I’ve been working with Breastcancer.org, and one of the things we learned was that the discussion boards they put up that were supposed to be mainly for informal knowledge sharing and socializing have turned into a vital community of practice for women with breast cancer and survivors.
It turns out that their forums follow a pattern that you can see in many other similar places — that the community ends up being not the secondary resource for knowledge, but for the majority of regular users, it’s the *primary* resource.
The official structure and info on the site serve as a useful anchor point, a framework, for the community — but the community is primary for them. Many of these women instead of going to the official part of the site to read an article on something, will go to the forum and ask “have any of you seen anything on X?”
This makes the medical establishment running the site kind of nervous… but once we discovered this, we’re now trying to figure out how to redesign to support it…
Many Front Porch Forum members have made it clear that they prefer asking their neighbors for advice, leads and information rather than other online sources. E.g., people have told me that they would rather ask their neighborhood forum for a plumber recommendation that an open regional service… even if the other service would likely pull from a larger crowd and perhaps yield “better” information. These folks trust the neighbors more than strangers AND they realize that this interaction with neighbors will lay another stone in the foundation of neighborhood community.
Speaking of Craig Newmark of craigslist…
But what does Craig mean by “get out of the way?” The fact is, he’s extremely involved in Craigslist. He spends many many hours a day *cultivating* that environment, by being a “customer service representative.”
“As part of my job, I put in at least 40 hours a week on customer service. I’m just a customer service rep. My two biggest projects are dealing with misbehaving apartment brokers in New York and lightly moderating our discussion boards.” Craig works hard to keep things moving well on this platform. But he doesn’t orchestrate everyone’s actions — he cultivates.
Basically, cultivating means finding the balance between encouraging activity (motivation) and shaping that activity toward healthy ends with moderation (‘dividing’ it, in a sense).
You have to love what you’re doing — or you won’t be able to care enough to be involved. You have to be willing to get your hands dirty by getting into the mix with everyone else. And you can’t fake it — you can’t assign someone who isn’t invested to be a cultivator. This is why, actually, it makes the most sense for a community of practice’s members to be the cultivators… even if there’s a pecking order of some kind (which is fine! hierarchies are helpful at times in the service of the practice & domain — but they tend to be much more fluid and meritocracy-based in Communities of Practice.)
This is the role, in many ways, that I’ve been playing for the past seven years… 6.5 with the Five Sisters Neighborhood Forum and the last half year with Front Porch Forum’s 130 contiguous neighborhood forums. It’s a light touch… but absolutely necessary and not a task to shrug off to an intern.
Goals at Forefront
About online community, Hinton quotes Clay Shirky…
“We are literally encoding the principles of … freedom of expression in our tools. We need to have conversations about the explicit goals of … what we are trying to do, because that conversation matters.”
Nearly every day I come back to Front Porch Forum’s mission… to help neighbors connect and foster community within the neighborhood. Without that touchstone I would have been lured down dozens of ultimately wrong paths. We get loads of suggestions for more bells and whistles, partnerships, etc. The only ones that get serious consideration are those that contribute significantly to our mission.