Monday, August 04, 2008

Herding cats

Getting started is always the hard part of organizing an online community. Everyone is coming with their own notion of WIIFM - What's In It For Me. Expectations and objectives may have been spelled out by the facilitators, but these may not mean the same thing to the community as expected. In a big group, the interested parties may not be representative of the intended audience. Add to this the huge range of online participation experiences and technology backgrounds.

Here are a couple of helpful ideas to understand the dynamics and prepare for dealing with these challenges.

All Things in Moderation in the 5 stage model for Running E-tivity plenaries puts forward the normal progression of building an online community that will work together collaboratively.

1. Access & Motivation
2. Socialisation
3. Information Exchange
4. Knowledge Construction - knowledge development, discussion activities and group dynamics
5. Development - reflection and group learning
Starting by requiring everyone to adopt three or four fairly sophisticated online environments is entirely appropriate if this would be routine for the target audience. It could be used as a gatekeeper exercise - if this isn't easy, then you might not be ready for what follows. Dealing with the folks who don't have the background will be time consuming at best, and frustrating, in most cases.

Providing an opportunity to simply access content and encourage participation through low-risk socialization helps establish a safe foundation for building community and exploring new technologies, social interactions and collaboration in an online environment.

Another consideration is an individual's "technoprofile" - the way people behave in social networking: creators, critics, collectors, joiners, spectators, inactives.
What you see may not be what you get. This set of descriptors nicely highlights the usual mix of participants in any community, online or face-to-face. In the online community, participants may adopt very different roles from their usual face-to-face ones. Shy students are fearless. Verbally chatty individuals may be poor typists and self-concious spellers. Large numbers of "lurkers" can go un-noticed. The intended audience may be put off by the "noise" of the folks asking all the questions or making comments that are well beyond the scope of the intended subject.

Making sure that the participants are all moving in the right general direction toward the formation of a community is like herding cats.

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