online communities


Starlings, by t.klick on flickr

I want to write more about online communities, in all their different guises.  I just wrote a neat overview of the mistakes I see people make when they create new communities, but I realised I was probably going too fast for everyone.   I adore communities and at any one time, I’m a member of all kinds of online groups.   I can’t stop looking at them even while I’m in them, always fascinated by what makes them tick.

I believe that there are two main types of online community, and one interesting add-on.

Some communities are flocks.

They flock around a single compelling subject that brings everyone together, whether it’s motorbikes, pregnancy, My Chemical Romance or triathlons. Flocks can stick together over a long period of time, even as older members fade out and new members fade in.

There’s no central narrative to a flocking community, although there may be lots of sub-themes.  There usually ends up being some kind of member hierarchy, whether it’s time served or quantity of opinion expressed.  Senior members may resent newbies.

Other communities are convoys.

In a convoy, everyone starts at the same time, and they move through a common process.  Community content may largely consist of their visible, public reaction to their experience.  Most e-learning and digital workshop communities are convoys.  Many branded research communities are convoys.

The members of a convoy may bond together very tightly through working together, or their connection to each other may remain quite minimal.  Convoys typically have a beginning, a middle and an end.  There’s a story here, a natural life cycle and starting point.

Then there’s the Sidecar.

The Sidecar is the self-managed group, typically set up as an unregulated space for people who don’t have an ‘official’ space.  The methods and approaches are constantly changing, depending on costs.   At the time of writing, I’m seeing lots of Facebook groups being created by women for events that they are part of.  In the past, these have been Ning groups, Yahoo groups and listservs.

Sidecars are often unofficial and self-managed, but they can be official spaces spaces too, when event owners don’t want the time, cost and hassle of creating their own community.

Recognise your community?

They all have their own internal dynamics, their own foibles.  Flocks usually do have a lifespan, but it’s a lot longer than a convoy.  Convoys often think they are flocks, and everyone is surprised when they run out of things to talk about.  And people thrown out of convoys often set up sidecars.

Thoughts?  Does this match your experience, or have I missed something out? Let me know in comments. I want to write more about the business of communities, and I want to make sure that I’ve captured the main types.

{ 1 comment }


Aaaargh! Oh, we're not in real danger. Image by Freakazoid on flickr

In which I mix metaphors. Be warned.

I want to think about emotional journeys. Some context: I’m thinking about those extended online conversations that take place in e-courses, online workshops, and online  communities.  The content is created with some end goal in sight – typically, a transformative purpose.

The intention is that by the end, something will have changed.  The participant may have learned something important, maybe acquired a new skill. Perhaps the convenors will have learned something about their audience.

A lot of online courses that I see are parcelled into neat chunks, delivered regularly, piece after piece.  A steady drip of content, to be absorbed and digested bit by bit.


The reality of taking part is much more uneven.

It’s more like a road trip, or a movie.  There are highs and lows, boring bits and exciting bits.  There may be self-doubt and conflict.  There will almost certainly be uncertainty (heh).  Headaches. Anticipation. Frustration. Moments of deep connection.

So, a question for you if you are putting together a course: what’s the nature of the journey you’re creating for your people? Is it a simple, pleasant tour, like a coach trip around English villages? (That might be perfect for teaching scary technical stuff).  Perhaps there’s a natural high point in the trip – the jewel in the crown?

It might be an adventurous journey. That could be a safe yet somewhat challenging exploration: let’s say, a camel trip in Morocco, with a bit of camping thrown in.  Or it could be a journey that tests nerves and endurance to the limit.  An Everest climb, fully supported but utterly demanding.

The good tour leader creates the right kind of itinerary.  A journey and a story.

What’s the ideal shape of your journey?  Perhaps we can borrow from literature and film. .  The writer Christopher Booker proposed seven basic plots in literature, re-told in thousands of stories.  We can strike some of these out as unsuitable for applying to business and online self-development (tragedy, anyone? Maybe not).  That still leaves us with many plots. Rags to riches.  Slaying the dragon.  The hero’s journey.  Or a more simple plot of discovery, connection and natural resolution.

Some thoughts on plotting your customer’s journey:

Sketch it out
Think through what you will provide and how it begins.  What they will feel, at each stage. How one section leads naturally to the next.

Begin from a place of safety
Make sure that people know what they signed up for and are comfortable with the process.  Start small and build confidence.

Include high points and deep points
Use natural ebbs and flows of energy in the work you’re creating – gradual builds, deep insight, personal payoffs.  Little rewards after hard work.

Build in time for recovery
Mix simple and light with complex and hard.  Allow enough time for recovery and integration of the pieces into a bigger whole.

Create dramatic tension
Hollywood blockbusters are built to a tight formula – the double reversal near the end where the heroine nearly gets the guy but nearly ruins it through her own folly and then has to run 8 blocks to the airport.

Place your biggest challenges near the end – providing an emotional stretch that’s informed by all the parts that went before.  A simple tour can be grand, but there’s more power in the personal challenge. You decide.

Final thought: You can’t control everything.
Be ready for the fallout from difficult tasks.  People respond differently to the same material. You might find some of your people on somewhat different psychic trips – one is having a nice day at the seaside, while another is fighting a tremendous battle with a sea serpent.

Thoughts? Have I, er, lost the plot? Does your work have natural stories in it, and do you use them?


7 reasons to join your online health communities

February 16, 2011 Healthcare

How do people decide whether to join an online health community? I posted late last year about my search through food allergy websites after my daughter had several severe food allergy reactions. As always, the search made me try to identifywhat exactly I’m looking for when I seek out health communities. Here’s what I think […]

1 comment Read the full article →

Finding online communities for allergy support

December 13, 2010 Healthcare

Social media and severe allergies Last week, I got involved in a Twitter discussion on health care, blogging and social media – the regular discussion (#hcsm and #hcsmeu) hosted by Andrew Spong.  I find these discussions interesting but also somewhat perplexing. The ‘perplexing’ part is undoubtedly because the contributors are health policy experts, and the […]

2 comments Read the full article →