Saturday, 29 September 2007

Concerning Community

George Oates and Denise Wilton gave a presentation on Human Traffic at Dconstruct07. They both occupied a sofa on stage and presented somewhat Baddiel and Skinner unplanned style. Unfortunately there was no opportunity for questions from the audience, which I think would have made things much more dynamic. Although this presentation was a fairly interesting recanting of some of the community experiences at and it didn't delve very deeply into community aspects. I don't actually feel that a full grasp of community can be gleaned by looking at the big players, the dynamics don't feel right. Possibly more can be gained by looking at smaller communities.

In my experience one of the most interesting communities I have seen develop has been the one built up around Chinesepod, at some point I would like to take the time to carry out a more in depth analysis of this community and attempt to pinpoint why it succeeded whereas other similar online language community attempts failed.

For now here are some of my initial observations, mainly just here so I can refer to them later.

They started with simple community aspects right from the beginning but, these were fairly basic, what seems to have planted the seed was the ability to comment on the lessons they released. Key was the fact that they actually had material that was worth commenting on, sometimes funny, sometimes thought provoking etc. If you commented then you often got responses back from the key players.

They had personalities that came across in the content and in their interaction with the community.

There was a community out there already (Westerners learning Chinese) however this was mostly restricted to academic learners, Chinesepod put new spin on this and acted as a focal point for learners of all levels and intent. Amazingly independent of the Chinesepod site a forum and wiki was developed by the users. Eventually these were then pulled into and hosted on the Chinesepod site. Why did these users not just set up a Chinese learning forum and Wiki? They strongly associated learning Chinese with Chinesepod. People started to refer to "poddies" (users of Chinesepod) or "Cpodders".

They used blogging to their advantage, eventually hosting blogs for learners but also interacting with external learner blogs, etc. etc. The key players at Chinesepod blogged themselves and crucially didn't just restrict themselves to promoting their own wares. You could actually change things at the Chinesepod site via the blogs, and the discussion was frank and open. One of the founders of Chinesepod Ken Carroll regularly blogs and keeps in touch with the community.

Much of their growth has been on the back of viral marketing.

RSS feeds have always been a big part of the site (although on occasion they have not been as easy to discover as they should be).

They have never attempted to "own" the community. Discussion is frank, open criticism is fine, competitor content and discussion is welcome, bits of community often slop over into other places, you can interact without coughing up money or filling in a huge profile form etc. etc.

They always look for new ways to interact, whether by Netvibes or Facebook (the Chinesepod app. can deliver content based on who you are), sharing photos of China via Flickr, sharing videos via youtube, discussing the Chinese music scene etc. etc.

The end result of this is that on many occasions now I have seen people online mistake members of the Chinesepod community for employees of Chinesepod, because of their loyalty and commitment. I actually got to talk to a reporter over the telephone at one point, towards the end she asked 'you are not related to Ken Carroll are you?'. I hastily pointed her towards the numerous evidence online that my version of events was correct, and fortunately she appeared to believe me although as is usually the case with these things I didn't get my view reflected exactly correctly (I could provide feedback by far more than email for example).

The Chinesepod Facebook app. is great, the Chinesepod Facebook group has many members but little activity, why is this. I think simply because it is primarily used to find people you know from Chinesepod and joining it is just a way of tagging that aspect of your online presence on Facebook. There are so many other places to interact, rather than the Facebook group.

No one community has all the answers, but I believe looking at the big players pays few dividends in the same way that generalizations you could derive from things such as "the global Christian community" would be, errrr.... very general. Finding out what drives the small vibrant communities out there could pay big dividends for those who want to develop their own.

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