and more organizations are realizing something that people intrinsically
know: community and social interaction are a vital part of the human
experience. As organizations come to terms with this most human
of needs, not surprisingly we are hearing more about the significance
of enhancing emotional and social commitment for employees, the
importance of communities of practice to help people do their jobs
better, and about the value derived from peer-to-peer and mentoring
relationships. The Internet has increasingly become a critical tool
for organizations and individuals to meet those needs. Who better
to learn from about this movement than Amy Jo Kim, founder and leader
of NAIMA, a strategic community
design firm, and pioneer in online community building. Kim recently
published a seminal book on the subject, Community
Building on the Web: Secret Strategies for Successful Online Communities
(Peachpit Press, 2000). Her book is a strategic toolkit for online
community designers and builders, but Kim’s message is about much
more than design. She preaches the doctrine of life enhancement,
and the power of the social ties that bind us together.
Zine: Why do you see communities offering such value to
individuals and organizations?
First, lets define what's meant by community. In my
book, I define it as a group of people with a common purpose, interest,
or activity, who get to know each other better over time. That's
purposely a very broad definition, because I have many different
clients who want to build communities. In my consulting practice,
I find it useful to move beyond the word “community,” and talk instead
about groups and networks. A group is a small, tight-knit collection
of people who get to know each other better over time, care about
each other, and interact fairly regularly. A network is a larger
group of loosely-connected people who share knowledge and resources,
but don’t necessarily connect with each other on a regular basis.
up of groups and networks—are the glue that holds society together.
In every healthy community, whether online or offline, there is
a necessary dynamic between some top-down rule-setting body, whether
it's a tribal chief or an elected congress, and the bottom-up efforts
of people with shared interests and needs coming together and creating
their own initiatives. I think it's that dynamic interchange between
order and chaos that makes a community work.
Zine: In the introduction of your book you talk about how
your initial experience with online community led to your career
commitment to helping others build effective communities, and actually
gave you the name of your company. Would you share that story?
Kim: I got into this field because being part of an online
community changed my life. I was just out of grad school, living
in a new city where I knew no one, and working really hard in a
new job at Sun Microsystems. Following a tradition at Sun, I named
my computer Naima on a whim because I had learned a beautiful John
Coltrane jazz ballad called Naima the night before. So within the
Sun Intranet, I became AmyJo@naima
- and I starting getting e-mail from people all around Sun who figured
I was a Coltrane fanatic because of the name of my computer, from
guys on the loading dock to marketing dweebs, all kinds of different
people I never would have met otherwise. From that I got onto a
jazz-oriented mailing list, learned more about John Coltrane, got
into a band and got some gigs, and got sucked into this whole musical
subculture within Sun that changed my life for the better.
Zine: It seems that people who have the deepest investment
in this have had life altering experiences, where they have really
seen how communities have improved their life in immeasurable ways.
Kim: I like to tell my own “creation story” to remind
community builders (including myself) to focus on creating an environment
that's actually going to change people's lives for the better, in
a tangible way. If you can accomplish that, it's hard to go wrong.
Zine: From all your experience building online communities,
have you uncovered the particular attributes that make effective
Well, I'm still learning what a “learning community” is, along with
everyone else. Let’s start with the premise that a learning community
is one whose core purpose is for the members within it to learn.
But in many of the communities I deal with, learning is but one
among many goals. For instance, if a company sets up an internal
community, they’ll certainly want their employees to learn from
each other—but that community may also be used to disseminate information,
keep track of projects, and facilitate collaboration. And a corporate
learning community will be very different than an academic learning
community (a community of students who are attending a university)
because students who are taking a graded course are motivated very
differently than people within an organization who are trying to
get their job done. So it’s a good idea to start by focusing on
the core purpose of the community, and to be aware of the different
motivations the users might have.
Zine: Are there overarching design elements for learning
Kim: Because there are so many different types of learning
communities, I don’t think that question has a simple answer. I’ve
developed a nine-point design framework for building successful
communities of all types, and written a book that explains how to
apply this framework. I’d like to point people to the companion
website for my book for more information: http://www.naima.com/community.
Basically, you want
to design your community to support and enhance the existing structure
of the learning experience. For example, suppose that we're designing
a community to go along with a 10-week class at a university or
training center. A class has a natural rhythm, whether it’s a group
of people gathering together a physical room, or getting together
over the Internet. That’s the basic backbone of the experience,
and so with a structure like that, you would design a community
that's built around that regular rhythm; perhaps a new message board
topic each week, along with some ongoing topics and a kickoff and
wrapup meeting to “bookend” the experience. Now, suppose that we’re
designing a community to support a series of self-paced classes
that are broken into modules. These “classes” don’t have a regular
real-time rhythm, and there’s less of a commonly shared experience
among the participants. In that case, you might design a more network-like
structure that allows the participants to ask questions, hold discussions
and share stories with other “learners” who have taken the courses
in the past, as well as people who are currently working through
the modules. In one situation, you’re supporting a group—and in
another, you’re fostering a network.
Zine: Those are great examples. Would you share some other
ways you have seen people benefit from online communities, how they
have learned from one another using different technologies and methodologies?
Kim: Well, message boards are great for facilitating self-documenting
conversations. And many companies also use message boards to let
people ask and answer questions about a specific topic. That's OK,
but unless there’s a good search engine on top of it, this structure
can be difficult and time-consuming to use. So now companies are
starting to use more structured tools that are specifically designed
for Q&A, and these tools can semi-automatically create an FAQ
and evolving knowledge base that allows people to get their questions
answered more efficiently—while also tracking and rewarding the
people who are taking the time to share their knowledge.
a learning community, it’s important to consider both how you capture
the learning, and also how you get access to learning. I deal a
lot with business communities, and many of those people don’t have
much time, and need proof that the community will deliver value
to them, that their problems will be solved quickly and easily.
So for Q&A, just having people post on a message board isn’t
enough; they need a means of harvesting successful Q&A from
the message board, and of assessing whether an answer address the
question to the questioner's satisfaction. That is the key to success.
And if you have that in place—whether it's through some automatic
mechanism that’s built into the platform, or by having hosts who
harvest successful queries from message boards and put that into
an FAQ—that creates a much more useful system. If you’ve got only
ten to fifteen questions, you don’t need a search feature. But,
if you desire a robust system for a big community or a network that
includes many communities, you are going to need a really good search
engine on top of that so that members can come into the community,
type in a question, and get an answer right away.
Zine: Would you explain a bit more about the emerging understanding
in your work about the difference between groups and networks? Under
your definition, wouldn’t the original group at Sun have been more
of a network than a group?
Well…it’s hard to say. If you think of all the people
on the Sun Intranet as a network, then the internal jazz-oriented
mailing list I was on was more like a group; there were less than
a hundred people on the list, and we got to know each other quite
well. However, that group definitely had separate sub-groups within
it; for example, I joined a cover band for a while that consisted
of 7 people from the mailing list, and we were definitely operating
like a group.
example highlights some of the questions to ask yourself if you’re
trying to distinguish between groups and networks. How large is
the collection of people? How close (or loose) are the ties amongst
them? And do subgroups naturally occur? Say you’ve got 100 people
who belong to a mailing list, and 15 or 20 of them are regular posters;
that’s probably a group. But if you’ve got 2000 people reading a
message board, and 200 of them are posting regularly, that’s probably
operating more like a network—and you’ll need to provide some mechanisms
that facilitate subgroups.
useful to make this distinction if it helps you select the right
tools, programs and policies for your learning community. That said,
these are not really crisp distinctions; in practice, the boundary
between a group and a network is often fuzzy, and sometimes a group
will behave more like a network, and vice versa. Above all, you
need to pay attention to the needs and goals of the people involved,
and support the activity that they’re pursuing together.
Zine: It’s very helpful and clarifying to hear the concrete
examples of the different sizes of groups you just gave us.
Kim: One example is one hundred thousand, which is definitely
going to be some sort of network with loose ties and sub-communities.
But, with fifty, one hundred, or even five hundred people there
could still be a sense of a cohesive community. I don't have concrete
numbers yet to describe this phenomenon. There are interesting examples
from anthropology and sociology about group and tribe size, but
I don't think those numbers translate directly to the Internet because
the Net allows asynchronous communication, which really changes
things. Doing an anthropological/sociological study of online communities
to come up with numbers where natural subdivisions start to form
(if you haven't created them) could be a fantastic research project.
I’m sure we’ll learn more over the next few years.
Zine: We like to ask thoughtleaders about their approaches
to learning. How do you learn, and how do you use online communities
and technology to enhance your experiences?
Kim: There are predominantly two ways I learn. First,
I have cultivated a network of colleagues (a lot of them ex-clients,
some of them people that I've met online and at conferences) that
I make a point of staying in touch with to bounce ideas off and
discuss problems. Second, and even more importantly, most of my
learning takes place directly through working on projects with clients.
I've consciously chosen to set up my business in a way that maximizes
my learning because I'm tremendously excited by what's happening
in this field, and I'm happiest when I'm on a steep learning curve.
So, I choose my clients from a broad range of industries, and choose
to work on wildly different projects as much as possible. Now I
have clients in areas as diverse as the on-line learning space,
distance education, B2B market places, massive multi-player gaming
clients, tech support clients, etc. That diversity lets me see the
patterns that are common to all of them, which are indicators of
the deeper underlying principles. They all run into the same basic
issues. That’s actually where my book and my nine design principles
Zine: Before we close, we’d like to give you the opportunity
to share with our readers any parting thoughts about this intersection
of community and learning and design.
Kim: There are two points I’d like to close with. First,
I think the boundaries between the offline and online worlds are
blurring, and that designers who integrate both offline and online
components into their learning communities will be the most successful.
I encourage everyone to use every available resource to its best
effect, and to think about creative ways to blur these boundaries.
I encourage people to incorporate “bottom-up” feedback loops into
their learning communities that use the “collective intelligence”
of members to bubble up the best contributions and the most accurate
answers from the participants. Such feedback loops are tremendously
empowering to community members, and pragmatically speaking can
help to reduce the cost of running an online community. It doesn't
replace the need for great teachers and great mentors, but there
is real value in students learning from each other and being able
as a group or as a network to highlight those among the students
who are on the verge of becoming teachers or mentors by having great
Zine: That's wonderful. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.
Jo Kim, Ph.D. is the Founder and Creative Director of NAIMA,
a design studio specializing in cutting-edge Web communities. She
is author of Community Building
on the Web: Secret Strategies for Successful Online Communities,
and frequently writes and speaks on the topic. She also teaches
Design at Stanford University.
Garlington Scofield is managing editor of LiNE Zine. Contact her
directly at firstname.lastname@example.org, or join the LiNE Zine
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