Nancy White, recently in London talking about Internet tribes, has now written an article about blog communities and how they differ from forums, email lists and other ways we communicate with each other and relate online: Blogs and Community – launching a new paradigm for online community? at The Knowledge Tree.
If you aren't a social technology person, don't switch off ... because behind the tech stuff are some profound issues of how we do things as individuals in our own spaces, how we collaborate in groups, and how we get together in communities.
In the non-internet world architects, planners and developers often determined how public or private, congenial or not our places may be. The more handy DIYers among us build our own. Organisers, wardens, police, colleagues, friends, brokers all assist or control our relationships in localities or across far-flung networks.
I think Nancy's article is important because she offers us an understandable way of looking at how the social architecture of the internet is changing. More and more people are taking the DIY route by creating their own places (blogs) and talking to others from there ... instead of going to the equivalent of the pub, the match, church or community centre. However, the physical-online analogy of place soon breaks down, because as Nancy explains, these days you can be in many places at once:
Until recently, the term ‘online community’ implied a community who interacted online within some bounded set of technologies. In the early years, bulletin board systems (BBSs) and forums (also known as discussion boards) joined email lists as tools that enabled a defined set of people to interact around some shared purpose, over time. These were usually clearly bounded communities. The boundaries were created by the tools themselves – usernames, passwords, registrations or joining of a list. The technological act of joining was the most visible indicator of being ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the community. Communities could be public or private and visible only to those who joined. Many of us interested in the application of online community to learning and work, ‘grew up’ in this era of bounded communities. We often brought with us our assumptions that online conversation, a core to our learning and work, would naturally happen in forums or email. We happily played with wikis as shared writing or repository spaces. We adopted blogs as personal publishing platforms, but community always found its infrastructural roots in forums and email lists, tools that many of us felt defined online conversation. Then blog adoption accelerated.
People began to blog in specific niches, from gaming, to politics, to third grade classroom curriculum, to chocolate; ecosystems of people writing about things they cared about. They started finding each other, commenting on each others’ blogs. RSS (Really Simple Syndication) and feedreaders began to offer new possibilities about how we discovered and read blog posts. Other Web 2.0 tools such as tagging and mashups created ways to aggregate and remix the individual offerings into a unique package, customised by each of us to our own preferences.
The game had changed. And with it changed some of our assumptions about what online community looks like, how individual and collective identity, power and control show up in these communities, and, at the core, the balance between the individual and the group.
In order to explain what's going on, Nancy develops the ideas she set out in London. First she suggests that there are three types of blog community - those around a solo blogger, those around a topic, and those developed on the same platform. Nancy then takes the idea of blog communities as networks, enhanced by different functions and types of participants identified by Ramalingam:
* investors and
* community builders.
As Nancy says Ramalingham’s (2005) six functions echo some of the work of Cross and Parker who describe types within a social network, i.e. Central Connectors, Unsung Heroes, Bottlenecks, Boundary Spanners and Peripheral People.
(The article gives excellent references as well as glossary of terms.)
Nancy goes on to give us an analysis of how the three different types of blog communities operate in terms of power, identity, modes of interaction and scalability.
In the social architecture, we see the most signficant set of differences around the issues of control/power and identity. This is a classic expression of the tension between the individual and the group that shows up in all social formations. From a design perspective, how might we intend the balance between individual and group to show up? If we want an individual focus, blogs give some of that in all forms, but has primacy in the blog centric formation.
Interestingly, all three offer a range of interaction options, although the power dynamics changes with the relationships in those dynamics. For example, while anyone potentially could comment in any three forms, the blog centric blogger could most easily prevent that interaction within the community. Power is key here. The topic centric community has the most distributed power. The boundaried community power distribution ultimately depends on the choices of the site administrator. In the single blog centric power clearly sits at the centre, as does identity.
Nancy emphasises that she is really just setting out some ideas, raising questions, and inviting comments.... and offers us more than the article as a launch pad. You can find some of the research collect under the tag blog_communities on del.icio.us. The article offers a link to a live gathering and conversation on September 25/26 (depending on time zone). You can read the article as blog item, or download as a file. You can listen to Nancy's podcast of the whole thing. All here.
The research has clearly made Nancy rethink the importance of new-style blog communities compared with old-style online community. She wrote recently:
I have been seriously thinking about totally redesigning my online facilitation workshop because we have entered a new phase of online interaction and many of the old assumptions are insufficient, the modalities are far more diverse .... and the challenges of multi-membership and what that means to our time and attention is significant.
This has echos of Robin Hamman on the death of online community, and earlier Amy Jo Kim saying forums were "old-skool" with the buzz moving to blogs. Something is definitely going on ... new territories are emerging. Nancy is giving us some early maps.