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Conceptualizing Online Communities

By cybin in Internet
Sun Dec 10, 2000 at 09:48:48 PM EST
Tags: Culture (all tags)

There are many kinds of communities. Many times here on K5 and other sites, IRC channels, and similar media, we refer to the concept of "community". What is a community? How does your definition relate to the online communities you are involved in? Does being a member of an online community give you a sense of belonging?

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The responses gathered here will be used for a paper on online communities from an Anthropology perspective. Please be specific, long-winded, and honest in your responses. Anyone wishing to respond anonymously can email me at mmccabe@richmond.edu, and your identity will be protected.

Questions to consider:

1. Are there generally accepted rules on K5 or the other online communities you're involved in? If so, how do you react when someone breaks those rules?
2. Does your life offline have anything to do with your life online?
3. Do you bring your online experiences into real life, or vice-versa?
4. Where do you see yourself with respect to the online community you're involved with? How do you communicate with others in the community?
5. What problems do you see within the community? Do others make comments you don't like?

I'm not expecting everyone to "write the paper for me" -- please be as specific as you'd like, and feel free to add anything you think is important. I think this is an extremely interesting topic, and in approaching it from the perspective of Anthropology (as opposed to Psych or Sociology) I hope to achieve a well-rounded, level-headed "ethnography" (if you will) of online communities in general, and K5 specifically.

Above all, I'm hoping to provoke some good discussion about this subject :)


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I'm involved the most with:
o Kuro5hin (web or IRC) 43%
o another IRC channel 8%
o Slashdot 6%
o Sourceforge 1%
o A different online community 19%
o I don't consider the above to be communities 20%

Votes: 178
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Conceptualizing Online Communities | 32 comments (19 topical, 13 editorial, 0 hidden)
What do you think? (3.40 / 5) (#4)
by sugarman on Fri Dec 08, 2000 at 05:23:58 PM EST

See, the thing is, k5 is a fairly open community. Hang out for a week, and you should get a good idea of what this place is about and what makes it tick. Hang out on #kuro5hin, and you'll get a slightly different perspective. But the point is, there aren't any areas that are really "locked-off" from outside visitors (TINK5C) So take a look around, and see what you think makes the communtiy tick.

As for the anthropological PoV to your study, I don't follow how that answers the question. Most of the answers to the questions you're speaking would come from a sociological background. Gesellschaft and gemienschaft again. (Hey Khedrak, didn't we talk about that just this week?). Trying to describe this without including sociological terms indeed would be a high level undertaking, not something you can knock off in a weekend for an undergrad course that you've got an extension on the term paper for.



hah! (none / 0) (#30)
by cybin on Mon Dec 11, 2000 at 04:53:28 PM EST

a weekend! hah. no, i dont have an extension and no, i'm not going to knock this off in a weekend. thanks for the vote of confidence.

[ Parent ]
By Definition -1 (1.87 / 8) (#5)
by farl on Fri Dec 08, 2000 at 05:45:31 PM EST

By definition anything where people socialize is a form of community. Since we choose to be here, we are part of the community.

As for the interaction between online and offline, try this article on k5

-1 because the main question posed is not a question by merely looking at its definition. -1 becuase the article is abotu several different topics. Please try keep one concept per article.

Socializing? (3.50 / 2) (#9)
by leviathan on Fri Dec 08, 2000 at 07:51:38 PM EST

I socialize on IRC and other forms of chat, but I wouldn't say that I socialize on k5. I only post a handful of comments a week. A society (in which one socializes) demands that not only do you have a relationship with the group, but that it has one with you.

I believe that if I were to stop posting from k5 now, it wouldn't make a difference. I'd need to be here for longer, and take a more active role for that to happen. The medium is pretty much irrelevent to it happening (offline/online/usenet/chat/...), it just varies the form it takes.

Other than that, I agree with you though (main question too easy, other questions lack focus), but that would be an editorial comment.

I wish everyone was peaceful. Then I could take over the planet with a butter knife.
- Dogbert
[ Parent ]

the questions (4.00 / 2) (#10)
by cybin on Fri Dec 08, 2000 at 09:08:58 PM EST

for clarity: the questions are there to provoke discussion -- more direct questions would illicit responses that are based on the question themselves, which doesn't allow for individualized responses... i'm looking to see some thoughtful responses with elaborations, not focused questions.

[ Parent ]
Why I rated your comment low (1.60 / 5) (#20)
by simmons75 on Sat Dec 09, 2000 at 09:53:16 PM EST

Your comment had nothing to do with George Wendt eating beans. ;-)

But seriously,

"-1 because the main question posed is not a question by merely looking at its definition."

I'm still trying to figure that one out. Whew!

"-1 becuase the article is abotu several different topics. "

I fail to see the problem.

So there.

[ Parent ]
kinda tired... (3.50 / 8) (#6)
by fester on Fri Dec 08, 2000 at 05:46:18 PM EST

Please don't take this personally, but I'm really tired of all the "meta" articles being posted to k5. It's good to take a look at yourself everyone once and a while and examine what's going on, but if I see one more article on the "community", I think I'm going to gag. Yes, you're free to post stories on whatever interests you. I think there comes a point, however, when we spend too much time talking about ourselves and not enough time talking about the technical issues that affect our daily lives.

Technology and CULTURE from the trenches (2.00 / 4) (#7)
by farl on Fri Dec 08, 2000 at 05:48:01 PM EST

I could swear that that was the motto of this site? Not Technology and Technology, from the trenches"

[ Parent ]
Did you read what I said? (2.50 / 2) (#8)
by fester on Fri Dec 08, 2000 at 06:00:27 PM EST

No where in my comment did I claim "This is a site about Technology only." In fact, I think I said "you are free to post whatever interests you." That doesn't bother me. What does bother me is the self-centeredness displayed with article after article about the "k5 community." So please, refrain from putting words in my mouth and meaning into my posts that I never intended.

[ Parent ]
not k5 specific (4.33 / 6) (#15)
by motty on Sat Dec 09, 2000 at 02:49:03 PM EST

it may be that there have been many boring self-centered articles about the k5 community. i don't know. the way i use k5 is not to read the articles that seem to me to be boring. i don't know about you, but i don't seem to be able to read everything on k5 all the time. i just read a few things on k5 all the time, selecting them on the basis of what appears to be more interesting.

the thing here isn't about k5 as a community. this is an attempt to get people here to talk about community in general, which is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, community being in serious major-league flux and crisis right now, what with there being six billion of us on the planet all of a sudden.

Humans have this peculiar property of interacting together over long term periods in groups - these groups can produce things far beyond the power of any one individual to create alone, and they can have lifetimes far longer than that of any one individual. Some of those groups may constitute 'community' and some may not, but many aspects of the nature of those groups do not seem to be well understood.

There is a continuum: at one end, some groups of people live their whole lives together all the time, day in day out; at the other end there are groups where the people never actually meet one another in real time. Recent technological, social and demographic massive change has left all the humans running around in a whole new set of groups before we even particularly understood the old ones. Trying to work out what the hell is going on is a good idea.

If k5 isn't the kind of group that could come out with a few interesting points about community, I don't know what is.
[ Parent ]

An honest answer (4.25 / 4) (#16)
by slaytanic killer on Sat Dec 09, 2000 at 03:01:42 PM EST


Do not think of the 'online community' as one thing, and do not think of rules as anything other than actions that vary in success.

Think of moderation as noise filters, dealing with untrusted information. The link I gave is now outdated, but it gives some insight into people thinking about the notion that others have much more complex motivations than a naive audience would assume.

I look at your question in fascination, I believe your mistaken assumption is that people are generally looking for "friends & belonging" here in the online world. While some people are, others are far more nihilistic, because they already have friends and people to sleep with. I suggest studying some of the more outspoken ones online and finding what you can from them.

*chomp* (4.50 / 4) (#17)
by motty on Sat Dec 09, 2000 at 04:43:23 PM EST

A fairly random stream of ideas:

- I'm not sure how useful it is to distinguish between someone's life offline and their life online quite so strongly. The question is not 'does life offline have anything to do with life online'. Of course it does.

At the very least, there is always some kind of connection between the things that a person does, even if it is only because it is the same person doing them. A much better question would be 'what is the relationship between life offline and life online?' By looking at this, some of the things that connect the two beyond the simple fact that it is the same person doing it can emerge.

Part of the relation between life online and off, for one guy I know, was that the supermarket delivered his shopping. Another guy got a job in the 'offline' world through spending time online. A couple got married. My father found out about a bunch of line dances. Are these 'online experiences being brought into real life', or is it, perhaps, that online experiences *are* real life.

- A great deal of the difficulty that people have in evaluating online experience is that they try to separate it entirely from real life and then wonder why none of it seems to make sense. Real and virtual are set and subset, not opposites. Online experience is real experience too. Using a computer is a real experience. Ask any gamer. Better still, play some.

As for online community itself, the different (and evolving) sets of rules around each one, the problems that inevitably crop up and my relationship to them, I feel as much of an outsider here on k5 and in the other online communities in which I participate as I do anywhere, but that's just me and tells you nothing. Most people don't have that.

On the other hand, community takes time to build - there is an ongoing process of building which never stops as long as the community lasts - you could almost say that the community was that process - imagine what k5 or /. could be like in fifty years, or a hundred years.

- It so happens that I really am a very newbie here, albeit one with a growing case of verbal diahorrea, but I still feel 'new', really, in the places online where I have been participating for a few years. It's all 'new', except for those people who don't remember a time when it wasn't there. Hi. I do remember a time when it wasn't there, and also when it was there but wasn't available to me. This makes me still feel relatively new to it in some ways.

It will take a couple of generations until all online communities are largely populated by people who have always had online community available to them - in the meantime we have online communities where most people are still relatively new to the whole thing (in terms of years rather than months). Either way, there's still a hell of a lot of flux, both in the technologies and the conversations that people are having via them.

Amidst the flux of the changing technologies it is these conversations, and the recursive impact of these conversations on the world at large, that seems to be the main thing. rageboy wants to tell you about the recursive implications of those conversations in the business and marketing worlds, but Sourceforge is a repository of the recursive implications of the conversations in terms of creativity.

Online community leads to the creation of things which are not just conversations; things which are not just new ways to sell stuff. Things like the slashcode or scoop, which can act as a framework for 'community', things like political protests, or the production of a magazine, or a set of instructions on how to microwave a CD or choose a karate class, or a space in which people are free to talk bollocks.

Underlying all of the communities and conversation is a common strand of information - this ought not come as an incredible shock when you understand that the technology underlying those things is a technology of information exchange, processing and storage. But information can be about anything. This is why the people who banged on about the 'online revolution' did so. It could and would and has and will continue to impact everything. This is old news, but it's also why everything 'virtual', or 'online', or 'computer related' must be considered part of the 'real' world in order to understand it.

- There was a point when I thought that /. was a Good Thing. More recently I've spent much more time with k5. I'm not sure I have the faintest idea why really, beyond 'liking it', although the common thread of my online experiences has been in spaces where you can interact with other people in text-only, linear or otherwise. That's not the only space that I like to interact with people in, but it is one of them.

There are some people who have a problem with the idea of interacting with other people in text-only at all, just as there are some people who don't like the idea of using a telephone for anything other than the immediate and practical. Mainstream media representations of the online world have a constant strand about those who use text-only interactions to compensate for a lack of other kinds of interaction, and while it is an annoying stereotype, there is a certain kernel of truth here; time you spend participating online is time you don't spend somewhere else and that's the end of it.

We'll never know what it is if we continue to try and seperate it out from real life and stigmatise it. Mind you, real life is pretty damn weird too. This is one of the reasons I like k5 - other people have lots of interesting things to say about all kinds of random stuff that I don't understand well myself. Life and such. You know. All that.. stuff.

I don't know. I am not an anthopologist. End of rant.

Some thoughts on community (4.83 / 6) (#19)
by raph on Sat Dec 09, 2000 at 07:11:06 PM EST

As the founder of Advogato, I have some thoughts on this subject.

1. Are there generally accepted rules on K5 or the other online communities you're involved in? If so, how do you react when someone breaks those rules? This used to be referred to as "netiquette", a term you don't hear too often these days. It basically boils down to being considerate of others. But of course referring to these as "rules" is overstating the case.

Not spamming is probably the most important rule. I'd react in whatever way is necessary, including revoking the account, blocking the IP address, sending a note to the kid's mother, etc.

2. Does your life offline have anything to do with your life online?

Yes. In fact, I think there's a more general statement that can come from this: a community that has both face-to-face interaction and online interaction is stronger than one that's merely online. I personally think that's the main reason Advogato "works" as a community - it's really just an electronic bulletin board shared by a group of people who already form a fairly tight-knit community. I hang out with other free software developers frequently, and then there are the incredibly important conferences. When you have a face-to-face community, adding the online element is nice for several reasons: it lets the community be more geographically diverse, it adds to the opportunities to communicate, and (in the case of Advogato, anyway), I feel it helps bring the sub-communities closer together.

3. Do you bring your online experiences into real life, or vice-versa?


4. Where do you see yourself with respect to the online community you're involved with? How do you communicate with others in the community?

In Advogato, even though I founded the community, I really see myself as an equal participant.

Here, I'm more of an occasional participant. I don't consider myself part of the K5 "core" community, although feel perfectly welcomed here and enjoy participating. Perhaps that's because I've never broken bread with anyone who's primary community affiliation is K5.

The primary way I communicate is through my Advogato diary. That's probably because Advogato just so happened to evolve with a strong emphasis on diaries. I also post /. comments whenever a /. story intersects with my work. And, of course, I post comments here.

5. What problems do you see within the community? Do others make comments you don't like?

Let's not talk about problems so much as the way things could be better. In my opinion, most online communities could be a lot better. It is my hope that current online communities will be seen as a crude proto-form of the true potential, hopefully to be realized in the next few years.

How could it be better? For one, I'd like to see more clueful discussion. On any given topic, you have a few people who know what they're talking about, and a horde of unwashed masses who don't. I don't mind fielding a few questions from the latter group - after all, the Socratic teaching method is one of the most powerful known to man. But when the voices of the clueful are drowned out, serious, reasoned conversation becomes impossible.

Cluelessness as I've just described is truly endemic to /., although you also see it here and on Advogato. But consider these three sites as points on a spectrum that extends farther than we can see in the direction of cluefulness. That's interesting, and exciting.

In any case, this issue is closely tied to the one of scale. I'm surprised that, as an anthropologist, you didn't bring this issue up. In a manageably small community, nobody's voice is drowned out, be it by the unwashed masses, authoritarian control, or simply differences in popularity. However, scale has definite advantages. For one, the number of people who have something interesting to say goes up.

Scale is a particularly salient feature of online communities because it is so plastic. In today's dot-com world, explosive growth is expected. If not, you don't have a viable presence. Thus, most websites start out small, but if "successful", the tension is there for them to grow exponentially. This is especially true if the site is commercially-oriented (one of the ways in which K5 and Advogato differ fundamentally from /.).

In Advogato, I've taken a unique approach to the scaling problem. Avogato uses a trust metric to restrict membership to those who are genuinely a member of the free software development community. This puts a cap on the scale of Advogato. The community of free software developers is growing at a very healthy clip, but is still a small community in which most people can know most other people, at least on some level.

Whether because of these or other factors, Advogato is a community that works pretty damned well. Spam doesn't exist, and trolling has been extremely minimal, in spite of the fact that I've done nothing to stop them, aside from archtecting the system with a trust metric. Interesting discussions happen on a regular basis, with a great deal of respect for different viewpoints. Perhaps the most impressive example of this was the recent discussion on the relative merits of C++ in free software projects. This topic, "language holy wars," is a classic example of a high heat-to-light ratio flamewar in Internet fora. Yet, the Advogato discussion avoided these pitfalls and resulted in a genuinely interesting analysis.

I wish you the best of luck in your paper, and hope something interesting comes of it.

Centralization vs. the Market (4.00 / 1) (#24)
by TuxNugget on Sun Dec 10, 2000 at 04:58:28 AM EST

I looked over Advogato. Perhaps I will join later.

I note that Advogato gets its trust metric via hierarchy, in a rather centralized fashion from "tribal elders". Thats ok, I suppose (though it is very different from Kuro5hin and Slashdot). It worked fine for humanity, dating back at least a few million years. Since there are multiple elders, it is not a dictatorship. In fact, it is also a lot like the university (full professor, associate professors, grad students, outsiders). I also note that you ask people their real names. This also makes some sense. On the other hand, some people do legitimate work but don't want their real names out there. I suppose you've consciously decided that omitting a few good anonymous folks is better than admitting lots of clueless or abusive people, who might also like anonymity.

I am working on a very different approach, and would like to take a minute to explain it and perhaps obtain some feedback.

A market based system could also serve as a trust metric. Linux Futures, Inc. (home of the tux nugget) hopes to eventually create an example of such a community. The idea is basically to combine a site where people bet over future events with a discussion site. We wouldn't end up discussing the relative merits of C and Perl, but we could discuss things that will eventually be resolved, such as whether Mojo Nation or Freenet will be more popular, whether the MPAA would win its latest lawsuits against netizens, or (as one of our first users suggested), whether Mozilla would come out on time.

There are interesting challenges involved in such a site. First, how do you recruit new members? In your site, new members must be judged by peer review. In ours, we don't review anyone but we still need to give people starting capital that they use to bet in our online markets. This capital only has negligible value -- although we might sponsor prizes of some kind, they would be fairly limited and so most of the value of the play money has to come from what one can do with it within the community. A lot of this hasn't been finalized yet, and I'm interested in opinions. Should people be able to buy increased (or reduced!) prominance of articles or commentary? This seems tricky, because part of the goal is to create something difficult to socially hack through the use of multiple accounts. Since it is hard to value these Tux Nuggets, we use a clock auction to set the starting amount. The idea is that if people generally want more initial priviledges, they will (as a group) join at a slower rate by waiting and coming back later.

For troll resistance, we are counting on a few basic things about markets. First, if someone wants to write a script and create fake accounts all day, then each account will end up with only a minimal amount of value. (In addition, we'd probably just note it in the log and do a big select/delete). Here, we're basically trading an ability to create a powerful account merely by waiting for a reduced vulnerability to scripting multiple accounts. Second, we think that markets can only really be manipulated temporarily, by making bad bets. In that way trolls who start with a bit too much money will start losing it to people with more rational views. Finally, markets that trade in batches, with the timing a little random -- are immune to order sniping and using the market as a conduit for money laundering and combining multiple fake accoutns. If you place an order in the market, it is exposed to others -- it is difficult to trade only with your other selves, once again limiting the usefullness of setting up multiple accounts.

Of course, this has been tried before. Idea Futures has a site, lots of documentation, and a moderate following, but does discussion via a mailing list and isn't a very large community (maybe a thousand, with a hundred or so active). I think separating the mailing list discussion that far from the game is a disadvantadge. A weblog plus game is better, but even that isn't quite the integration that needs to be achieved. In addition, Idea Futures trys to be something for everyone, and has markets for events they might never judge (i.e. has man been to Mars by 2030). Part of the reason for starting Linux Futures was to contribute in a similar manner, but with a more practical market, with more sensible trading rules, and in a more practical setting. With open source, there is a lot of dispersed information and speculation about what is happening or when, and the whats and whens are often about the next year rather than the next century.

In real life I know something about market rules, as they are actually used in real markets, and what some of the pitfalls and advantadges of different systems might be. It is a shame to see all of this stuff be made increasingly proprietary just because it is "on the net", and so I've taken a very good set of rules that is at least 30 years old, and implemented it as open source.

I would certainly appreciate any comments that you (or others) might have about the site. Clearly, some redesign is needed. I have been taking to heart the use of whitespace and layouts I've been seeing at Kuro5hin, Advogato, and elsewhere - but time is kinda scarce.

Comments on any aspect -- presentation, content, or philsophy would be much appreciated.

[ Parent ]

an observation (3.00 / 2) (#25)
by cybin on Sun Dec 10, 2000 at 02:24:00 PM EST

does anyone else find it interesting that (at least for the purposes of this story) the most interesting results from the act of posting a story comes from those who vote against the story? i've seen this with other stories here too...

BTW -- i've been using K5 for a few months now, this idea is relatively new. i didn't come here to study K5, i came here to be a user. :) -m

MHO (2.00 / 1) (#27)
by Friendless on Sun Dec 10, 2000 at 06:52:56 PM EST

1. Are there generally accepted rules on K5 or the other online communities you're involved in? If so, how do you react when someone breaks those rules?

There are accepted rules, and K5 even writes some of them down. If I don't like the rules I will go elsewhere, I am sure there are more places. I am happy to abuse rule breakers, but usually that doesn't work. If it becomes a problem, I go elsewhere.

2. Does your life offline have anything to do with your life online?

Not much, the people are very different. Here there's a bunch of college geeks, in RL there's a wife and a kid and bosses and co-workers.

3. Do you bring your online experiences into real life, or vice-versa?

Vice-versa, usually. On-line experience is absolutely essential to keep up-to-date with my job, but in a virtual community everybody is bringing their RL experiences and sharing them with like-minded people.

4. Where do you see yourself with respect to the online community you're involved with? How do you communicate with others in the community?

Sometimes I am a leader, sometimes I am a lurker. I don't have the energy to lead all the time, and I don't have the ego to lurk all the time. Same as my involvement in RL communities.

5. What problems do you see within the community? Do others make comments you don't like?

If I start not to like a community, I will go somewhere else, hence no problem. One person making a comment I don't like is not worrisome, but lots doing it makes me think I am out of touch.

Best Online Community I've Seen (3.80 / 5) (#29)
by antizeus on Sun Dec 10, 2000 at 08:46:46 PM EST

The best online communities I've seen were the old BBS's. This has already been said a million times before, so I'll be brief. Typically, the user base of a BBS consisted of people who were in the same local calling area as the BBS (this was in the US where we typically have unlimited local calls for a flat rate). Because of the geographic proximity, it was really easy to get together in meat-space for pizza parties or even just hanging out. Thus the online community and the meat-space community fused into one. I met most of my oldest and best friends in the Atari (8-bit) BBS scene in the city where I grew up.
An Objective View (none / 0) (#31)
by Mad Hughagi on Mon Dec 11, 2000 at 04:53:58 PM EST

1. Are there generally accepted rules on K5 or the other online communities you're involved in? If so, how do you react when someone breaks those rules?

I think that in any community there are generally accepted rules that are not expicitly stated to anyone who interacts with the community. It would simply be terribly redundant for all the members of the community to continually be told what is acceptable (as well as incredibly abnoxious). For the most part, these rules are often summarised in the FAQs, and as such I think that new users should consult the FAQ before interacting. It is also wise to observe the nature of the community before you head on in with your guns blazing. This applies equally well for both online and offline communities. While I don't hold any permanent feelings towards those that break these 'implicit' rules, I do believe that it is a short-sighted action on part of the user who neglects to familiarize themselves with the community.

2. Does your life offline have anything to do with your life online?

I believe that making this distinction is rather redundant. How can you totally isolate a portion of your daily activities from the rest? I think it is impossible to say that you're offline life has nothing to do with how you act online. My time spent online as well as offline are simply parts of my entire life.

3. Do you bring your online experiences into real life, or vice-versa?

Once again I would have to say that it would be pretty naive to believe that anything you do is totally independant from the rest of your life. Regardless of whether or not I'm talking to someone face to face or through the use of a computer I'm still interacting, and as such it is going to be dealt with by myself as an experience. How much weight one places on an experience of this type or that type is a totally personal measure however, so I'm not going to say that all people get the same experience from different activities.

4. Where do you see yourself with respect to the online community you're involved with? How do you communicate with others in the community?

I see myself as a user / equal member of the community. I log on, read and write, and most importantly think about what other people in the community have presented. In a way online communities tend to remove a lot of the 'cultural' stigmas that are attached to people - you can be of any age, gender, race, belief or whatever online and for the most part no-one will know any better. I think this is the most important distinction that can be made between online and meatspace communities. In a way it tends to let everyone have an equal footing (something I think we all desire in meatspace) and more than anything I think this is one of its true merits.

5. What problems do you see within the community? Do others make comments you don't like?

I don't think the online community suffers from problems that are any different than normal communities. People make all sorts of comments online - just as in real life. I don't think the disagreement is any more profound simply because it occurs online.

Some final thoughts...

What is a community?

A community is simply a group of individuals who interact through a common medium.

How does your definition relate to the online communities you are involved in?

Since I believe that the medium through which you interact is irrelevant, I don't think my relation to online communities would be any different then my relation to the same kind of community in realspace.

Does being a member of an online community give you a sense of belonging?

Personally, I don't find the concept of 'belonging' to be that appealing. As soon as you associate yourself with something you automatically take on the stereotypes and whatnot that are attached to that organization. More than anything I believe that being a member of an online community simply implies that I am a user of that facility, and as such I interact with the other people who choose to utilise that facility. Obviously there are common threads between the users, and as such generalizations can be made, but I believe that the concept of being online is simply as relevant as talking on the phone, reading a magazine or watching t.v. Sometimes people try to read more into something than what is there in the first place. The only thing I can say is that the medium lends itself well to certain types of interactions, and that this is what I appreciate - the ability to openly express my views in a group where things are thought about and discussed rather than being dominated by close-minded opinions.

I find these 'online' vs. 'offline' debates to be seriously overplayed with subjective experience. Communities are inherently dependant on the ways in which the members of the community interact. As such you will have restrictions on what types of information are shared between members of the community - this is the only thing I think you can seriously make a categorization on. If the same group of people existed in another domain of interaction I think I would be equally likely to take part in it.

The only distinction is how we interact. The two main differences of online communites are the type of information we send out and recieve and the available breadth of possible recipients.


We don't make the products you like, we make you like the products we make.

MeatballWiki (none / 0) (#32)
by Sunir on Tue Dec 12, 2000 at 08:20:37 PM EST


I am the Editor of MeatballWiki, an rather strange title given that a wiki allows anyone to edit the content of the site. Also, I don't own the server space on which the site is hosted, nor do I control the software. My partner in crime, Clifford Adams, does all that technical stuff for MeatballWiki. Instead, I get to lead the community through wherever I can convince them to go. Also, I get to draw the @*#&!ing logo.

MeatballWiki, very briefly, is an online community that talks about online community and culture. e.g. This discussion would nicely fit there. Also, the goal--at least as I see it now--is to provide practical advice on how to form online communities as well as a kind of support group for disheveled community leaders. I guess it does more than that, but whatever. Get addicted to RecentChanges and see if you can figure it out.

Occasionally you will see me on kuro5hin railing against people for demonizing people or complaining about the lack of activism in geek culture. Other times, I will be boosting my "cause" of open communities. See, I don't think of online communities as strictly communities (even though they are city states). They are open-ended organizations. Old-style media like k5 can only at best advocate. I think you can go a lot further online, building organizations to get stuff done. For instance, I am working on Crystal Palace, a (would-be) community-supported system to track ownership. That way you can easily find out why buying Kraft Dinner funds cigarette companies.

In the online world, I'm kind of unique. I try my hardest to be fair and open and honest and trusting as I can. And I zealously push those ideals onto anyone who will listen. For instance, I believe in soft security over hard. My opinion is that if you want to crack a server, kick it over.

Anyway, onto the questions.

Are there generally accepted rules on the online communities you're involved in? If so, how do you react when someone breaks those rules?

On an open wiki, you're kind of stuck. You can't just kick someone off. Instead, you have to rally the community to respond to the problem. I think this is better because you aren't tempted to beat people over the head with a blunt stick (e.g. the /. bitchslap).

I prefer resolutions rather than mere solutions. I figure, if someone "breaks the rules", usually it's because of a mistake. In that case, the best response is to politely correct them and guide them to what is considered better. Moreover, in the case of real conflict, I am working on a set of strategies for conflict resolution. None of them involve violent means, except for voting. Voting is terrible.

We have a rallying cry on MeatballWiki: barn raising. Collaborate to get things working.

Does your life offline have anything to do with your life online?

I've met people in person after meeting them online before, but the two realms fairly distinct. For instance, I talk to Cliff through MeatballWiki and e-mail only. I've only phoned him once. I think he prefers that considering my sleeping schedule.

That being said, as I occasionally manage software teams in the real world, the leadership skills apply in both places.

Also, I maintain a diary on MeatballWiki. I tend to keep things there Meatballesque, but the diary is there so people knew what mood I am in, what my motivations are when making decisions. After all, we don't meet face to face, and it's so important not to be aloof. So, bits from my real life go in there, like the almost knife fight I was involved in last Friday. I guess this has lead MeatballWiki to be more informal than it could have been, but that's alright with me. That's my prefered style of running an online forum, having tried a variety of other means.

Where do you see yourself with respect to the online community you're involved with? How do you communicate with others in the community?

I am the leader, but I believe heavily in fair process, hence the diary. I communicate on the wiki itself, or by e-mail, or indirectly through my diary, or on their communities, or on other third-party communities. I've talked to one person by phone, another by ICQ. Whatever works.

What problems do you see within the community? Do others make comments you don't like?

Others make comments I don't like all the time, and vice versa. Conflict can be healthy. Actually, I'm a firm believer in acknowledging good work when I see it, even if it shows I was an idiot. Of course, those I've beat with the Flaming Clue Stick of Death (as Cliff calls it, being whacked more than once) may think otherwise. ;)

One problem with MeatballWiki is that the active community is small, but we're not even a year old so I'm not worried. Also, we're still trying to work out what the heck the place is for. It tends to change focus every so often, being rather young. Also, lately, most of the content has been soft as I've been interested in managerial issues and others have been talking about how technology affects their Real World lives. I'd like to move back to a more balanced diet of technical discussion and soft discussion. But that will have to wait until later.

The one problem I have with MeatballWiki is the amount of time it takes. And not just on MeatballWiki itself. I regularly help other sites, or I am catching up on the latest developments, or I am shamelessly advertising, or I'm reading down my deficit. Being Editor is tough, I tell you. And I still have to draw that @*#&!ing logo!

Anyway, I don't have anything clever to end off with. I sent you an e-mail. Feel free to ask me more in private.

"Look! You're free! Go, and be free!" and everyone hated it for that. --r

Conceptualizing Online Communities | 32 comments (19 topical, 13 editorial, 0 hidden)
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