Online Communities Are Easy, Right?

Posted on January 20, 2011 by

Note: We have been working on GHDonline for about 3 years, and the site has been up since late June 2008. Generally speaking, we focus on community, platform, and content development and haven’t blogged much about what goes on behind the scenes here. While we’re going to be working harder than ever to improve the site, one of our goals for the new year is to give more insight into the team behind GHDonline. Expect to see more posts from us in the following weeks and months.

Last April, Joel Spolsky posted about some changes to StackExchange, a Q&A community platform built in the mold of StackOverflow and ServerFault (Q&A sites where software engineers and IT professionals ask and answer questions about tactical issues). The initial version of StackExchange allowed people to create their own Q&A sites on whichever topic they wanted.

I’m not going to repeat all of Joel’s excellent and well-articulated observations (read the article!), but a two in particular stood out to me because we have faced the same challenges at GHDonline. Our approach to these challenges has set us apart from other online community platforms.

Set up barriers to entry

It seems counter-intuitive, right? We keep the bar very low for users who want to join GHDonline, but the bar for starting a new community is quite high. Technically speaking, we could set up a new community in the ballpark of 30 seconds, but would our creation really constitute a community (more on this in a future blog post)? No. Is it likely to thrive? No. As Joel put it, a successful community needs “critical mass”. In this vein, we have created a list of criteria that must be met before we will launch a new community. Chief among these are the “Four C’s” of community creation:

1. Clear purpose / mission
2. Community moderators
3. Core of interested members
4. Categories for initial discussions

Additionally, as Joel pointed out, duplication still occurs in a system that lacks filtering. Look at Ning, Google Groups,, etc — anyone with a pulse and an Internet connection can create a “community”. For these sites, that’s no problem, as their goal is to simply facilitate online discourse and collaboration. We are aiming for the grander goal of trying to bring all these overlapping conversations together — fragmentation and duplication remain two significant issues with the discourse around global health.

“Build it and they will come”*

Oh, that it were so simple. This is one of the most common misconceptions about online communities. Those in the web world learned that “content is king” long ago, but many of the online community folks have been behind the times. Just because you can set up an online presence for a community doesn’t mean it’s going to materialize unless people have clear incentives for joining and participating. There are a wide variety of ways a community can gain the “critical mass” Joel mentioned:

1. The community already exists “in real life” and you’re just giving it an online home
2. A set of motivated leaders are guiding the community
3. Active discussion is taking place
4. For professional communities, members gain information from the community that’s relevant to their work

Any one or a combination of these factors can lead to a vibrant, active online community. Just don’t expect that people will gather simply because you’ve set up a place to collaborate.

Aaron Beals is director of product development for at GHD.

* In line with this second point: Knowledge for Health and the IBP Initiative are holding a two-week online discussion entitled “If I Build It, Will They Come? Sustaining Active Communities of Practice for Global Health”. If you’re new to online communities or have been doing this for years, join the discussion to share and learn!

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About Aaron Beals

Aaron C. Beals is Director of Product Development. What keeps him up at night are the challenges of information access, which he first tackled in software engineering and product management roles at local startups Netezza and Endeca. For the last 5 years at GHD, he has been working to integrate information access theory with online communities of practice — Aaron leads the team behind in helping health delivery professionals share and access the knowledge they need to deliver better care. Aaron graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a degree in computer science and electrical engineering.