Creating Community Investment

This fantastic series has focused on the development and cultivation of new online communities, a crucial focus for those of us working on new modes of scholarly communication. As Avi and Sam have already pointed out, if you build it, they will not necessarily come; even the best-designed platform requires significant social investment to succeed. We've wrestled with ways of creating that investment across MediaCommons's development thus far.

But there's a similar challenge to be found in introducing new online platforms into already existing scholarly communities. The members of those communities have reason to work together, but  they're also likely to be well settled into modes of working already. The early adopters in these communities have their own blogs, their Twitter accounts, their other forms of digital collaboration; the later adopters have comfortable modes of sharing work with one another, too. So how do you persuade both groups -- and everyone else along the technology adoption spectrum -- to step away from their individual accounts and networks, to test out a new collaborative, community-oriented environment for doing some of that same work?

This is a question I've asked myself repeatedly over the course of the more recent project I've been working on, MLA Commons, and I'm not sure I've yet come up with a wholly satisfying answer. On the one hand, if you can provide an existing community with a better, more satisfying way of doing the work it already needs to do -- better systems for committee work, for instance, or for other kinds of intra-organizational communication -- some number of members will test it out. But on the other hand, a network focused on an existing community requires a certain critical mass of buy-in to become viable, and so reaching beyond those most inclined to play with a new system is crucial.

We're hoping to get early adopters to help us with outreach, by encouraging them to create exciting models for new ways of communicating via the Commons that others might want to follow. And we're also trying to recruit existing community leaders -- the executive committees of our divisions and discussion groups, for instance -- to use the platform in conducting their regular organizational business. And we hope that these beginnings might help that critical mass to develop.

But I'm also convinced that a platform like MLA Commons -- or MediaCommons, for that matter -- can only really come of age when some cluster of community members do something completely unexpected with it, when they do something that genuinely makes the platform their own. This new survey project may well be the start of such a coming-of-age for MediaCommons. I am hopeful that the many creatively inspired members of the MLA will similarly invent new ways to instantiate that scholarly community within its Commons. I look forward to being surprised by what they do.


Kathleen's question about how we bring groups to new technologies (and vice versa) lies at the heart of so much of this. I've wondered myself how we figure that out, though. Is there a way to determine what the "critical mass of buy-in" is for a given group? What kinds of research would help get us closer to knowing how to figure that out? Is there a quantifiable answer, or should we even seek one out?

It's exciting to think that maybe we CAN find ways to estimate how much "people power" it takes for a new technology to really catch. But then, of course, even once we solve that part of the puzzle in a given situation, how exactly how do we apply that data answer to the next scenario, and the next, and the next? I'd love to see and be a part of more research into figuring out that "tipping point," and then deciding what that information can tell us about building digital spaces that compel users to experiment and do great new things, and then to tell their friends!   

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.