Online Community Megalopoli

You can never have too much online community building (activity), but do you wonder about how many online community places there will be? Liking going from a nice scattering of small rural communities to big bustling cities, are we headed down the road to sprawling Megalopoli.

I am criticizing none of these efforts, nor their idea/concept. As I begin my new duties with the NMC, I am going to be involved with creating/promoting, invigorating online communities. Will I add more to the map?

There is Academic Commons. And Education Commons. Places with history like Tapped In. From “down under” is TALO. And (no snarky comments today), Apple’s Education Exchange. Billions and billions of ’em.

There are regional ones (by state, by school, by department).

Some have put up the plywood over the windows, like Washington’s Learning Space.

And the places like PLATO? (Side note: as an undergraduate student in the 1980s, I had a job at University of Delaware as a PLATO online “tutor”- I think I processed quiz attempts. Oh, those green screens!).

There is a whole ecosphere of these things. I am just at a pondering stages at a mostly un-answerable global set of big questions that defy simple answers-

* What is the critical mass / magic moment that turns these from small propped up places to community sustained?
* Are special focused areas better? Or big umbrella type places? Or both?
* What will stimulate someone to add one more internet channel to their busy slate of things they turn attention to?
* Does the technology really matter all that much?
* Are they better focused on events (e.g. a specific online workshop/conference?) or ongoing?
* What do people get out of these? What do they put back? Why do they come? Why do they go?
* What makes one compelling, one ho-hum?
* how important is a tie/connection to a RL (Real Life) place/thing/project?
* Can web based ones work w/o any set up of email notification?

And how the heck do we deal with the information overhead/overload of yet one or two or a thousand more such places?

So I am curious- what sorts of online community based things do you participate in? How many are outside your organization? What is your level of involvement? What would make one something that will sustain your interest.

I am thinking I ought to pack up a suitcase full of chocolate, head northwest, and visit a guru.

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An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


  1. What we need is a guru of the obvious.

    As someone presently involved in the creation of one these resource and interaction spaces (I hesitate to call it a community space until there’s evidence of community there), I am always throwing this stuff around my own head as well. It occurs to me there are two things that might be worth going for in a crowded media environment:

    a) some element that is distinctive, not done by anyone else. It might not be everything to everyone, but it should be the best place for someone.

    b) it should play well with the other spaces. Instead of competing, it should complement — even if it means amplifying or feeding activity that is happening elsewhere. (I don’t think we know how to do this yet, but I think the pieces that might allow it are coming together.)

    Thanks for a provocative and useful post.

  2. After laughing out loud so raucously that I think I woke up the nearly unwakable 21 year old son (suitcase of chocolate? Dang, you are welcome ANYTIME. But after looking at recent pictures of me on flickr, maybe bring a big salad instead! ) I had one knee jerk reaction then an eagerness to jump into the conversation.

    First knee jerk: there is no guru so you had better just consider that the chocolate is always of value in friendship! Seriously, the questions you ask can only be answered, in my opinion, by a community of people who care about this issue.

    Now, as to the passle of wonderful questions… particularly the issue of multimembeship (which is something Etienne Wenger, John Smith and I are spending lots of time thinking about these days, first from a technology perspective, but also from the community perspective – this REALLY impacts community initiatives) why don’t we convene a telephone call and see who wants to participate? I say this, because as I started to rough out some of my responses, I realized I was already going all over the place. There was so much to talk about. (I’ll blog a bit about this too).

    Let’s record it, then maybe we can tackle some of the stuff that emerges more slowly via blogs and other asynch media.

    But do bring the chocolate

  3. Thanks Nancy, I will followup via email regarding a phone time.

    I love the chocolate as friendship metaphor, though remember, I am diabetic, so it’s not really my thing to do (makes it easier to share). And I will not pack any chocolate filled bags in Phoenix sun, messy, indeed.

    Truly, thanks for commenting so quickly.

  4. Alan,
    As someone working hard at trying to transform Academic Commons (http://www.academiccommons.org) from the small propped up place that it presently is to something that is community sustained, I ask myself many if not most of the questions your post asks on a quite regular basis. We certainly want to be a node on the network, without trying to claim any centrality. But another way of stating the problem is: having a biology commons and a chemistry commons and a history commons and a perhaps collides with the whole idea of a commons, which is in principle a shared spaced not owned by any particular person. Being a geek, I can imagine groups within a single commons that can be specialized, but also shared spaces that try to connect the work happening within these specialized zones. In the world where I work, they call that a college or a university. Apart from the provocative idea of somehow planning for the growth of these sorts of communities (good luck!), the other piece that I’ve been thinking about some is motivation. Given all of the things competing for attention, all of the things that we don’t have time to get done now, what would be so compelling that someone would be willing to change their habits and do something new, like write an article, post a comment on a blog, add a link to del.icio.us, suggest a link? As we know, these are not in and of themselves onerous tasks, nor do they take up very much time. And yet every day thousands if not millions of people choose NOT to do this. Why? And what could turn the tables on this?

  5. I’m curious too. I’ve used TappedIn but a couple of times, in a Edtec class, as a student. It was in part a demonstration of the “place.” On reading Alans original post I immediately headed over to both Commons. They felt a bit deserted. So what is it that gets people to these “places?” Why would I go there? Well to start, I’d have to feel like something was happening: so a sign of recent activity would be key. I wonder, as Alan pointed out, if “there” is more attactive when it’s tied to an event.
    I’ve just recently begun edublogging. I’ve been blogging personally for over a year, now I’d like to get involved, feel like a part of these conversations because I’m curious, in a dissertation kind of way about what’s going on community-wise in the edu/blogosphere. What’s the culture of it and how might that impact learning and teaching? Who’s here, doing what and why? I’ve been subscribing to CogDog, Tim Lauer, elearnspace, to name a few, for about 6 months. I’ve been “lurking,” if that term applies. Or does it in the blogosphere? I think I’ll post on that. 🙂

  6. Suzanne – There are many different purposes for these “places” I perhaps wronlgy lumped into one category. I’ve never used TappedIn, but sense it is very much about aiming to be a synchronous/asynchronous “place” where you would expect to go to an “see signs of life”.

    On the other hand, I think the Academic Commons and the other one, is going to be more of a place to publish articles and hopefully have dilaogues about them via comments, much more towards an asynchronous exchanged.

    My pint was aimed, though not always hitting the mark, about what we do as peope trying to stay tuned to so many places, are dealing with to find where we put our attention. And at this point, the FOD Syndrome (Field of Dreams Syndrom- “build it and they will come”) is not enough.

    Thanks for stepping out into the visible ligth. I don;t care if you call yourself a lurker or an observer or a newbie– I would agree that “Lurker”, to me has a negative connotation, like peeping through a neighbors window. But I know, and it helps to know, when you have a blog that’s been out there a while, and it has been walked through by Google and maybe linked by others– that you end up in a space where more, likely much more, people read only versus send comments.

    And that’s okay by me. In fact, it seems like part of a natural path, though many will never comment.

    However, my experience is 100000% that the entire experience came more valuable and rich in terms of reachig colleagues, when I stepped in to other blogs sites and started contributed to the conversation.

    It’s something I’ve written about ebfore, that writing/publishig a blog is truly only half of “blogging”- participating in the blog space of others as a social act is part of being involved with a distributed community.

  7. What Alan writes about Academic Commons’ present model of being a publication with (some limited) discussion is correct. It is also the case that we struggle with trying to be more than ‘just’ that. When we started planning the project, we began with an idea of being SlashDot for higher ed, and then decided for a host of reasons that this was unrealistic. We thought our potential audience didn’t have the time or energy to deal with that much information. We also wanted to be a space for reflection and analysis, rather than simply a bunch of quickly constructed links to other things. That said, we feel we may have erred on the side of caution, and are slowly trying to introduce more community-building features: easier commenting, connecting of users by interests, group building tools. Other higher-ed communities worth thinking about are, of course, facebook and MyPlace. Both of these offer compelling experiences that attract millions. As my co-conspirator David Bogen pointed out recently, one of the things that these two offer which Academic Commons (and SlashDot) don’t is the possibility of sex. And the target audiences for these two communities also have something that many of us don’t: gobs and gobs of free time to kill in search of community.

    — mike

  8. Mike,
    I’ve read a few “wouldn’t it be nice” musings amoung edubloggers about Facebook and MySpace, as if it were possible to replicate what makes those places attractive in a learning environment. Seems a bit fanciful, don’t ya think? I wonder what a Facebook kind of place is going to look like in 10 years, what kind of features and functions it’ll have. Along a related line, online personals have grown into full blown “relationship sites” (e.g. Match.com) in only a few years time. Ok… so I’m exemplifying a “possibilty of sex” function, the point is that the purpose and function are clear and perceived as meeting a need that’s not met elsewhere. I don’t know yet how to transfer that into our world…

  9. To satisfy some curiosity- I am new to posting, but old to reading.
    I have just created my own blog today!
    I have been reading several for about 6 months, all on a theme- higher ed and IT.
    All are outside my organisation.
    What sustains my interest are questions and content, provocations to thinking, and occassional links to people I’ve met.
    i find sites that are sticky are ones that challenge me to think about how IT changes how people relate because i am curious too.

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