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Community Building on the Web: Secret Strategies for Successful Online Communities. A.J. Kim. (Peachpit Press, 2000)

Visit the companion website to the book:

More about NAIMA and community building:

Chatting for Dollars. J. Rossheim., March 2001.

Blogging On. R. Yim. San Francisco Chronicle, February 28, 2001.

Linking Like Minds. T. Nagel. Forbes ASAP, February 19, 2001.

Amy Jo Kim on Learning Communities. elearningPost, February 27, 2001.

Interview with Amy Jo Kim. B. Alt. Community Start, November 2000. 

Review: Community Building on the Web. D. Shafer. Online Community Report, November 2000.

Sticky Sight. K. Kelly. WIRED, August 8, 2000.

A Conversation with Amy Jo Kim. THE WELL, July 2000. 

More 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.

LiNE Zine: Why do you see communities offering such value to individuals and organizations?

Kim: 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.

Communities—made 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.

LiNE 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.

LiNE 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.

LiNE Zine: From all your experience building online communities, have you uncovered the particular attributes that make effective learning communities?

Kim: 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.

LiNE Zine: Are there overarching design elements for learning communities?  

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:

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.

LiNE 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.

In 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.

LiNE 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?

Kim: 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.

This 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.

It’s 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.

LiNE 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.

LiNE 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 came from.

LiNE 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.

Second, 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 contributions.

LiNE Zine: That's wonderful. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

Amy 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 Online Community Design at Stanford University.

Beth Garlington Scofield is managing editor of LiNE Zine. Contact her directly at, or join the LiNE Zine online community.



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