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Building a successful online community



It was March 26, 2003, in the Santa Clara Convention Center in the heart of Silicon Valley. It was the ceremony for the closest thing geeks have to an Oscar--the Jolt Cola/Software Development Magazine awards.

The last awards category was "Websites and Developer Networks".

First the finalists are announced, with all the usual suspects including Microsoft, IBM, BEA... and javaranch. WTF? Javaranch? It had no corporate sponsors. It was not a business. It was a quirky, no-budget all-volunteer community, run entirely by people who just wanted to be a part of it. It was simply a Java "fan" site--but a hugely successful one with numbers most sites would kill for--over a half-million unique visitors a month.

So how did Javaranch do it? (Oh yeah, they did win a 2003 award that night, and the next year as well, beating out Sun's java.net and Microsoft for a 2004 Jolt award.)

They did it by being passionately, single-mindedly, ferociously committed to enforcing one rule: "Be Friendly."

Not that you can't have a huge community without that rule... slashdot is the perfect example. But if you're trying to inspire passionate users, I believe that enforcing a "Be Friendly" rule can be one of the best moves for long-term growth and retention of the community.

[Disclaimer: although I am the original founder of javaranch (in 1997), I'm not responsible for its real success. Most of the growth happened after I turned it over to Paul Wheaton. I gave javaranch its original heart and soul, but it is Paul and all the moderators (Sheriffs and Bartenders) who gave it a body and brain that could actually do something...]

Enforcing a "be nice" rule is a big commitment and a risk. People complain about the policy all the time, tossing out "censorship" and "no free speech" for starters. We see this as a metaphor mismatch. We view javaranch as a great big dinner party at the ranch, where everyone there is a guest. The ones who complain about censorship believe it is a public space, and that all opinions should be allowed. In fact, nearly all opinions are allowed on javaranch. It's usually not about what you say there, it's how you say it.

And this isn't about being politically correct, either. It's a judgement call by the moderators, of course. It's fuzzy trying to decide exactly what constitutes "not nice", and it's determined subjectively by the culture of the ranch. Sexy jokes are usually OK, racial jokes are not. Some perceive the sexy jokes as sexist, and therefore "not nice", but if we would laugh about it with our friends in a somewhat racy dinner party conversation, it stands. Javaranch censors for meanness, not to protect delicate sensibilities. To a lot of folks, that makes us "not nice", but we reckon these are the folks we wouldn't invite to our party, either. ; )

There is obviously no way to have a one-size-fits-all "be nice" rule; every culture will have its own. A church forum, for example, might draw the line much earlier.

I believe an online community can work with virtually any metaphor (I'll keep to myself what I think the slashdot metaphor is...), but that metaphor determines the kinds of people you attract and keep. The "frat party" metaphor supports one type of behavior, while the "public space" is another. The "professional business office" metaphor is different from the "passionate user group" model.

But the really good news is that if you have a strong and consistent culture, whatever that culture is, the community starts moderating itself. Kind of a hundredth-monkey effect... when enough people are behaving in a certain way, and that hits critical mass, it becomes not only accepted but obvious to everyone when it's being violated. (I talked about this earlier with respect to customer service in Can you teach someone to care?)

And for a wonderful article by someone who knows far more about online communities and social networks than I ever will, read Clay Shirky's speech from 2003 ETech, A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy. Among other things, he talks about the challenges of balancing the idealistic goal of open and free speech with the atmosphere of the online community:

"And then, as time sets in, difficulties emerge. In this case, one of the difficulties was occasioned by the fact that one of the institutions that got hold of some modems was a high school. And who, in 1978, was hanging out in the room with the computer and the modems in it, but the boys of that high school. And the boys weren't terribly interested in sophisticated adult conversation. They were interested in fart jokes. They were interested in salacious talk. They were interested in running amok and posting four-letter words and nyah-nyah-nyah, all over the bulletin board.
And the adults who had set up Communitree were horrified, and overrun by these students. The place that was founded on open access had too much open access, too much openness. They couldn't defend themselves against their own users. The place that was founded on free speech had too much freedom. They had no way of saying "No, that's not the kind of free speech we meant."

Pick your metaphor carefully. Dinner Party isn't for everyone, but it's usually my personal favorite for passionate user groups.

Posted by Kathy on June 15, 2005 | Permalink


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I suppose the Slashdot metaphor varies widely depending on how you filter what you read. At +4 or +5 it makes for better quality reading on a post-by-post basis, but then you miss out on the guts of the conversation and can't truly participate.

Posted by: Keith Handy | Jun 15, 2005 8:22:44 PM

that post was wonderful. i used to work for a company that tried hard to imbue the type of 'friendliness' ethic that you describe in your post. it was a great place to work.

& javaranch is also a very nice dinner party, as you suggest.

by the way...that woman on the left-hand side of the photo at the top of this post?

she's not fat.
i think the woman on the right may have striped-mermaid-dress-envy.

Posted by: p-daddy | Jun 15, 2005 8:24:20 PM

Oh, come on Kathy! You can't leave us hanging about Slashdot like that!! Pretty please?

(BTW, I read and enjoy the Slashdot blog updates, but have never participated in a forum there)

Posted by: Cyndi | Jun 16, 2005 11:39:26 AM

Eight years ago when my son was born, I started a website for parents of children with Down syndrome. When I added the forum, my desire was that it would be a place where parents could support each other, offer advice, and discuss their experiences. I had been in other Down syndrome forums where the discussions were mostly about alternative therapies and parents were always at each other's throats. Since I didn't want that kind of environemnt, I killed any conversations about alternative therapies. Slowly but surely, the forum grew into a vibrant community that required no moderation at all. The parents that were attracted to the forum were, like me, not interested in nasty conversations. New members quickly saw the type of community it was and either left or breathed a sigh of relief and joined in. Kathy said, "...when enough people are behaving in a certain way, and that hits critical mass, it becomes not only accepted but obvious to everyone when it's being violated." I couldn't agree more.

Posted by: Tom | Jun 16, 2005 3:04:37 PM

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Posted by: Markus Sandy | Jun 17, 2005 2:47:32 AM

Kathy, we miss you so much at JavaRanch.com ...
Any plans to start posting on your "baby" again ?

Best regards,
JR user

Posted by: JR user | Jun 17, 2005 5:34:05 AM

I think Dinner Party is fine, if you're looking for a Dinner Party level of discourse... light, fluffy, and ultimately inconsequential. It seldom leads to "passionate" anything, in my experience, but that doesn't mean it isn't a worthwhile approach.

Personally, I have no patience with the Nice Police, nor with people who consider Being Nice a primary objective. It's impossible to learn anything from them. Their perceptions and expressions are generally locked up behind a wall of propriety that filters out everything meaningful, powerful, and intense.

Of course, the ideal is to deal with someone who values Being Nice, while keeping it in its place... subordinate to honesty, clarity, and passion. That's where you find the good stuff.

Posted by: Roger Benningfield | Jun 17, 2005 3:04:09 PM

Personally, Roger I feel the same way about people who make sweeping generalisations about people's intent or behaviours.


One of the best and most informative forums I've been on has a kind of unspoken rule of civilty, but you have to be able to back up your ideas or opinions. I don't know how it came to be such a friendly oasis, but it works well.

Posted by: Chris H. | Jun 18, 2005 6:22:26 AM

Roger:"if you're looking for a Dinner Party level of discourse... light, fluffy, and ultimately inconsequential. It seldom leads to "passionate" anything, in my experience".

You obviously haven't been to one of *my* dinner parties... ; )

"Personally, I have no patience with the Nice Police, nor with people who consider Being Nice a primary objective."

Then I take that to mean you won't be visiting this blog ever again... don't make me remind you that you already declared your lack of patience with me.

"It's impossible to learn anything from them." Wow, there are a half-million visitors a month at javaranch who'd have to disagree with you. They've learned a lot, and to consider it all fluffly and inconsequential is insulting a tremendous number of people in one fell swoop. Javaranch would never have won that Jolt award if huge numbers of serious software developers hadn't considered it their best source of learning.

I did mention throughout that post that it wasn't for everyone, and that the word "nice" is a fuzzy concept depending on the culture of your site.

But I'll give you an example -- you were able to disagree strongly with me, but you managed to do it without calling me names. In my book, you were still *nice*. If you felt that you were being dishonest by not calling me what you *really* wanted to, then I reckon you have a point--that having to be *nice* reduced your ability to communicate. I thought you did a pretty decent job of making your case, though. Message received and point taken. : )

Posted by: Kathy Siera | Jun 19, 2005 4:10:40 PM

Great post! Your observations mirrow my experience in getting an online community going. In 1998 we started the ACT Knowledge Management Forum (now called ActKM--for public sector knowledge managers) and we had to manufacture the online discussion for the first 6 months being mindful that our posts were a model for future interactions. We even had a roster for the core team of who was going to post when. ActKM is nowhere near the size of javaranch, at 1,300 members, but the discussion is always lively.

The metaphor idea is genius. It encapsulates so much of what is acceptable and expected behaviour. I would love to hear about other metaphors people have used to guide their online community.

Posted by: Shawn Callahan | Jun 22, 2005 4:16:16 AM

Thanks for the thread. Finding nice places is hard. Feeling like you are losing a major investment in somewhere when you part ways is also difficult. I hope your success inspires many other people to create such forums.

Posted by: Robert Sterbal | Jun 8, 2006 7:05:11 AM

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