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.