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Checklist for building an online community

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The concept of a virtual community conjures up images of videoconferences with teachers, e-mail with friends, and electronic chats with town council members. Virtual communities aren't frequently associated with routers, hubs, and servers. To the users, the information and the exchanges ARE the community network. To have a successful community network it is important to have a critical mass of users, an adequate supply of information, and an integration of the virtual community into everyday life. Items important to each of these three aspects are outlined below.

Get a critical mass of users online

Make sure people from all areas of the community are represented on the network. Some of the community groups to target are:

  • businesses
  • Health professionals and organizations
  • Libraries and museums
  • Tourism and economic development groups
  • Educators - K12 and higher ed
  • Governmental bodies and agencies
  • Local clubs and organizations
  • Artisans
  • Newspaper
  • Children, families, senior citizens

Educate users using a combination of large-scale demonstrations and small-group hands-on training.

  • Provide large-scale demonstrations to expose citizenry. Possible delivery mechanisms include using a large lecture hall, the public access cable channel, or videos.
  • Offer tailored presentations to clubs and civic organizations
  • Give hands-on training to individuals
  • Select groups for targeted training (business persons, teachers, etc.)
  • Deliver training through the community college, continuing education center, YMCA, libraries, etc.

Create the Information Space

Each community network may offer a different subset of the suite of Internet services. Make the most of the services that your community does provide.

E-mail is a standard service and is the most frequently used. Provide an adequate online e-mail directory of users.

Listserves are electronic message distribution systems. It's an easy-to-use group discussion tool. Start with a small number of listservs.

  • Give each listserv a narrow focus (ex. senior citizens, mothers, high school teachers, kids who play soccer)
  • Identify a leader in the group to set the tone, help manage conflict, and make new members feel welcome.
  • Allow members to have some control over the list membership
  • Invite participation from local members only

Newsletters, whether electronic or paper, can give users a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes, help them get more out of their membership, and feature new items and services. Usenet newsgroups provide a forum for discussion of issues and easy posting of classified ads. Unfortunately, cumbersome interfaces on newsreader software often deters people from using them. To encourage their use:

  • Start with a small number of well-defined newsgroups so people at least know where to post.
  • Consider providing a gateway between a newsgroup and listserv to increase traffic and give people an alternative way to interact.

World wide web pages enable multimedia information to be posted about the town. The web serves as an umbrella -- easily linking citizens to other Internet services like Usenet newsgroups, directories, and listservs. To develop usable, valuable content, consider the following:

  • Emphasize community content. Don't try to duplicate the indices and pages that are being done elsewhere. Focus on the community's unique contributions
  • Quality is more important than quantity. Quantity will come, but start with high-quality pages to set the standard in the community
  • Have a unified, non-partisan web site that is owned by the community and not a particular group or business. It is important that everyone be welcome to contribute freely.
  • Encourage contributions, large and small. Use web-based forms to enable anyone to create a home page or enter a date on the community calendar. Have ftp sites for more advanced users.
  • Don't exclude any sector of the community. Businesses are commonly left out, but their group could be critical to the success of the project.
  • Design for the lowest common denominator. Many users have old computers, slow modems, and old versions of software. Stick to the basics, focus on content, and leave the bells and whistles off the main pages.
  • Practice good interface design. There are many books available on this subject.

Merge the Real and Virtual Communities

  • Arrange socials, speakers, and meetings for online users to come together to meet each other face-to-face
  • Encourage businesses to include URLs and e-mail addresses on traditional advertisements
  • Have online groups (e.g. listserv members) participate in community projects like clean-up days, Independence Day parades
  • Provide e-mail addresses to all governmental departments to facilitate communication between citizens and their leaders
  • Support community groups and civic groups with web pages and listservs.
  • Have Internet computers available in the schools, libraries, and institutions.
  • Share stories of how the network has impacted the lives of citizens