Errata to Live By


In thinking about this month's provocative question, I decided to reach deep into the vault to draw upon my experience not only as an instructor in a digitally-minded department and institution, but as a student at the dawn of Internet onslaught and former startup entrepreneur.  Building digital cohorts and communities is a multifaceted problem/issue that can't be addressed with a simple solution, and can be elusive in even the best conditions.  I don't have a prescriptive answer, but I've identified several mistakes that I and many others have made in trying to create online communities,

Error 1: Build it, and They Will Come (h/t to Sam Ford and Shelley Rodrigo) . Both academic institutions and private ventures are quick to think of technology as a panacea, which often results in expensive but underused infrastructure.  Online communities thrive when they are built around a specific and shared goal of some kind; the architecture is largely secondary.  Academic communities need to identify and define the purpose of an online space, rather than expecting users to aimlessly wander in.
Error 2: Makers vs. Takers.  Once built, an online infrastructure may not function as originally planned, and users might appropriate it for unintended purposes.  The mistake that I often see is when the administrators start punitively expelling users in hopes of returning a space to its original designation.  This is the worst thing they could possibly do.  Online communities work best when the community feels a sense of ownership over the material and space.  Private companies fail when they try to crassly monetize and commodify these spaces; academic entities fail when they try to exercise control over the space with draconian rules.
Error 3: Neglecting Culture.  The founders of Reddit knew that the site needed to reach critical mass to attract users, so they relentlessly posted comments themselves to build a vibrant, discursive community.  In other words, they faked it 'til they made it.  However, the side effect of that was that they had a strong hand in developing the cultural norms of Reddit (one could argue that there is a distinct lack of norms). The point is, digital cohorts and communities need time and a few strong voices to develop a protocol for exchange—hopefully one based on respect, positivity, and honesty.


Undercurrent in all three errors is that new communities take time. I think in some ways this feels counterintuitive when starting a digital community because there is still this feeling that everything on the internet should be a phenomenon. Of course, an academic community is going to be rather different than the community surrounding some cultural moment. Academics are also known for taking time. 

I was also thinking about the need for members here. Perhaps especially in academia, having a community tied to one's name or organization can look great on an annual review, but it doesn't work if a group is not involved/excited about it.  I think people instinctively pick up on that and avoid those kinds of start ups. I suppose authenticity is really key in promotion. 

There certainly appears to be a meme-like quality to online communities. Much of what inhabits, or is associated with, cyberspace, "success" (subjectively defined) seems to come from both resonance with a devoted niche group and luck. As an example, there are very few blogs that I follow religiously. This is due to how much I feel I can contribute to a particular discursive arc. One of these is not particularly successful (according to some definitions) as there is very little response and very few primary contributors. However, the topic is unique and the perspective is refreshingly humorous while maintaining academic integrity. 

Reddit's an interesting example - as a Conde Nast project, it benefits from financial backing and a strong sensitivity towards what is trending. I've long wanted to research the workings of this site and its many, many subgroups. 

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