Friday, June 20, 2008

Creating On-line Communities


For one who gets more and more interested in nurturing my nework, I find helping to develop communities fascinating. As an example, I have been actively participating to a group called the New Business Energy (La Nouvelle Energie du Business). This group has been exploring a new contract whereby entreprises need to find new ways of working that put human beings at the center of their business, as most valued asset. I'll talk about in a later post.

Here and now, I'd like to describe the path we took to interact on-line. We started (actually, that's how we met in the first place), with a hub on Viadeo that Fran├žois created. While Viadeo is good ,as a place for meeting great people, it does not support conversations very well: the editing capabilities for writing posts are basic and management of topics and comments is cumbersome.

Our two main requirements were:

  • To be able to interact, as a small group, to organize the larger group's interactions and create content and discussions.
  • To provide an on-line environment that would be compelling enough for people to want to interact into.
So we first turned to Google Groups, which was powerful enough, but did not scale well to a community-sized group. At the same time, we launched a group blog on this very platform. Here as well, we found that the balance was too much towards one person providing content to many, as opposed to getting a many-to-many interacting medium. So our blog never really flew off the ground and it's buried now.

The next step was to implement a hosted forum tool (phbBB), thanks to Eric, that we thought would address our two requirements. It did adress the first one well, and in particular provided a good chat tool that we used to schedule a couple of chat conversations of great interest and outcome, but the interface is too text-oriented, which probably made the energy barrier too high for people outside of our circle of animators to adopt.

So, now we are experimenting with our fourth generation of collaboration tools. We have settled to experiment the use of Ning. Building on-line communities there is so easy, as it takes litterally only minutes to set up a new one, whether public or private. So we have a couple now. A private one to handle our core group interactions and a public one that, we hope, will take us to new heights of global interactions with our community (120+ members strong).

Ning's strengths are:
  • its flexible and very visual interface, with the ability for developer to really tweak it to their liking
  • its summarizing all activites happening in the network and exposing it so people can quickly catch up with what's going on
  • its persistence for individuals: one can create multiple networks, be part of many others while keeping only one profile up-to-date, make friends across various communities, etc.
  • its blogging, forum, event management, photos, videos and music sharing capabiities

However, Ning is not a Content Management System. Although there is the ability to attach files, their service agreement explicitly warns that Ning is not a repository and should not be used as such. So we are exploring the next generation of interaction tools, a wiki (Netcipia) , which should nicely complement Ning's great conversational features. More on that later...

I'd like to thank my partners in discovery: Carole, Franck, Fran├žois and Eric, for hours of great talks and profound thinking.