Community Building on the Web
Author: Amy Jo Kim
Publisher: Berkeley, CA: Peachpit Press, 2000
Review Published: July 2001
In regard to the supplementary cover title of this book (Secret Strategies for Successful Online Communities) it cannot be a big surprise that it starts out with a citation from Charles Darwin's theory about the survival of the fittest: "It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change." The stage is set for a practical unfolding of the troubles involved in giving birth to a successful online community, and while Amy Jo Kim's Community Building on the Web easily may be categorized as just another "how-to handbook," the content is in many ways more substantial than that.
Amy Jo Kim earned her Ph.D. (1986) from the University of Washington, specializing in Visual Psychophysics. From her bio it is clear that she got derailed from her academic field (Behavioral Neuroscience) by a fascination with designing Web-based systems suitable for online communities. She has worked in the field for more than fifteen years, and Community Building on the Web is rich with the earned experience. Kim is the founder and director of the design studio Naima, and my guess is that the many examples throughout the book primarily are from Naima's client base. The clients include companies such as America Online, MTV, Paramount, and Yahoo, which make it obvious that Kim is recognized as a design expert in the field of online community. She also teaches online community design at Stanford University, CA.
The target group for this publication is people involved in designing and managing online communities for whatever purpose. It is a well-written and relevant handbook covering the best practices for the construction of sustainable online communities. Throughout the book, there are photos, empirical examples, case stories, screen dumps, etc. to illustrate the themes discussed in the text. Together with various figures, models, and memo-lists of central points mentioned, the total layout is pedagogic and reader friendly, which neatly coincide with the handbook approach.
While Kim certainly cannot be blamed for the Web's ever more dominant commercialization, the need for her skills mirror the tendency to confuse commerce with community. To me, it seems like the normal strategies for online communities often are more concerned with branding and the creation of customers than with the people actually involved, who become merely tools towards the goal of recognition and loyalty. As mentioned, Kim of course cannot be held responsible for this tendency, and her book may help to balance the design in the user's favor, offering designers-to-come the possibility of recognizing some basic building stones in engaging online communities. Nevertheless, as a sociologist, I find the basic idea about "designed communities" problematic and certainly not without hints of manipulation and possible exploitation of the human urge to socialize.
The nine chapters in the book closely follow nine design strategies. As Kim herself put it: "The book is organized around nine timeless design strategies that characterize successful, sustainable communities. Taken together, these strategies summarize an architectural, systems-oriented approach to community building that I call 'Social Scaffolding'" (xiii). Further, the nine strategies are introduced in a kind of chronological order, starting out with the basics (defining and articulating the purpose of the online community in question), and ending about why and how to facilitate member-run subgroups. In between those two the remaining seven design strategies are about building flexible gathering places; creating member profiles; designing for a range of roles; developing a leadership program; encouraging etiquette; promoting cyclic events; and integrating rituals in community life. Taken together, these nine strategies seem very worked through, and the book can thus be used also as inspiration for what to remember when analyzing or evaluating existing online communities.
Like the overall systematic approach, where the design principles are the leading tread, the individual chapters are organized logically in a chronological and ever more detailed order. A good example is chapter 4, about designing for a range of roles, which first introduce the reader to the role-significance: "All around the world, in all kinds of community, you see the same timeless social roles in action. Newcomers arrive and must prove themselves before being fully accepted. Natural leaders emerge and take charge of running the show. (. . .) It's your job as a community builder to create an environment that fosters these basic social roles, while meeting the changing needs of your members as they become progressively more involved in community life" (115-16). The chapter then starts out with a basic lesson in a so-called Membership Life Cycle, which consist of five key stages in a membership life: one begins as a Visitor and, when entered into the community, becomes a Novice, a Regular, a Leader (possibly), and, as time goes by, an Elder. The chapter about rituals is anticipated, while the moves between some of the different stages are best supported by inserted rituals (rites de passage). For example, the rituals for becoming a Novice are designed to establish the sense of being included in the community, and how to design such possible rituals is described in detail. Here again, Kim's intertwined preoccupation with the user as well as with the brand is highly visible. While a welcoming letter with practical information is educating, "it's also a great opportunity to reinforce your brand, and help novices get acclimated" (133). The chapter proceeds by describing the designing possibilities in supporting the next steps in the Membership Life Cycle, thus covering how to reward your regulars, empower your leaders, and honor your elders. The text is informative and Kim's aforementioned long-time experience within the designing field is highly visible. In fact, in the reading process, I sometimes got the picture that Kim has discovered from her field of practice, what I myself have learned primarily from the field of theory, and within this picture the fields do validate each other nicely.
In my view, the weakness of the book stems mainly from the fact that it is a handbook, not a textbook. Thus, the critique may seem a bit unfair, evaluating the handbook from an academic perspective. Nevertheless, the handbook would be significantly stronger if the following two omissions had been included. First, a lot of the introduced themes regarding community, leadership, rituals, etc. do have substantial sociological, psychological, and/or anthropological theory to back it up, and the author fails to mention this at all. While Kim (at least in my imagination) seems to be aware of the existence of such theories, she does not use them actively to broaden out the scope, nor does she offer any references. Given the handbook approach, this is understandable, but instead of relying on something close to common sense, a brief theoretical context would undoubtedly strengthen the text. Second, I missed a discussion about online community in relation to the offline ancestors. Granted, many of the building bricks are the same, but the form is nevertheless different. Down to the design principles, the use of the word community is often without prefix, and while this may be hairsplitting, the book leaves me wondering about Kim's inherent social perspective. Either humans are just a species extraordinarily capable of working with changes in their surroundings, so the differences between online and offline does not matter, or the book is a result of some very pragmatic choices in the way of presenting a complex social world. However, the various themes and problems regarding constructions of online communities are well covered, and Community Building on the Web's seriousness as well as usefulness ought to catch a wide audience outside the academic world.
Stine Gotved is an Assistant Professor in the Department for Film and Media Studies at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. She is a Cultural Sociologist and earned her Ph.D. with a dissertation about Cyber Sociology. Her fields of interest include virtual communities, time/space relations, sense of belonging, mediated interaction, and urban sociology. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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