3 Keys To Starting an Online Community

Are You My Tribe?

I received an email last week asking me for advice about starting a new online community (thank you, ML).

I am thinking about starting my own social network. I have many questions. I was wondering do you think you could do a blog post about starting a social network? What do you think about the Ning platform? Which platform do you think would be best?

Even though I’ve formally studied online communities for nearly a decade, I found the question surprisingly difficult to answer. Nonetheless, here’s my summation of the 3 most important considerations for stating an online community.

1. Tribe or Guild?

At the most basic level, people are looking for one of two things in an online community:

  • Social: a place to hang out with friends, or
  • Information: a place to get answers to questions.

The best social networks provide both, but one or the other is the primary reason a group exists. (Tribes have guilds and guild members also form tribes.)

What can you provide? Do you have a particular talent for “throwing a good party”? In that case, you just might  pull off the exceeding difficult task of forging a tribe. People with common sensibilities are out there wandering the web, they are just really hard to find. (Hint: It helps if you can jump-start the process by co-opting an existing tribe.)

Or, are you more interested in hanging out with people who can share tips and tricks about a common interest? That’s the more typical route for an online community… guild members who swap stories, resources, and insights about an area of interest.

Pick one: tribe or guild. That’s your starting point for a clear vision.

2. Platforms Don’t Matter (Much), Only People Do

I can distinctly remember the first social network I was active in back in the late-1980′s … a bulletin-board like system for students, faculty, and staff of William & Mary (platform was Participate by Unison running on Primos). Green screens with 80 character columns.

Nothing fancy. No color. Not even bold or italics. Just text.

Yet, there was a strong sense of community. Countless hours to be wasted. It was great fun.

Now, the right platform can make it easier for people to find your community. It can make it easier to organize content, share responsibilities, and shape behaviors. But, the platform does not matter unless people want to be there.

Choosing the platform is one of the least important decisions. Identify a clear vision, create compelling value to members, and cultivate a bottomless reserve of patience and determination. That’s what will see your new community through.

3. The Big Secret

My most important advice for starting an online community is: don’t do it.

There are millions of online communities and social networks. If your interest is so obscure that no one is yet talking about it online, how will you ever attract enough interest to sustain a community?

Instead of forming a brand new online community, look hard and long for your existing tribe or your existing guild. Odds are good they will welcome your energy and enthusiasm. It’s not just the first follower, but also the second, third, fourth, and thousandth that make a community. You provide an invaluable service by channeling your energy and enthusiasm into an existing venture.

Your Turn

What do you think? Is there room on the world wide web for yet another social network? If you were starting an online community today, what platform would you recommend?

Image credit: Smithsonian Institution (no known copyright)

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