20 , 2001 | Design
by Derek Powazek
This book is an excellent resource for would-be community builders,
written by one of the best-known and successful virtual community
pioneers around. Nonetheless this is not the first book you should
own on the subject - that would probably be Amy Jo Kim's book, Community
Building on the Web or Cliff Figallo's Hosting
Web Communities. Design for Community (DfC)
is not a sort of "Communities for Dummies" talking you
step by step through all of the stages of virtual community management
- determining why you want one, choosing or writing your software,
day to day management, monitoring your goals and so on. At less
than 300 pages with large type and illustrations it isn't big enough,
and in any case writing a textbook just isn't Derek's style.
Instead (and just as interestingly) this is an easy to read collection
of handy tips on various aspects of community building, drawing
on Derek's own experience and that of eleven other virtual community
luminaries. I was never bored, and even when I disagreed with some
of his ideas they definitely made me think.
week in Mindjack:
An interview with Derek Powazek
His thinking is definitely flavoured by his background - if you
are looking to set up sites that are primarily "personal"
and informal in tone and spirit this book will be just what you
need. If you want a virtual community to help distant office teams
work together or provide support for your company's products you
will find it harder to apply as it doesn't give you much guidance
on the sorts of issues you'll run across there, like "what
if our message boards are full of criticism of our product and marketing
want to shut them down?" or "what is a virtual community's
contribution to the bottom line?" Perhaps because of the traditionally
free-booting attitude of West coast Internet pioneers like Derek
there is also very little discussion about legal issues whether
in the US or abroad. His section on "policies and policing"
talks well about how to make your terms and conditions readable
but doesn't indicate how to deal with libel, privacy protection
issues with user registration or the provisions of the American
Child Online Protection Act.
Once you have decided you want to make a space where a virtual
community can gather, one of the first things you need to do is
figure out what the underlying software will be. In the 16-page
chapter dealing with this issue he tells you up front "this
is not going to be an all-inclusive list of every community software
package out there
" In fact, he mentions very few - one
or two from each "category" - and the "lazy man's
community package" most people will have run across, Yahoo
Groups, is only mentioned in passing. Largely unimpressed by the
off-the-shelf software available he says, "nine times out of
ten, you'll be better off building something yourself that's custom
fit to your needs". This may be true in principle, but I wonder
how many of the people reading this book will have the resources
available to re-invent the wheel one more time?
Similarly, there is lots of information on how your community
should look to the users but little on how it should work "behind
the scenes" when you are trying to perform tasks like searching
or editing message postings - the day to day work of virtual community
It is in questions of "design" in its narrowest sense
of "look and feel" that Derek provides some of the most
interesting tips. He suggests, for example, that you should deliberately
make it hard to post a message to the messageboard. This is a startling
thing to propose, but he makes the point that if you make people
read some of your content and other people's writing before they
post, "users who are looking for trouble or aren't really engaged
in your content will be put off by the distance." He also suggests
that as well as what previous people have written, the overall colour
scheme of a site can actually change the tone of people's posts.
And he points out that pictures of people can help "humanise"
a site but says that you should "use real photos of real people
connected to your site. An amateur photo that's real will do more
than a legion of fake smiles from Photodisc".
If you run a content-led site you will find his design tips particularly
useful - time and time again he points out the importance of integrating
the content with the community elements - something I agree is absolutely
vital. And he devotes a whole chapter to a little-considered element
of community design - how to manage email lists and, particularly,
how to format the email bulletins you send.
Even if you aren't in the "front lines" of community
building, however, this is still an interesting book. The interviews
give you an interesting insight into how large community websites
are run and he does a good job of explaining how virtual communities
can form out of text on a screen. It may not be the first book you
should own on virtual community but it is definitely worth a read.
Brake is a UK-based virtual communities consultant and one
of the Rheingold