It’s been just over five years since I began to take part in community on the internet. That’s a long time, almost a quarter of my entire life! It’s actually sort of scary, but these five years – and my place in online communities as a participant, moderator, and community worker – have enabled me to observe some really interesting aspects of online community, how it changes, and what it means for us who want to run an online community.

First, a bit of autobiography to give you a little context for what I’ll be talking about. My first run-in with computers was about ten years ago, and the internet a couple of years after that. I probably saw message boards at some point, but the first time I registered and posted was in April 2000, after buying my copy of The Phantom Menace on VHS (yes, I still used VHS back then) and I wanted to discuss the movie with people like me who are interested in that sort of thing. So I stumbled upon TheForce.Net’s Jedi Council (also known in the business as “TFN”), and began my journey into online community building.

TFN was using UBB at the time. The community was growing very fast because of the new Star Wars movie that had come out the year before, and UBB was having some problems. It would crash all the time, sometimes for days at a time, and since it was using flat files instead of a “real database,” periodically threads would become corrupted and everyone would get upset. So, that June, TFN moved to a totally new message board system – Snowboards, as they were originally called, or IGNBoards. There was a great response to these new boards – most people didn’t like them. That’s something I generally have found in my experience with online communities, people like meeting with and chatting with the people they meet, but they get used to the software they are using, and don’t like much change in that respect.

Another thing that I realized is how the features and idiosyncrasies of a message board or community system really have an affect on the community you are building. Take, for example, UBB. There were certain aspects of UBB that had a good affect on TheForce.Net’s community; for example, it because the standard to bold face peoples’ names when you type them in a message, because the names were all bold faced in the “Who Posted” pane of the thread display. This was good for the community, because it made it easy to spot peoples’ names. SnowBoards/IGNBoards also had a feature that gave people a number of stars depending on their post count. A lot of people liked this feature, but wanted lots of stars (a maximum of five, for more than 10,000 posts) and so spammed the boards.

Additionally, features that are lacking cause problems within your community. For a very long time, under Snowboards/IGNBoards you couldn’t “sticky” threads. So it became practice to “bump” those threads to the top of the topic listing, which caused a lot of spam; and the lack of an archiving feature meant that often times we lost important topics.

Overall, the “little things” about a forum software package can really affect the way in which your community develops. As your community takes on a life of its own (and it will), the little details about the place in which your community develops (the software) can really affect the kind of a place it turns out to be.

When I became a moderator at TheForce.Net in mid 2001, I really got to know the Snowboards software. It was the first forum software that I had ever used where I had access to the moderator controls, and so I got used to them pretty quickly. Most moderator tools are pretty similar from software to software – lock discussions, edit peoples’ messages, ban people from your community, and so on. These tools can’t really distinguish one software from another, because there is only so much you can do to control everything on your community before you become a dictator.

What I learned as a moderator at TheForce.Net is that you really need to get to know the people in your community. You can’t be a dictator admin – otherwise your members will just leave and go somewhere else; there are many other communities out there that center on what you do, believe it or not. At the same time, even if you are the most benevolent moderator in the world, there will still be people who hate your guts and you have to realize this. There will be people who have grudges against your or your community, and take it out on your or your members. This happened once at TFN with someone who hacked into Snowboards and stole private discussions from our “mod squad” headquarters where we discussed private moderation issues.

This is the point at which we decided that the Snowboards wasn’t good for our community. It lacked the moderator functions that we needed, and it was hard for us since we couldn’t edit the source code ourselves, even though we had quite a number of people who could have worked on the code to give us the features we needed, if only we had had the source. So I volunteered to make another forum software package tailored specifically for our community... nothing really came of it for TFN, they are still using Snowboards/IGNBoards (though they are about to move to vBulletin, years afterwards), but today what I originally created for them has morphed into my new software package, Virtual Village Square.

What I learned from this debacle is that what matters most when it comes to building a community is what you give to your members. If you can only post messages and discussions, sure it can be interesting, but the more new and cool ways you give your members to really connect with each other that really are connected to what your site is about, the more successful you’ll be. I also dealt with this to a certain extent at TFN, when I did work with the Fan Fiction community.

TFN has a lot of “sub-communities” that sort of keep to themselves, and one of them is the Fan Fiction group. We wanted to have an archive of the works people had written, and worked with the TFN administration to make it happen. I ended up being the person who wrote the software to allow for an automatic submission and reviewing process, and it all ended up being pretty cool for what it’s worth. This really empowered the fan fiction community at TFN because it enabled us to create what we wanted for our community and give our members the tools to get involved to a much greater extent than just posting – they could become reviewers, submit their writings, post comments, and even download the pieces to read on the PDAs. The key was that we created it from scratch and could do whatever we wanted with it. Now I’m not suggesting that you should just write your own forum software from scratch – there are many great packages out there – but if you can add something special and innovative to your community that makes it special for your users, it goes a long way.

I resigned as a moderator at TheForce.Net about a year later, mostly because I was getting involved in another online community, that of the youth group that I was heavily involved in. I was the “Online Services” coordinator, and so ended up being the moderator of this community. It was another beast entirely, an online community of a completely different nature, and it led me to see more things about community online.

See, community online doesn’t need message boards – online community is just a space for people to meet and communicate, just like any other community, except on the internet. This community was basically a collection of mailing lists. When I first took the helm, it was not used very heavily. There were maybe a few messages every week, and there would be long periods of inactivity. In order to jump-start the community, I had to pretend that I was various different people and start up a discussion between myself and my alter ego. While that might not be the most ‘ethical’ way of going about starting discussion, it definitely is one way to do it. It’s like having your own launch team, except that it’s a “one man show.”

Eventually I got the community running with a fairly regular amount of traffic, to the point at which it sort of coasted on its own and had its own inertia. But eventually we ran into the problem that the community was too active and that people were leaving because they just couldn’t handle that amount of mail in their mailboxes. They might not be interested in all of it, but still had to get all of it – and even if they were on “digest” mode, where they would receive one message a day containing all of the messages from the day, it was gigantic and was not conducive to participating in the list.

This is the point at which I personally would have moved the community to a forum-based system. Forums solve many of these problems, because you read what you choose to and don’t get every single message added to your inbox. Also, it would have gotten more people to visit our website on a regular basis (which would have been a plus) and enabled people to find our community easier. However, even though I was the person in charge of the community, I still had people working above me, and they didn’t want to change our community into something that could have become much bigger and more exciting.

The software became the bottleneck for our community; there was no way to grow after a certain point and it wasn’t good for people who just wanted to read. In many ways your software can become a bottleneck and cause more problems than good, if it is insecure or it doesn’t meet the changing needs of your community. But forums aren’t for everyone – they are just one way of forming a community online. A community blog system, a guestbook, and a newsgroup are also community, even though they might be different from the “traditional” message board-based community that we are used to.

In my years of doing community work, the thing that has stood out to me the most is that you need to choose your community system carefully, and then use it properly to build the best community you can. Once you set up your website and community, if you do it right then people will flock to your online community. Advertising can only do so much. Make it an open and welcoming place, where people have a chance to get to know each other, and people will stay… and the more people that stay, the more people will come and join.