guest blogger Nancy White: online group interaction

The following entry was written by guest blogger Nancy White of Full Circle Associates. Nancy is an internationally recognised expert in understanding and practicing online group facilitation of distributed work, learning and community groups – work which requires her to fluidly take on the roles of presenter, writer, teacher, coach, facilitator, and rapporteur. In research conducted by Jenny Ambrozek and Joe Cothrel, Nancy was listed as one of the "top influencers" in the industry. Nancy’s blog is one of my regular reads and I’m delighted that she’s agreed to post a guest entry here. [you can now listen to this post]

Robin Hamman asked me to write about online community management and as I started to tickle-tackle my keyboard, I realized I’m not sure I believe in “online community management” per se, so I decided to subvert my topic right off the bat. I guess as an independent, I like to resist being managed. Like a community of people, I want to be supported and facilitated, but I chafe with too many restrictions. So Robin, I’m subverting the topic to Online Group Interaction, ok? (I know Robin is generous too, so I’m still on safe ground!)

This small act of subversion resonates with what I’ve learned about online groups of all sorts over time: communities, teams, ad hoc short term mobs and everything in between. I’ll use the term “community” for all of these for convenience sake, but my disclaimer is strong: not all groups are communities. Likewise, groups are like individuals: each has a unique finger print and context. So take my generalizations with a huge grain of salt, and, as choconancy, I advise a side of dark chocolate with your salt. (Hmm, sea salt chocolate covered caramels anyone?)

Back to the subversion. Community in 2005 was all about the community and rarely about the people or organizations that convened them. That is NOT to say their leadership and work was unimportant. But it was no longer a sustainable driving force like it used to be. Tara Hunt quoted a SXSW panelist writing "If the community kills us, we probably deserve to die.(metaphorically speaking, of course)" . I’m nodding in agreement.

So here we go….

A little of what I learned in 2005

It is hard to distill all the lessons of online community in a short essay. 2005 was a ground shifting year because of the continued rate of adoption of blogging, the ad hoc community response to disasters (some of which Richard Sambrook addressed on Monday ), the increased number of people going online and that exponential growth in new ideas and possibilities triggered by the technical developments called “Web 2.0.” So I’ll pick a few.

It’s the people, stupid!

And it’s the good people. I’m going to paraphrase a line from Craig Newmark’s presentation last week at SXSW, possibly stealing some thunder from his guest blog post on Friday. Craig shared that most people online are not doing bad things online. And more of these “good people’ are going online, diluting the effects of the few folks out there maliciously taking advantage in online spaces. This resonates with my experience. Without a doubt one still needs to take care with what we disclose online and how we protect our private information, but the examples of how people connect and benefit each other far far far outweigh the bad stuff. And the bad stuff gets the press. Like the preceding years, much of the good stuff has been ignored.

Look at the hundreds of thousands of goods spared from the trash heap via simple email intersections with Freecycle ( Reflect on how many people were found and reconnected with friends and family due to the Hurricane Katrina People Finder Project ( t), the resources mobilized – even in a time of donor fatigue – for the Pakistani Earthquake (building on the Tsunami work ( , and the life-grounding support shared by families with babies in the neonatal intensive care unit at Share Your Story ( Good stuff is happening. And it is happening through the intersections of people online who probably otherwise would not have connected.

Looking at the ad hoc disaster relief of online groups, the key lessons were that individuals can respond faster than larger organizations and work with finer grained data in their response. They have a role in disaster response, and those planning such responses should consider and include online community responses in the future. The action on newspaper bulletin boards in the US Gulf Coast region post Katrina changed how those papers saw themselves as both a community resource and as a channel for citizen journalism. From a forward looking perspective, US geeks should network with global geeks who have been doing disaster relief for years. There is much both communities can learn from each other. (See,, etc.)

The tremendous success of these ad hoc initiatives has, I suspect, helped get more non profits and non governmental organizations to think about how online interaction technologies can help them achieve their missions. More organizations began adopting online group tools and processes, from blogging, to wikis and web based forums, to distributed workgroups attempting to collaborate horizontally across a group of NGOs. These brought both success and challenges. Initiatives in the US like NetSquared, GlobalVoices, and others.

From a “management” perspective – or I prefer, a facilitation perspective – the ad hoc communities were a great place to learn about emergent norms and agreements. Many of them formed their norms and agreements as they went, with perhaps a few simple core agreements up front. Facilitation and management often bubbled up from within the community – which is a great model for ad hoc groups. I wonder about the sustainability as there is that pattern of “the same people volunteer all the time” and burn out. But that would be one of the things to watch for in 2006. I think we are getting better at community generated support.

From an online culture perspective humanity stayed consistent, creating pockets of “us” and “them” at every turn. Our online groups mirrored our offline practices, but now we have a more transparent lens. Political online communities, which feel like they are getting nastier each year, may either put the rest of us off politics, or cause a revolt to a more constructive form of engagement, both online and offline. The “performance” flamer still gets page views, but many of us have had enough of snark, baiting and outright attack for entertainment’s sake. Or maybe I’m just being a Pollyanna. It would not be the first time, but if we are to use the net’s power for something productive, like, let’s say, world peace, we need to be able to have productive conversations that may not lead to agreement, but at least a little better understanding of each other. From a practice perspective, I’d put this on the table as one of the key things for future learning. We aren’t so hot at it offline. Naturally, we aren’t so hot at it online either!

From a demographic perspective, the early adopters were out in force, trying every Web 2.0 widget and abandoning most of them at the same frenetic pace. Many of these 2.0 applications came with the label “community” or “network,” leading some to call 2005 the year online community finally bounced back from the dot-bomb. Those who have been running thriving communities since then may wince, but from a business perspective, community was no longer a dirty word. But consider this: while the early adopters try, adapt or discard within weeks, the second wavers take longer to settle in. I wonder about what has been discarded that might have been valuable to second wavers and how we can include second wave perspectives in online group interaction tool design. Danah boyd has written some interesting things about this.

“What they’re doing methodologically is very unique in software development and is not yet part of the standard practices for developing social software, although it should be. Embedded observation allows developers to understand culture. They are doing a form of ethnography, the method used by those seeking to understand culture. They understand culture by living amidst the cultural natives, trying to understand practices from the perspective of the people engaged in them. They are trying to make sense of how the symbols came to be and how the culture is maintained. They are doing so in order to understand culture and to help shape the architecture to support the culture. Embedded observation takes into account the cultural forces that can not be systematically tested or modeled. As a result, the designers are aware of social problems when they materialize and can work immediately to try to influence change. Their efforts at understanding culture and evolving the design alongside it create a meaningful bond between the users and the designers. “

My hope is this sort of embedded observation will be wider than the first wave adopter spaces. The power is in the second and third waves. The power is in the lurkers reading blogs and online community sites, even if they are not posting. Because they carry these ideas. They buy the products. So who is paying attention to them in the online community space? Things got interesting in 2005. Communities of interest started forming between networks of blogs written by people who aren’t geeks and edge-dwellers. Mommyblogging became a force to be reckoned with, as evidenced by the slew of advertising deals laid on the central bloggers. But more interesting is how those “A list” mommybloggers participated with a much wider network of the long tail. Community? Probably.

Despite much talk about digital natives and digital immigrants, the demographics of who is participating in online groups and communities really fascinates me. We see a huge flow of young people coordinating both their social life and personal identities online in places such as MySpace. At the same time, there are swaths of youth who deliberately choose not to participate. In a recent blog article about a presentation he gave to a university class, Ethan Kaplan (himself a young 26) wrote ( )

“…an interesting thing regarding “show of hands” surveys during lecture:

  • About 1/3 had a MySpace profile.
  • Roughly 90% had FaceBook profiles.
  • o Five people, all guys had heard of digg
  • No one had heard of BoingBoing, Delcious, memorandum or NewsVine.
  • About 15 had the Arctic Monkeys CD. None had paid for it
  • Only a few had actually bought music in the last month
  • About 20 had heard about the Sony DRM scandal”

The dominant meme here for me is not technology, but community. The explicit community of MySpace and FaceBook, and the networked version with file sharing. Recent Pew Internet data suggests that the middle-agers are just a few points behind the youth, questioning our assumptions about adoption. Some of them are blogging now, not just acting as consumers. Others are deeply engaged in all sorts of online group activities. Remember online dating? Alive and well. My take? When the reason is compelling, people will adopt. There are more compelling online interaction experiences available than ever.

That said, there was and continues to be some level of fear and even fear mongering around online groups, particularly those for teens. MySpace ( has repeatedly come under attack as a dark and dangerous place for teens. ( , , . ) My older teen children use MySpace, FaceBook and other tools and I have to say, the fear mongering for me is a continued reflection of the US environment where fear is a political tactic. My message to parents: stay involved with and talk to your kids. These online spaces are part of their reality. Learn to leverage their strengths and guard against the weaknesses, but it’s too late to even think about throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The baby is too big and we can’t lift her!

Technology in 2005: Welcome Web 2.0!

In the past when we talked about online community it was dominated technologically by email lists and web based forums. In 2004, the idea of “community” and “blogs” started to emerge. In 2005, this trend solidified and created both some fascinating stories and some ticklish tensions. Then add on the weave of “Web 2.0” technologies (I’ll not quibble with terms right now but see and ) . This is worth a whole separate post but some of the things we could explore include: The community of web forums as distinct (and sometimes antagonistic) of the community supported by blogging tools

  • The overwhelming number of applications that, in theory, can help you track people and conversations, none of which do it very well
  • The way new tools ask us to yet again rethink what “conversation” means – what IS a blog conversation after all? What is a wiki conversation? How are the practices different from lists and forums?
  • The trend of communities hopping between tools and media, many no longer anchored to a platform – what does this mean for those less adept at hopping? What does it mean to a community’s ability to switch?
  • What will all this multimedia mean? Podcasts, vlogging, vodcasts, flickr – we used to aggregate around text, now we have a diverse playground of choices. Will we aggregate by our media preferences? Or still around the issues we jointly care about? Will this bring us together more or increase separation?

Looking forward, this proliferation of tools will either get us closer to our online interaction space nirvana, or will swamp up with options and we’ll stay in email forever (please, no!) I hope more tool builders will heed danah’s suggestion of embedded design and soon communities will be partners in designing their technologies rather than staying reliant on people who are a step too far outside to really understand their needs. I also think 2006 is a good time to explore how our values are embedded in our tools and what responsibilities we have as tool designers to be both transparent and flexible about those values.

What if? Pulling out the crystal ball…

There are some interesting “what ifs” lurking in 2006. What if the bird flu pandemic hits and everyone starts seeing online group interaction as a must have to convene without travel? What would it mean to education if schools were shut down for the duration? For me, this is a reinforcement to the importance and urgency of understanding how to interact successfully online in a wide range of context and with a diverse set of tools. If you have not attained basic mastery of blogging, web based discussions, VOIP and web based conferencing, do it now. Invest in yourself. If you already have strong base competencies, help cultivate them in your group and seek more.

If more people are adopting online group experiences, the next question to ask is how do we do it well? What are the skills and competencies we need to have more hits than misses? Last year I took a stab at suggesting some of these competencies, and refined that a bit more this year. Based on the feedback I’ve gotten, I’m working more on this. I think it may be hitting a nerve. You can find the images and some of the text on my flickr page. As I start to talk to human resources folks, they look at me like I’m insane at first, then they start nodding their heads. I think this is a conversation that is begging to be had – across many industries and domains.

Because of having so many online interaction options, I have been thinking a lot about “the invitation.” What triggers people to engage when they have so many choices?

The second interesting “what if” is the potential rebellion to being “always on.” When does our “continuous partial attention” (Linda Stone ) start to kill us as multitasking erodes, rather than supports, engagement and productivity? When do the hundreds of potential invitations simply become spam and we turn it all off.? What corner will people retreat to? What will they reject and what are the implications? Think of all the governments investing in online civic participation. What if overload derails their work? Will it shut down eBay? Probably not, but there is a limit to our attention, the coin of cyberspace. I suspect 2006 will be a year when we are forced to deal with this. Um, we’ll have to PAY ATTENTION to attention.

As the curse/proverb ( goes “May you live in interesting times.” We do!

Nancy White – Full Circle Associates – – 206-517-4754 Blog: