The Building a Better Blog community we built using Ning has been going now for about three months and as happens with most communities, we've begun to hit a participation lull that I'm still trying to understand and address. Since I wrote before about the lessons I was learning three weeks into the project, it seems appropriate that I would write now about where we're at three months in.
As with so many new things, we all entered the community with a lot of excitement, a spill-over effect I think resulting from the afterglow of our 31 Days to Building a Better Blog experiment. New members joined at a pretty good clip, there was regular activity on at least an hourly basis and we were all excitedly engaging in conversations and weekly challenges. This went on for a few months. Then things started to slow down. Fewer new members joined. The "regulars" weren't participating as often and none of us were really doing the weekly challenges that we were creating for each other to improve our blogs. I expected this to some extent, but it was still disheartening.
I suspect that my own behavior had something to do with this. At the beginning, my schedule was still manageable, so I had time to start and facilitate conversations and make connections between community members. I tried to find and share new resources and used Ning's "Broadcast message" feature to send emails to the community to let them know when new material was posted or new forum discussions began. But then I got swamped and my active facilitation of the community slowed way down.
A few days ago, I asked members of the community about their thoughts on the subject. I got some interesting responses on why people weren't participating that, I think, might benefit both the BBB community as well as anyone else who is using Ning to connect to communities of practice.
- Time, of course, was a big issue. Most of us try to dip in when we can but the demands of work, family and our other activities (including maintaining our blogs) keep us from participating as actively as we once did.
- A few suggested that BBB has outlived its original incarnation-- that those who needed the support of other bloggers to build their own blogs had received what they needed and were ready to move on. New people might need to take their places while the "alumni" would drop in now and then.
- Others indicated that they had expected to get something from the community that we weren't supplying. For example, they were looking for advice and tips along the lines of Problogger and we weren't having those kinds of discussions.
- Sue Waters pointed to a conversation she had with James Farmer on the nature of participation in online communities and how people are more likely to participate if they feel a sense of ownership of the community. When you set up an online community like Ning, it's difficult to have individuals feel like they own the space--it's usually the creator who will be regarded as the owner.
For me, much of this comes down to value--if the community is giving people the value they're looking for, then they will participate. If it isn't, then other things will fill in the space that they once gave to participating in the community. The question, of course, is how to continue to provide and create value?
The other issue here is "how do you define participation?" A few of our members indicated that they regularly read forum posts in the community and often act on what they read. They just don't respond to the conversations. So are they participating? Yes, of course, but that participation is invisible to us.
All of this, of course, is reminiscent of what happens with blogs. The blog author is the "owner" and it's up to him/her to keep conversations going. You will always have people who lurk and people who comment (many more of the former than the latter). People will dip in and out of discussions and reading posts as time permits. All of this is OK with a blog, but there's something distinctly wrong to me about a social network that's operating this way. It seems to defeat the purpose.
I'm not sure of the answers to this right now. I could go back to more active facilitation of the community, but then when I'm not able to do that, do we die again? And this is assuming, of course, that I'm able to pull people back in. In a lot of ways, Sue's point about ownership may be the biggest issue. Without ownership of the community by the rest of the members, the community will always struggle. The challenge is to help people feel that sense of ownership.
Or maybe there's a natural life cycle to these kinds of communities and there's no point in fighting it. Not everything has to go on forever and not all communities are sustainable. So when do you know when to keep trying to keep things going and when is it time to let go?
What are your thoughts? What's been your experience with these kinds of things and how do you think we should address our current situation?