Paul Stacey

A Roundhouse of Online Community Enthusiasts

On May 8, 2010 BCcampus hosted an Online Community Enthusiasts event at the Roundhouse Community Centre in Yaletown downtown Vancouver.

It was fun and apropos to hold an event for online communities in a neighbourhood community centre. I found the sounds, activities, and ambience of a mixed use community centre replete with drop-in gatherings of moms with infants in strollers, areas for play, music making, arts & crafts, playgrounds and athletic facilities, theatre areas, and coffee in the courtyard, an interesting juxtaposition for an online community enthusiasts gathering.

This event brought together around 20 people from higher education, K-12, government, NGO’s, and other sectors to explore technology stewardship of online communities of practice. The recently published book Digital Habitats was used as a resource for the day and one of the co-authors of the book, Nancy White, co-facilitated with Alice MacGillivray.

photo by D’Arcy Norman

Nancy led the primary activity of the morning drawing on chapter 6 of the Digital Habitats book where nine orientations of online communities are described:
1. Meetings
2. Projects
3. Access to expertise
4. Relationships
5. Context
6. Community cultivation
7. Individual participation
8. Content publishing
9. Open ended conversation

Each of us indicated how important the nine orientations are to our online community on a diagram which had an Activities Orientation circle in the centre and nine radiating arrows representing each of the orientations emanating out. We indicated importance by placing a dot on each arrow. The more important the orientation the further out on the arrow the dot is placed. After placing a dot along each arrow the dots are connected to form a spidergram for your community.

Community Orientations Spidergram Example

This is the second time I’ve done this activity. The first time I did it as part of a group activity examining the Educational Technology Users Group online community. In that case we considered where the community is now on each of the orientation radiating arrows and placed a second dot where we’d like it to be.

Every time I do this activity I find myself thinking about whether these nine orientations represent the full range of activities I’ve experienced in online communities. I keep wondering about the usefulness of the diagrams as a means of comparing and contrasting communities. Of what use is the spider aspect of the diagram? Certainly, as described in the Digital Habitats book, understanding the orientations of your community gives you an important sense of what technologies you need to focus on in order to support those orientations.

In the afternoon Alice got us going with listing the challenges and the things community steward struggle with on sticky notes. A mind map summary of those challenges has been posted in SCoPE.

She then set up small group discussions of community dynamics using natural habitat images and themes including:
– eddies
– boundaries
– back and forth
– mutualism

Its interesting to contemplate and explore with others the way these ideas play out in community and consider the role they might have if deliberately used. A nice summary of some of the observations can be found in SCoPE.

I really enjoyed prepping for this workshop by reading the book Digital Habitats – a must read for anyone planning or running online communities of practice.

Reading Digital Habitats triggered an observation for me which I’ll post here as a suggestion/request for a new online community book. A tremendous amount of what has been written about Communities of Practice focuses on the technology underpinnings for communities. I totally believe this is an important topic as are the many books that talk about the activities that can be supported within online communities.

However, there is something missing for me.

Humans are by nature social. Online communities are doing a good job of mashing up individual voices, however they are doing less well at supporting the formation and expression of social groups. When I think about the challenges around the online communities I’m involved with most of the challenges revolve around the manifestation of existing groups within online communities. How can we create a club in an online community, a professional association in an online community, a special interest group, a users group, a committee, a school or institution, a company, and all the myriad variations?

Inherent in these social groups are governance and organizational structures. Governance might be by steering committees, or boards of directors, or elected officials. Organizational structures might be hierarchical, or flat, or some combination. How can these governance and organizational structures be represented and supported in online communities? How does an online community support the way these social groups conduct their business – meetings, consultation, decision making, reports, etc. that are currently done face-to-face? We need more writing about the creation and support of social structures in online communities.