Communities 2.0 or The Architecture of Participation

Today there’s no lack of reports on successful Web 2.0 community projects(1). This is by no means surprising as the latest community projects provide advanced interactive experience for the audience while attracting impressive investments. This results in rapid growth within the market segment and businessmen rush in to get their share of the deal. The market now offers a huge number of solutions, and some of them seem to be of quite agreeable quality. Yet very few eventually amount to a success. Why is that? To find out let’s have a closer look at some of the finer points in the community project development:

Community mission statement

Many of the community projects out there are so vague in defining their objectives that users simply do not see any benefits in them. The community’s central idea and goals should be well-thought-out and presented in a clear and accessible way. Moreover, community administrators should see to it that the project develops in a certain direction. As the community grows larger its goals and contents may be altered to follow the direction most of the users want it to go. Yet in any case a community should not betray its unique features and character. You can see for yourselves how diverse community projects can be in the following list: http://bobstumpel.blogspot.com/2007/03/c…

Individuality

One of the basic reasons to have a community in the first place is to provide possibilities to express individuality. Have you ever witnessed how much time gamers spend on costumes for their virtual alter-egos? And it is the very same basic human instinct of expressing individuality that makes millions of MySpace users continually alter and update their personal pages with an endless array of gadgets. It was no coincidence that in the above example I mentioned games. Most of the video games are based on very similar principles. They usually feature a ratings system and indicators of gained experience in the form of upgradable characteristics. As a result some players often spend most of the gaming time upgrading their characters, sometimes at the cost of the game missions. The same principle of using ratings, karma indicators and other characteristics helps to make the audience participate more actively. Users try to rise above the rest of the crowd, make it to the top of various ratings or get some virtual award(http://ittoolbox.com/it-community-choice…). Yet ratings per se have no significant value and game developers often rely more on curiosity. Games suggest a simple stimulus: take action to acquire new attributes, make use of the newly received skills to get even more of them. The same principle is at the basis of the architecture of participation in Web 2.0 projects.

Maintaining certain ethical norms

This issue became relevant as early as at the time of Web 1.0 projects. Even high quality community platforms and huge number of participants will not be able to save a project whose positive contents are grossly overshadowed by spam and abusive messaging. Web 2.0 projects increasingly feature automoderation systems. For example, the positive majority can block the activities of abusers through voting. This both simplifies administration and objectively regulates community’s environment. As a matter of fact this means transition from chaos – and later autocracy – to democratically managed communities.

Continuous development of the community platform

If we were to analyze some of the successful communities of the recent time ( http://www.startup-review.com/blog/categ…) we would find that their success can be attributed to timely reaction to users’ wishes and mood. Project administrators should be involved in the life of the community, discuss emerging ideas and take them into account while taking the project further.

Practical user interface

It is easy to underestimate the importance of design and interface in a community project. Yet one important observation would be that such projects are created with the intention that users would spend as much of their time as possible online. As it is clear from the experience of successful projects, users prefer “spacious”, not-too-sophisticated design and easy-to-use intuitive interface. One of the most important points here is to strike a balance between the desire to instantly provide users with all the information they might need and the crucial requirement of not making the interface too bulky or excessively crammed with information. This might scare off potential users.

Developers of community projects usually employ one of the following technologies: blogs, Wiki (web-based encyclopedias providing users with a possibility to supply information), user ratings (product, article, message ratings etc.), user reviews (common for films/music dedicated communities), file sharing, content sharing (as in “found content - shared it with a friend”), user comments, trackbacks (links to other places where this blog is quoted), blogrolls (lists of a user’s favorite blogs), user profiles, popularity rankings (commonly blogs sorted by how often they are quoted, viewed and commented upon), tagging (use of tags simplifies search for relevant information), webcasting (video-conference links via Internet), podcasting (audio publication), video blogging, forums, chats/instant message pagers.

But how does it actually work? I suggest we take a look at a popular Russian service - http://www.habrahabr.ru. The project’s administrators try to link the idea of the project to its name. The project’s terminology often in a way refers to the word Habrahabr, which should help to make it a common name, form and spread new slang terms – as was the case with the verb to google. As a result, the community members acquire a sense of identification, which holds true both within the project and outside. It is not always easy to clearly define general areas of interest of the participants within a developing information project, yet the distinct array of tags on Habrahabr’s pages makes it possible to see the general tendencies quite well. The information is structured with the help of sections, types, topics, tags and through groups. This helps user to navigate the ever-increasing flow of information, while bookmarking services and user activity history tools make it possible to set up a personal project-based information archive. However, these are elements of the architecture of participation – something Habarhabr is particularly rich in. The project instantiate a principle already classical to Web 2.0 community projects: “join in, set up a network of personal contacts and share opinions with them”. Among the means of expressing one’s individuality we find blogs, comments and voting for or against articles and comments to them. In terms of the previously discussed Forrester Technographics (http://www.forrester.com/Research/Document/Excerpt/0,7211,42057,00.html), Habrahabr makes the passive majority of spectators also participate in the life of the community. The ratings system – which in this case is based on reputation growth – includes such indicators as karma and harba-strength. One of the most attractive things about the project is a truly practical user interface, which continues to be appealing even after a long time. The administrators are actively involved in the community’s life and develop the project along the lines suggested by users’ wishes. The project even features a special blog category Habrahabr ideas for sites and maintains a Wiki database of good ideas.

Generally speaking, Habrahabr may well be regarded as reference example of a local Russian-language Community 2.0 In global terms I would point out Slashdot.org as a perfect sample of a Community 2.0 project.

1) A virtual user community development platform. In terms of Web 1.0 - forums and chats, while in Web 2.0 – social and professional networks, specialized projects.