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 @KelloggSchool. Publisher of @GunMemorial.

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