite people and they'll start talking. Somebody has to be the conversation starter. But then you also have to come up with conversations and activities that engage the community members. One thing that I think is working well with Building a Better Blog is having the Weekly Challenges. That gives everyone a reason to keep coming back. It's task-oriented, which I think is something people like to have, too. I think that part of what engages people is having things to work on, preferably as a community.
- Last thing I'm thinking about tonight--developing a sense of community, which is huge. How to do this? In Building a Better Blog, in addition to having the Weekly Challenges, we're taking turns leading them, too, which I think is good because in a community, you have responsibilities to other members. I also have tried to personally "greet" every new member as quickly as possible so that they feel welcome. I know that a lot of the other members do this, too.
Another thing I've been gratified to see is how easily people who weren't involved in the original 31 Day Challenge have been absorbed into the community. At this point I'm not sure that you could tell who did the original challenge and who didn't, based on participation, which is excellent. I was a little afraid it would be a problem. I've also been really happy with how supportive everyone is, taking the time to review people's work and comment on it. It's a beautiful little community of practice that's emerging and I want to keep finding the ways to continue building and nurturing that environment.
So that's where I'm at right now. I have to say that I'm finding the process incredibly rewarding and interesting. Another personal learning experiment that I'm glad I started. Although I may collapse soon.