Want to build a successful digital community? This old book may help

If we ever meet I’ll probably ask you for advice on my latest project, Gun Memorial. I’ll explain that we’re trying to humanize reporting on gun violence in America by showing the face of every victim. I’ll say that we’re getting lots of traffic but we need more contributions from “citizen journalists” to sustain the project. I’ll ask, “do you have any suggestions?”

I was surprised when two people recommended the same book to me in response to this line of questioning: “Building Successful Online Communities,” by Robert Kraut and Paul Resnick, published in 2011. I’m writing to tell you that, yes, a printed book written five years ago can make your digital publishing venture vastly better. Its conclusions are based on basic principles of human behavior and psychology taken from a survey of decades of social science research.

The book is divided into five self-sufficient chapters:

  • Encouraging contribution
  • Encouraging commitment
  • Regulating misbehavior
  • Assimilating newcomers
  • Starting up

Each chapter includes a few dozen “design claims,” which are helpfully summarized at the end.

I strongly recommend this book to anyone creating online spaces for people: publishers, app developers, community groups, etc. Their advice is relevant whether you’re coding-up Gun Memorial from scratch, launching a blog with WordPress, organizing a political movement on Twitter, creating an emotional support forum with phpBB, or starting a guild in World of Warcraft.

Why people join

I thought that one of their most helpful theories was the difference between “bond-based” commitment and “identity-based” commitment. In the first case, people join to make friends and lose interest if their friends leave. In the second case, involvement in the group is a statement of personal identity, and members will remain committed if the group’s ideology is consistently aligned with their personal values. For example, the National Rifle Association (NRA) does not have to organize social events to maintain its members’ commitment because it is identity-based, not bond-based. Of course, most groups foster both types commitment.

Facilitating interaction

The theory of bond-based commitment leads to some surprising community-design decisions. On the one hand, we know that “social proof” is powerful — people use heuristic reasoning to infer that popularity indicates superiority. We assume that a busy restaurant has better food than an empty restaurant next door. In an online community, however, crowding has its downsides. If the interaction spaces are too crowded and noisy, people will have difficulty forming one-on-one personal bonds. A large, successful community should look for ways to automatically group people in such a way that returning visitors see some of the same familiar screen-names and thus can make friends. Segmenting the community in this way will allow it to grow while maintaining an intimate, personal feeling.

A large, successful community should look for ways to automatically group people in such a way that returning visitors see some of the same familiar screen-names and thus can make friends.

The book is full of practical suggestions like this, and I’ve applied some of its advice to Gun Memorial already. The new “light a candle” feature may seem trivial at first glance, but it serves several powerful, community-building purposes. The candles clarify the tone and purpose of the site as a memorial rather than a crime report. Candles allow us to highlight the most-active pages on our home page, showing visitors that the site is popular and therefore worthy of their participation. Candles also give visitors an incentive to share a loved-one’s page to their friends to accrue more candles and hopefully become featured on the home page.

The “light a candle” feature helps build community by clarifying of tone and purpose of the site, highlighting site activity, and giving visitors an incentive to share a loved-one’s page with their friends.

However, to make Gun Memorial a true community and to create bond-based commitment, we plan to let visitors on the site interact more directly with each other. It’s a unique opportunity to let survivors of gun violence find and support each other. In doing this, we will use some of the book’s suggestions to avoid misbehavior and abuse in the community. Basically, Kraut and Resnick’s book tells us how to help people get along on the Internet.

To dramatically oversimplify things, we want people to understand and support the community’s mission, make friends in the community, and establish habits and enforce social norms that support the community’s purpose.

As a starting point, we can limit membership to those people who post a photo or some biographical information about a victim. Meeting this prerequisite is easy and empowering to survivors while also serving as a barrier to unsuitable members.

The book also points out that “interpersonal liking” is greater when people disclose personal information, so Gun Memorial will encourage creation of detailed user profiles. Surprisingly, disclosure helps in both directions; revealing something about yourself makes you more likable and actually tends to make you more sympathetic to the listener.

My favorite example of practical psychology from the book was the story of how MIT dealt with digital harassment on their network in the mid-1990s. Network administrators would send an email to the offender saying that “someone using your account” did whatever the offense was, explained why the offense was prohibited, and provided a link to change your password and re-secure your account. By letting the offender save face they reduced the frequency of confrontational debates and recurrences of the misbehavior.

Balancing contradictions

Unsurprisingly, some of the book’s recommendations are contradictory, indicating that a tradeoff is required and that you must consider the details your specific online community. For example, highlighting a threat from an opposing “outgroup” can increase identity-based commitment to the group but this also exposes your group to defection to the competing group. Based on the nature of your members’ commitment to the group, one or the other factors will dominate. A gun violence prevention group can increase commitment of its members by referring to actions taken by the NRA. On the other hand, a video-game guild might lose members when alerted to a threat from a stronger, competing guild if members feel no ideological or interpersonal connection to their current guild.

Some of the book’s suggestions might seem obvious in retrospect, but it is nonetheless helpful to have a catalog of guidelines that you can skim to unstick your thinking. They also give dozens of references to research papers that go into more detail on every topic. Some of the examples are charmingly dated (Usenet, Groupon’s heyday), but their fundamental points will be relevant for many years to come.

So, check out “Building Successful Online Communities,” by Kraut and Resnick and tell us how it helped you tweak your digital publishing strategy.

About the author

Steve Tarzia

Professional Fellow

Sr. Computational Research Consultant at @GunMemorial.

Latest Posts

  • Building a Community for VR and AR Storytelling

    In 2016 we founded the Device Lab to provide a hub for the exploration of AR/VR storytelling on campus. In addition to providing access to these technologies for Medill and the wider Northwestern community, we’ve also pursued a wide variety of research and experimental content development projects. We’ve built WebVR timelines of feminist history and looked into the inner workings of ambisonic audio. We’ve built virtual coral reefs and prototyped an AR experience setting interviews...

    Continue Reading

  • A Brief Introduction to NewsgamesCan video games be used to tell the news?

    When the Financial Times released The Uber Game in 2017, the game immediately gained widespread popularity with more than 360,000 visits, rising up the ranks as the paper’s most popular interactive piece of the year. David Blood, the game’s lead developer, said that the average time spent on the page was about 20 minutes, which was substantially longer than what most Financial Times interactives tend to receive, according to Blood. The Uber Game was so successful that the Financial...

    Continue Reading

  • With the 25th CAR Conference upon us, let’s recall the first oneWhen the Web was young, data journalism pioneers gathered in Raleigh

    For a few days in October 1993, if you were interested in journalism and technology, Raleigh, North Carolina was the place you had to be. The first Computer-Assisted Reporting Conference offered by Investigative Reporters & Editors brought more than 400 journalists to Raleigh for 3½ days of panels, demos and hands-on lessons in how to use computers to find stories in data. That seminal event will be commemorated this week at the 25th CAR Conference, which...

    Continue Reading

  • Prototyping Augmented Reality

    Something that really frustrates me is that, while I’m excited about the potential AR has for storytelling, I don’t feel like I have really great AR experiences that I can point people to. We know that AR is great for taking a selfie with a Pikachu and it’s pretty good at measuring spaces (as long as your room is really well lit and your phone is fully charged) but beyond that, we’re really still figuring...

    Continue Reading

  • Capturing the Soundfield: Recording Ambisonics for VR

    When building experiences in virtual reality we’re confronted with the challenge of mimicking how sounds hit us in the real world from all directions. One useful tool for us to attempt this mimicry is called a soundfield microphone. We tested one of these microphones to explore how audio plays into building immersive experiences for virtual reality. Approaching ambisonics with the soundfield microphone has become popular in development for VR particularly for 360 videos. With it,...

    Continue Reading

  • Audience Engagement and Onboarding with Hearken Auditing the News Resurrecting History for VR Civic Engagement with City Bureau Automated Fact Checking Conversational Interface for News Creative Co-Author Crowdsourcing for Journalism Environmental Reporting with Sensors Augmented Reality Visualizations Exploring Data Visualization in VR Fact Flow Storytelling with GIFs Historical Census Data Information Spaces in AR/VR Contrasting Forms Of Interactive 3D Storytelling Interactive Audio Juxtapose Legislator Tracker Storytelling with Augmented Reality Music Magazine Navigating Virtual Reality Open Data Reporter Oscillations Personalize My Story Photo Bingo Photojournalism in 3D for VR and Beyond Podcast Discoverability Privacy Mirror Projection Mapping ProPublica Illinois Rethinking Election Coverage SensorGrid API and Dashboard Sidebar Smarter News Exploring Software Defined Radio Story for You Storyline: Charts that tell stories. Storytelling Layers on 360 Video Talking to Data Visual Recipes Watch Me Work Writing and Designing for Chatbots
  • Prototyping Spatial Audio for Movement Art

    One of Oscillations’ technical goals for this quarter’s Knight Lab Studio class was an exploration of spatial audio. Spatial audio is sound that exists in three dimensions. It is a perfect complement to 360 video, because sound sources can be localized to certain parts of the video. Oscillations is especially interested in using spatial audio to enhance the neuroscientific principles of audiovisual synchrony that they aim to emphasize in their productions. Existing work in spatial......

    Continue Reading

Storytelling Tools

We build easy-to-use tools that can help you tell better stories.

View More