The Life Cycle of Online Communities

How do you make an online community thrive? It sounds simple in theory, but bringing people together around a particular topic or cause, and creating a space in which they can provide real and sustained support to one another, is not easy. As we at Quest strive to take Trainer Tribe, our online platform for 21st Century teachers, to the next level, we asked Danny Hutley, Impact & Learning Advisor at the Change.org Foundation, to share some of his experiences.

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On November 29 Danny spoke to our MasterCoach Digital Learning Circle, via videolink, sharing failures, breakthroughs and routes to success from five years of curating online communities for Change.org.

“We wanted to go from single victories to transformational social change. This is completely impossible without community – without people really deeply connecting with each other,” said Danny, introducing the impetus behind curating online communities at Change.org.

Explaining that over the past five years, various experiments with online community building had essentially failed, Danny gave a specific example of an earlier model:

“In Italy, we would invite 20 petition starters into Facebook groups and get them talking. Then after a few weeks we’d send a big email out to 10,000 people and try and get as many people as possible into that group to create energy. And it would never work; it would just create complete chaos. Most people would be there promoting their own petition. Some people would be sharing a new article. There would be outrage. There would be nonsense messages. People didn’t feel like they were connected to that group, so the engagement would just drop off. We did this a number of times but never seemed to learn from it.”

Earlier this year, though, the Change.org team started to think about online communities in a new way, using a ‘four stage’ model, adapted from Community Lifecycle (Iriberri & Leroy 2009) which helped them to conceptualize how to take things one step at a time. We were particularly struck by the (very memorable!) model, which categorized online communities into four stages: Baby, Child, Adult and Reproduction.

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Within this model, simple metrics and indicators are used to ascertain at what stage any given group is at, remembering that groups can progress backwards as well as forwards. These are very fluid and change according to the different stages, but could include:

  • The number of posts not by the moderator
  • The number of posts with a clear purpose
  • The number of irrelevant posts, or posts about forming a new group
  • A survey to gauge the sense of community (only to be used when you are confident that the group moving towards adult stage)

After probing Danny further during an extensive question and answer session, here are 10 Key Takeaways for creating online communities:

  1. Make sure that you understand the purpose of your community, and then consistently and clearly communicate that.
  2. A group description which makes the purpose of the group and the group norms clear is important.
  3. A Community Manager (with a name and very visible presence), who is a part of the group, in addition to any ‘official’ group account, is a key person.
  4. Using personal messages to clarify the group description with people one-on-one when they join can help keep the community on track.
  5. Needing to intervene (especially in the early stages) is not a bad thing! Don’t be scared to let the Community Manager guide the development of the group to avoid chaos.
  6. Don’t be discouraged if groups don’t work the first time
  7. Meaningful one-to-one connections and interactions can keep you motivated
  8. If you are feeling discouraged, take a step back and treat it as an experiment. What can you can learn from it?
  9. Posts which include people in the group and shout outs to people by name are often popular
  10. Evaluating and monitoring your groups, using relevant metrics, can guide your interventions

With thanks to Danny Hutley and Change.org 

Author: thelearnerbyquest

Quest Alliance's space for reflection on the education sector

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