Community Building in an Online World
Online technology and social media are revolutionizing the way people work, interact and form communities. PT sat down with two different people who are using technology in interesting ways, to get a side-by-side look at how each is using technology to create and enhance community.
Heshy Fried takes humorous situations and idiosyncrasies inherent with living an observant lifestyle and writes about them in both a highly animated and humorous manner. He is the creator of FrumSatire.net, where his motto is, "it ain't always frum and it ain't always satire."
David Notik is the founder of Woven, a full-service web development and strategy shop dedicated to helping its clients leverage online community and collaboration tools.
What is FrumSatire? Why did you found it, what are its goals, and how does it achieve them?
Heshy: FrumSatire is my blog and persona on social networks. It was founded to share my thoughts, criticisms and witticisms about my life within the Orthodox Jewish community. I felt that the Orthodox community was way too critical of its own members and non-observant Jews, often about superficial things, such as being called ‘modern’ for wearing a blue instead of a white shirt on Shabbat. The focus has changed as my readers have diversified to include many non-Orthodox and even non-Jewish people. I now see it as a place to open up dialogue between groups of Jews. I want ultra-Orthodox folks to be arguing with Humanist Jews about common issues, and I want it to be fun and funny.
What is Woven? Why did you found it, what are its goals, and how does it achieve them?
David: Woven is focused on helping our clients build online communities and team collaboration tools, or "people-centric websites". These sites make it easier for organizations to engage with their communities by giving them the tools to publish and manage all kinds of information, while allowing for people to participate and contribute in all kinds of ways. Woven is itself a distributed team, working with people from all over the world, and so we make use of those same community and collaboration tools. In the process, we learn about how groups of people interact online and offline, and we can then better our tools. We're working to turn these tools into widely accessible offerings in the near future.
I believe that the internet's greatest potential is to enable people to work together. There are examples everywhere of how the internet and tools like social networking are changing the rules. But this is only the beginning, and for us to truly realize the potential of a connected, collaborating world, there are more products to be invented and big problems to be solved. Woven embodies what I hope will be my contribution.
What digital-age trend do you feel will create the biggest change in society and how we think and communicate, looking towards the future?
Heshy: Mobile devices. People can now contribute ideas, pictures and reviews to social communities like Yelp and Twitter in real time, and even tweet their own weddings. In the third world and developing countries, people who have never used a computer can use mobile devices to access the internet – even in places where the internet is taboo. The combination of social networking and online communities with complete mobility is the most powerful trend.
David: The most obvious and important trend is that we're all becoming much more comfortable with the tools that connect us across great chasms, like distance or culture. Electing a president in America, dissent in Iran, and earthquake relief for Haiti – these are just some recent examples of how people are empowered all across the world, with information and at least some tools to act on it. The tools we're familiarizing ourselves with will mature beyond social applications to more collaborative uses, empowering us with even more ways to get things done and make a difference.
How does social networking play a role in your work? What opportunities does it afford, and what are the challenges?
Heshy: The discussion is moving from forums and blogs to social networks. I used to be disappointed that people were discussing my status updates on Facebook and Twitter rather than visiting my website, until I realized the discussions were still valuable. I have embraced social networking and try to get my articles to people on Facebook. This also allows them to share the conversation with other people.
One problem in social networking conversations is that people fail to read the whole article. They’ll take the title and formulate a discussion based on that and other people’s comments, often skewing the point of the piece. I have also found that my YouTube videos elicit extremely negative and anti-Semitic comments – mostly because of the anonymity it affords.
Social networking is tough work. People expect instant responses to tweets, chats and messages. But they don’t realize the time and energy it takes to be available in 20 places at once.
David: Social networks provide a structured way to define and maintain connections with others. We can then extract value from those connections. We can share photos, poll our friends, enlist their help in finding our next job or raise money for that walk-a-thon. Social networks also help you reach beyond your immediate circle.
The greatest potential of social networking is what I call "actionable" social networking, when you not only enable connections but also offer real, tangible ways to extract productive value from them. Meetup.com lets you create and find groups with similar interests, and gives you tools to facilitate offline, face-to-face gatherings. Elance lets you find service providers and helps you get the job done. The kinds of websites we build at Woven can let people raise money for an organization by tapping into their respective social networks, and our collaboration tools can help people find others to work with. When you recognize that the web is all about people, and that there is tremendous value in the connections between us, you can understand the powerful utility of social networking.
What are the characteristics of a successful online community? Why do people participate -- what added value does it provide to its members?
Heshy: Ones that add to the discussion. Starting a discussion in one place and watching it continue through the pipeline is what successful online communities are about. I can write something in my blog and see it retweeted by someone I don’t follow, and suddenly I have incoming links from some random forum that took the discussion to a completely different audience.
I like to call blogging and social networking the new Solitaire. I always a have a significant spike in traffic during office hours on weekdays – people are sitting in their tiny cubicles, bored. Then there are those folks who get riled up or impassioned over a specific issue, and others who just read something that their friends sent them in an email. I even saw a couple that met on my blog get married. They were debating with each other in the comments section, and they ended up taking their conversation offline into private chat and eventually the phone.
David: The best online communities provide real, substantive ways for members to participate, ultimately fostering a sense of ownership and loyalty. They provide support in the form of resources or exposure. They offer ways for members to connect with each other, providing guidance but not too much control. They enable the kinds of connections that ultimately speak to the strength and potency of any community.
Online communities should have their mission clearly spelled out. Rather than just a forum for anybody and everybody to connect about anything, a successful online community is purposeful. Its members know why they're a part of it, and know how to participate. The organization that sponsors the community stands for something and so it's important to consistently offer up what that something is, but it's equally important that the members be given a say in what the priorities should be and that this be considered in the ongoing direction and evolution of the community.
What is the biggest challenge you feel creating online communities presents? What would be your solution?
Heshy: Funding. I would love to make my community bigger and I know how, but having to work two jobs is tough. Blogging, engaging in discussion, communicating with people and going to events is more than full-time work, and I occasionally go on hiatus. The fans have been generous. I have a full time editor and a web designer/programmer who work pro-bono, and provide me with free hosting. But if I ever wanted to make it really big it would take a lot more time than I can provide, unless I were making enough money from advertising to support myself, which any blogger can tell you is quite tough. Many of the larger sites and communities have private funding or sponsors, something I wish I had.
David: Getting people to actually participate! Most of us belong to several communities, and keeping up with all of them can be overwhelming. But there are ways an organization can address this:
- Communicate clearly what the organization is all about and how members can get involved. Work to remove hurdles to participation, and solicit feedback to maintain a pulse on how you need to be evolving your tdools and services.
- Go where the members are. You don't need to force everyone to your website. If your members are on Facebook, support them with a Facebook page. Get involved on Twitter. You should be present in the conversations that may already be happening on the web.
- Invest in a good website. Focus on simplicity, offering your features in an intuitive and accessible way. Make it easy to find and learn about the people and activities that power your community, as that will encourage more people to join and participate.
- Have an offline component. These are real people in your community, and you should have real world events, however they make sense for your community.
How is an online community different from a local community? How do you see the relationship between online and in-person evolving in the future?
Heshy: The main difference is that people are anonymous online and you never truly know the real person. People’s online personalities are akin to an alter ego; they can pretend to be anyone they want to be, and thousands of people will subscribe to that fake image. People who share information online tend to share more of it and place less value on that information than in a face-to-face community. Damage control is tough in an online community, but the lines are becoming blurred and that can be a scary and powerful thing.
David: Online communities present a real opportunity, but also a host of new challenges. How do we ensure we're as effective online as if we're in a town hall or conference room? How do we incorporate that human element that exists when people are working face-to-face?
As we progress, I believe we'll find the tools we already have to communicate and work together to be easier to access and use, and they'll be more powerful. We'll find it natural to meet and work together online, and we'll also have the tools to discover what's going on right around us. This in turn will mean greater possibilities for making a tangible difference in the real world, including in our local communities. We're constantly reminded of how an online community can make a difference in a local community all because they have access to information and tools. The lines will continue to blur, with local in-person communities being strengthened by their online counterparts and vice versa. It's a small world, after all.
Devorah Matkowsky works in educational software by day, is studying for a Masters in Jewish Professional Studies at the Spertus Institute by night, and is the volunteer assistant managing editor of PresenTense. She lives in Chicago, and loves to sing!