Last December I wrote about digital community and social media tools in a post titled, In Search of a Community That Takes ‘Me’ Out of Social Media. My ultimate argument was that although community tools exist, they are underpowered and unpopular compared to modern networking systems like Facebook and Twitter.

That post sparked a lot of interesting comments, and it’s clear that online community is something people care about. Within the comments I noticed two distinct camps: People who found the article through Facebook, and people who found the article through Twitter. Let’s just say that I was surprised to learn that folks on Facebook are very defensive. (Twitter users at least thought the ideas were interesting, even if they didn’t agree!).

Since I still feel that the current state of social media has barely scratched the surface of community-driven conversation and information sharing, I want to continue the conversation. This time, though, I want to begin the process of designing a community system that can satisfy my thirst for group conversation!

The Paradox of Digital Community

Community is all about shared experience and common identity, but the participatory web is all about personalization.

Why? One reason is because people won’t participate if they don’t feel connected to the content or conversation. Another is that without personalization, information overload kicks in and the experience becomes unmanageable and overwhelming.

It is no surprise that the most engaging and useful social systems try very hard to present individually-targeted content, resulting in unique experiences for each user. Unfortunately, however, this is exactly why it is difficult to find true community on these systems. In other words, lack of community isn’t a fault of sites like Facebook and Twitter; it is just a result of the paradox.

Designing for Participation

I can think of three broad tactics used by participatory systems to try and manage the balance between noise reduction and social interaction:

  1. Focus on content: Conversation is organized around specific pieces of information, such as news articles, blog posts, and other media. This solves the noise problem because personalization can happen at the content level, while the interactions within each piece of content can be universal.
  2. Focus on niche: The system is set up around a specific organization, place, or topic. The experience is largely the same for all of the users, but the scope is narrow enough that only those personally interested will choose to participate.
  3. Focus on users: Users define their experience on the site by making it about themselves, their networks, and their friends. This results in personalization with some inherently shared content. There are usually a few additional mechanisms that support a broader shared experience (e.g. retweets or public walls).

Each of these methods can lead to engaging social systems that host meaningful content, but they all have major problems that limit their community potential.

A content focus restricts group interaction to commentary and debate surrounding the content. Niche sites exist in relative isolation, meaning the participants and conversations generally come from within the niche and lack global perspective. Individual-centric systems create experiences that are as diverse as the individuals themselves (e.g. no two experiences are alike); and although some content is shared, it is often done so indirectly or among loosely connected, ad-hoc groups.

Community meets Personalized Mass Media

I said that I wanted to start designing something with this post. In particular, I’m looking for a way to do for community what social networks have done for the individual. As I just noted, however, it isn’t enough to just host a niche. This system needs to be able to support networks of interconnected communities. This might sound like a social network, but it isn’t — social networks are made of interconnected individuals.

Below are a few ideas that I’m going to explore in future posts. The hope is that, once fully thought through, these will provide a starting point for the system I want to create:

  • Fluid communities: Real communities rarely have rigid boundaries and static definition. Groups of people develop through complex relationships, and often have fuzzy borders.
  • User profiles that are defined by participation: In real communities people aren’t defined by profiles — they’re defined by actions. Online identities shouldn’t just reflect a person’s activity in the system; they should defined by that activity.
  • Shared content: Information in this system has to be able to exist in multiple contexts at once. This will allow independent communities to exist independently without forcing them to exist in isolation.
  • Individual influence: Whether it’s users controlling their individual experiences or local communities making collective decisions about their groups’ content, people need to be able to shape the information around them.

Please let me know if you have any other ideas that you feel would be important in a community network, either via a comment below, or via Twitter (@slifty).