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How to Build a User Community, Part 1


Most user communities take a typical path--the newbies ask questions, and a select group of more advanced users answer them. But that's a slow path to building the community, and it leaves a huge gaping hole in the middle where most users drop out. If we want to keep beginning and intermediate users more engaged (and increase the pool of question answerers), we need them to shift from asker to answerer much earlier in their learning curve. But that leaves two big questions... 1) How do we motivate them? 2) How do we keep them from giving lame answers?

Actually, this isn't the biggest problem with most user communities. The real deal-killer is when a new or beginning user asks a "dumb" question. Most supportive, thriving user communities have a culture that encourages users to ask questions, usually through brute-force moderation with a low-to-no-tolerance policy on ridiculing a question. In other words, by forcing participants to "be reasonably nice to newbies", beginners feel safe posing questions without having to start each one with, "I know this is probably a dumb question, but..."

It was precisely that idea that led to the original javaranch... in 1997, the comp.lang.java newsgroup was just too nasty a place to ask questions. Even if you were brave enough to ask an obviously stupid one, the slamming you got was enough to make it your last. And without users asking questions, the community evaporates.

But most user communities--especially the new ones--aren't hurting for people asking for help, they're in desperate need of people willing to help the newbies. And one of the quickest ways to keep a user community from emerging is when questions go unanswered. So the real problem is getting people to answer questions.

Encouraging a "There Are No Dumb Questions" culture is only part of the solution. What we really need is a "There are No Dumb Answers" policy.

The best way to grow a user community is to get even the beginners to start answering questions. The more they become involved, the more likely they are to stick with it through the rough spots in their own learning curve, and we all know that having to teach or explain something to another person accelerates our own understanding and memory of the topic. The problem, of course, is that the beginners are... beginners. So, here are a few tips used by javaranch, one of the most successful user communities on the planet (3/4 million unique visitors each MONTH):

1) Encourage newer users--especially those who've been active askers--to start trying to answer questions
One way to help is by making sure that the moderators are not always the Ones Who Know All. Sometimes you have to hold back the experts to give others a chance to step in and give it a try.

2) Give tips on how to answer questions
Post articles and tips on how to answer questions, which also helps people learn to communicate better. You can include tips on how to write articles, teach a tough topic, etc.

3) Tell them it's OK to guess a little, as long as they ADMIT they're guessing

4) Adopt a near-zero-tolerance "Be Nice" policy when people answer questions
Don't allow other participants (especially the more advanced users) to slam anyone's answer. A lot of technical forums especially are extremely harsh, and have a culture where the regulars say things like, "If you think that, you have no business answering a question. In fact, you have no business even DREAMING about being a programmer. Better keep your paper hat day job, loser."

5) Teach and encourage the more advanced users (including moderators) how to correct a wrong answer while maintaining the original answerer's dignity.
And again, zero-tolerance for a**holes. All it takes is one jerk to stop someone from ever trying it again.

6) Re-examine your reward/levels strategy for your community
Is there a clear way for new users to move up the ranks? Are there achievable, meaningful "levels"?

I'd love to hear some examples of other user communities you think are doing a good job at this. Javaranch isn't perfect, but it's one of the best I've seen (again, all the best stuff there happened after I turned it over to Paul Wheaton, so I can't really take credit).

Also, before you point out counter-examples of successful communities like slashdot... remember, I'm talking about user communities--people using a particular product or service--and not just any community. I'm sure there are tons of, say, political forums where a "be nice" policy is not only unneccessary, but most likely impossible.

Your ideas?

Posted by Kathy on December 3, 2006 | Permalink


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The Game Programming Wiki (http://gpwiki.org) has a fairly good community in terms of people answering questions and friendliness. Also, the main site is a wiki, so that's gotta count for bonus points!

Posted by: Ryan Fox | Dec 3, 2006 6:39:46 PM

The Harley-Davidson Sportster Forum (www.xlforum.net) does a pretty good job at most of these things, but I think that some of these things just happened organically, without an explicit explanation to the community of why it needs to be like this. The things that make it good are things you've listed that just seem to happen without any push from the top. I am going to share your list with the moderators there. Maybe they have a list like this already, I'm not sure. One thing I am sure of though is that Harley-Davidson riders are a pretty passionate group already, so we just need to channel their energy into making the XL Forum THE BEST instead of one of the best.

Posted by: Chris Hajer | Dec 3, 2006 7:45:09 PM

Hi Kathy, great post...The best community in action that I have seen is the SAP Developer Network (https://www.sdn.sap.com/). The last time I heard, there were over 1 million registered users with over 500K unique visitors per month. They do use a points system for recognition where the person who asks the question gives out points according to how helpful the answer was. The average time to get an answer to a question now is something ridiculous like 15 minutes. You couldn't get that kind of service if you called the SAP help desk directly!

SAP also gives out shirts, conference admissions, and other prizes for top contributors. However I think the best recognition is the reputation (a.k.a. geek cred) that one can build for themselves in the community.


Posted by: ewherrmann | Dec 3, 2006 8:22:50 PM

I don't know if I agree with intermediates giving answers. They can relate experiences as you say. This usually works well when others have similar experiences and can share ideas. However, you must realise that the bell curve is in action here. Intermediates will give as many good answers as bad answers. Bad answers tend to have a life of their own and are difficult to kill off.

Leader must lead. Asking others to do that job is recipe for disaster because it gets people to become overconfident (eventually with wrong answers) before they've been around long enough to be humbled.

Posted by: Vorlath | Dec 3, 2006 8:23:31 PM

Great post. I'm a regular poster on a SAS help forum at Tek-tips which is extremely small (SAS being kind of a niche market I guess) but very helpful and friendly. A while back I joined a group on Google Groups, which was a link into the SAS-L group, which I dropped out of really quickly, which was due to an example I think you touched on in one of your points. I'm a programmer with 8 years experience and one thing I know is that there are always multiple ways to do the same job, and some are better than others in various different scenarios, but there's rarely a "The Best". After answering a particular users question, and receiving a brutal, and completely inaccurate savaging from another programmer, I bowed out and haven't been back since. And this, in alot of communities, seems to be a major issue.
You get experts, people who genuinely do know alot about the subject, who get far too emotionally involved in their way of doing things, and this will put people off every time. I go on the Tek-Tips forum, not just to help people out, but also to stretch my mind, solve puzzles I wouldn't otherwise see, and learn alternative ways of solving them from the other posters, no to get into an argument over which technology is better than the other.
Tek-Tips incidentally employs a points system where people can vote for useful tips, and MVPs get listed on the side of each technology's forum (I'm pleased to say I've been there for a while now as ChrisW75 :-) and that's a great incentive to be nice and helpful.
One other thing that counted against the Google SAS Group was the size. So many posts that I couldn't keep up, so questions get dropped out too quickly (obviously I wasn't the only one answering though), possibly without an answer. Getting too successful could well be a major stumbling block in building a community feel, the difference between living in a small village where you know everyone, and living in central London or New York for instance.

Posted by: CodeMonkey | Dec 3, 2006 11:03:56 PM

There is one thing that seems to differ between helpful, supportive communities and the other type. And that is the motivation of the members of that community.
I haven't been there in a while now, but one of the most helpful and supportive communities that I've seen was the development arm of the linuxchix site.
The one thing that seemed to be consistent amongst all of the participants seemed to be the motivation to "be helpful".
(another example of a fantastically supportive community that someone told me about was a group of motorbike enthusiasts. Questions about how to tune/build/reconstruct bikes would be met with descriptive answers, photos and more than one case where another member of the group deliberately went and dismantled part of their own bike to be able to better write their answer)

Contrast that to another linux mailing list that I was on at about the same time, which was more akin to a daily bloodbath. And, correspondingly, it felt like the motivation of the people there was not to be helpful, but to show how much smarter and more knowledgable they were than everyone else... and if they could do that by stamping their feet and beating their chests, all the better.
Kathy mentioned slashdot as an example of a successful community - whilst it's successful in terms of longevity and numbers of particpants, it seems to have more than it's fair share of bloodsport as well.

Assuming that this motivation observation has anything to do with it (btw, is there such a thing as a stupid observation? ;-) ) the thought that springs to mind is whether there is any way to shape the motivation of the participants - or is dissuading those who don't fit in with the rest community the best that you can hope for?

eg. The points system that CodeMonkey mentioned (and has been mentioned in other articles here) is only going to work if everyone accepts that the way to "get to the next level" is by accumulating points. So does that mean that only individuals who are attracted by that system stay? Or does it mean that everyone will modify their behaviour to conform?

Posted by: omni | Dec 3, 2006 11:32:36 PM

We Learn…
10%…of What We Read
20%…of What We Hear
30%…of What We See
50%…of What We See and Hear
70%…of What We Discuss With Others
80%…of What We Experience Personally
95%…of What We Teach Others
–William Glasser

Posted by: peterd | Dec 4, 2006 2:07:57 AM

www.linuxquestions.org is a community I recently joined and it seems to be treating newbies really well.
The thing about Slashdot is , yeah it is full of people who are really smart and generally screw a noob. But that is what makes it so powerfull. For a fantastic discussion of any news , there is no substitute for Slashdot. Sure you could use digg to find news before slashdot, but you need Slashdot to make sense of it.

Posted by: duryodhan | Dec 4, 2006 2:47:26 AM

You have to imagine a community where intermediate users provide answers mainly because the experienced ones prefers to earn money rather to lose time answering the same questions. Like "how do I send an email from php?" or "how do I submit a form?".

Posted by: xandr | Dec 4, 2006 3:36:23 AM

I have to wonder about the motivation of the less helpful users that you describe - what is the purpose of their membership of a forum? As a complete geek outsider, I can only assume it falls into the category of circle jerking or virtual dick-waving!
The problem therefore lies not in the intermediates but the high-end jerks raining down on all "beneath" them.

From a personal level, my experience of asking for technical advice ranging, I would guess, from the simple to the intermediate across issues such as blogging, html and hardware purchase, I have only had good responses but I wonder if this is a function of choosing the right people to ask?

To replicate this within a forum would (it seems naively to me) be simple to achieve. Since you already intuitively categorise users in a hierarchy of expertise, instigate some sort of mechanism by which learners questions are only directed to the intermediates, thus avoiding the apparently heinous crime of offending the sensibilities of the ubergeeks!

This would encourage the intermediates to participate because the questions would largely be answerable by them and be received from questioners at an experience level that was still within the intermediate's own recent memory so that an empathy would exist.

If a question falls outside the average then, of course, the system should be flexible enough to allow referral to the advanced users, but the inherent filtering process should minimise the RTFM response quotient. I assume critically that the nature of fora would allow such an infoprmation flow to occur far less bureaucratically than is the case with the type of hideous management reporting system that it might appear to resemble.

Posted by: John Dodds | Dec 4, 2006 4:35:49 AM

I have been considering setting up or getting organisationally involved in an online discussion forum / community for quite a while, for exactly the reasons you describe Kathy (also for several reasons that have come up in comments here). I have been programming since I was 10 years old (in a small way - never quite at a "production" level - I have done mostly personal tools, games and freelance bits and pieces that still run ok) and over the last 20 years the biggest stumbling block for me has been knowledge acquisition. I am an autodidact and can learn anything from a book and some practice but I don't like going out and buying a book off the shelf with no 'a priori' knowledge and no idea whether the book is any good or not.

The internet has been wonderful for me in that it is full of helpful people who are happy to pass on their knowledge; it is also full of helpful people who are happy to pass on knowledge and actually know what they are talking about; it is also full of people who really know very little but like to think they are gurus and people who just like to stir trouble... Which makes it pretty full of "data"! Without knowledge - this data can be hard to sift for "information".

As has been amply discussed above - many communities are hard to get along in, especially for a "trial and error", "lots of guesswork" kind of bloke like me. I can come across as a complete newbie when asking a question because - while I may have read around the subject for ages and fiddled a lot - I have never tried anything practical before. I get really irked when pounded / slammed / flamed as a "stupid" newbie; I have a degree, I have done my homework and I have been doing this kind of thing for two thirds of my life and ten years as a professional. I have always gone out of my way to help anyone who asked me and I get quite annoyed when other people don't have the same idea of ethical capital / karma / whatever your flavour.

If I ever get round to setting up an online community (or get involved with one with a view of making "change") I'll drop you a link and see what you think (advice is always good).

On an aside: I agree entirely with the other commenters, as a biker, I have never found Motorcycle enthusiasts to be elitist in the way IT "experts" are. A bike enthusiast will be just as keen to help a newbie as they would a bloke who can build an engine from the ground up but can't change the brake fluid on his new BMW cruiser. They are very big on exchange of knowledge and in my experience seldom expect anything in return. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is aptly named *grin*

Posted by: Salubri | Dec 4, 2006 6:59:26 AM

A gazillion eons ago (in internet years) I used to answer questions in usenet newsgroups; I concur heartily that ANSWERING questions is the best way to learn a subject. In fact back in those days I would make it a personal quest to answer at least one question that hadn't been answered every day, even if I didn't know the answer to start out. The result: I learned things I never would have run across within my own work, and got a good rep for answering questions. Plus it was fun and I learned a lot.

But from that experience I learned one other thing, and that is that the real problem for newbies is NOT that they don't know things, it's that they don't know enough to know WHERE to ask questions. And that peeved the old timers and the "experts" mightily. But something I personally found particularly annoying: the "experts" didn't confine their peeved-edness to just blasting the newbies for asking bad questions, they also severely blasted any of us who were foolish enough to answer those "misplaced" questions.

Not that it made me stop, but I noticed that it did stop lots of other people from trying to help.

So I'd like to make one other suggestion... in addition to encouraging a climate of "there are no stupid questions", you have to also avoid the culture that says "we'll only answer your question if you know enough to tell what category it goes in. But if you're too dumb to know that your question about flooghoffs is really a mergle-gump issue, then nobody around here is going to talk to you."

Posted by: kmm | Dec 4, 2006 9:27:40 AM

WhatsOnMyBookshelf.com has an interesting way of rewarding experienced users by issuing a community investment point system. The more invested you are in the community the more privileges you have while new users are limited to the amount of trades they can perform.

Posted by: Stevv22 | Dec 4, 2006 12:17:38 PM

We are a neighbourhood community - mostly seniors, and we find that we have a hard enough time getting our members or their adult children to even visit our website. So we don't have a forum, but some of your ideas (reward levels) do resonate with us...

Posted by: Sheppard West Neighbourhood Association | Dec 4, 2006 1:12:20 PM

I remember googling for something a few days ago and getting 8 results, each a distinct forum. Each one had someone who asked the question I had, and the reply everytime was "google it". Sometimes I wonder if people in forums just get used to using "google it" or "RTFM", and if so, why are they still in the community? Meanwhile, these "answerers" get an extra post added to their stats for being insulting and utterly unuseful.

Posted by: Michel Parisien | Dec 4, 2006 1:19:00 PM

This is good advice, and the reason that most of my own blog posts contain answers in the middle and questions at the end!

If I did things in the standard order, questions followed by answers, there would be less room for participation.

Posted by: Martial Development | Dec 4, 2006 1:46:13 PM

Hey, part of my job is doing most of the answering on a mailing list about my company's software development kits. Many of the people using the list are students who can't stick around for more than a year or two; and many of the questions are real simple for me (who knows the SDK in detail) and very hard or completely uninteresting to everyone else, so I do almost all of the answering.

I try to encourange a bit of dialog by prompting other list members with questions like "Does anyone else have another way to do this?" or "Has anyone else tried something like this?" especially when I can't really solve the asker's problem. It almost never works, but occasionally does and it's exciting when it does.


Does anyone have any suggestions for web forum software that supports useful things for question-answer type communication?


* Reputation points
* Flag posts with no responses and move them to the top
* Easy linking to/from another part of the website like existing online docs, wiki, knowlege base
* Flexible login requirements (e.g. doesn't require a login for all visitors)
* Excellent searching of past answers.



Posted by: Reed | Dec 4, 2006 2:43:54 PM

One of the best examples I've ever seen of a community that get's it right is the forums for SBI subscribers. SBI, from sitesell.com, is an internet marketing education bundled with a hosting package and all the tools you need to effectively build (organic) traffic. I'm a forum moderator and a very satisfied customer.
Given the breadth and depth of the material to be covered, the forums are an invaluable resource for subscribers who need help figuring things out, or just some feedback in the form of a review.
The credo there is "Help and be helped" and "pass it on" thereby explicitly informing all participants that they are expected to contribute, to not only be helped, but to help - to pass it on. Bullies are not tolerated. Moderators efficiently move misdirected posts to the correct section, curb thread drift by splitting threads, and enforce rules against self promotion, bad language, and bad behavior. I think they manage to accomplish everything you recommend in this post. (not me! I moderate very low traffic sections and can't take credit for more than 0.05% of the result)

Posted by: Pauli | Dec 4, 2006 3:36:05 PM

I have a community of car wash operators, yeah I know, laugh it up. Well I need a way to encourage posters, I have tried giving away prizes and that really didn't work. I am looking for help! My members are afraid to post on the thought that people would think their business methods are unprofessional or even dumb.

Posted by: allan branch | Dec 4, 2006 3:47:45 PM

What a useful set of comments y'all have added here. I leave my computer for a while and come back to find a ton of great information... too much for me to comment on individually, but here are a few thoughts:

kmm: Thank you so much for bringing that one in -- you're right, that attitude of "it's not a dumb question, but you're too dumb to ask it in the right place..." is just as bad. I know how hard tough it can be to stay on top of this one as well as the one Michel mentioned:

Michel: Ahhh... this is heavily discouraged at javaranch because it falls in the category of "that's a dumb question" (AND a genuinely dumb answer). The moderators do their best to stop people from saying:
"Google it"
"Read the archives, this has been discussed to death already."

Giving rewards or levels based solely on the *quantity* of posts is not the best way to bring up the quality, BUT if the culture encourages quality (or at least quality *attempts) and discourages the kinds of answers you're talking about, then quantity can still work. If the totally-useless (or worse, rude) answers are tolerated, then you end up with a bad signal-to-noise. Good comment, thanks for bringing this up!

Stev22: I'm going to check this out. I like the idea of gaining privileges as you go, not just a "label". Makes it more like a video game level.

John: The intermediates aren't the problem--they're the ones we need to recruit. But you're right -- there's a HUGE issue with some of the experts either trying to keep the newbies out (which is why I mentioned in the "jargon" post that you often need a separate space so the advanced folks can "geek out" without being annoyed by--or annoying--the newbies), or with giving bad answers. Often, the bad answers are just because they have forgotten what it was like to be clueless on this topic...

If you get people to answer questions or help other users who they (the answerers) are only just a step or two above, takes care of a lot of the ego -- instead of eye-rolling, you get an "I feel your pain... I was just there myself..." attitude, and these are also the people who tend to remember all those important steps they were confused about, that advanced users have collapsed into one big chunk.

ewherrmann: I think the SAP dev network is doing SO many things well in the 'passionate users' realm. We could all take some notes on what you guys are doing, if only someone there would give us some more tips. Hint. Hint.

Chris: Thanks for the Harley comment -- it really IS about culture, and you're right -- it's quite possible that the most supportive and useful one emerged organically, but left to their own devices, I've seen the majority of *tech* communities become pretty hostile places. Then if you feel mistreated there, you're simply told that if you don't have a thick enough skin, you don't deserve to be there anyway. Kind of a, "If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen" thing. Perhaps in a community of users that's more hobby/passion-based than, say, profession-based, people tend to be more supportive. After all, they're more likely to want to evangelize and encourage others to join in, rather than the other way 'round.

Posted by: kathy Sierra | Dec 4, 2006 4:15:38 PM

Wow, thanks to the above poster for the whatsonmybookshelf link - I've been searching everywhere for a book community like that for recommendations, reviews, etc.

Posted by: Bob King Neverland III | Dec 4, 2006 5:39:06 PM

Kathy, your comment "Often, the bad answers are just because they have forgotten what it was like to be clueless on this topic..." is spot on.

It's not a typical user community, but for our office Java Learning Groups, we look to the "intermediates" to lead the way for the newer folks.

We welcome all the help we can get from the experts, but there's something to be said for having just recently gone through the same experience.

Posted by: Bill Mietelski | Dec 4, 2006 7:09:19 PM


The hobbiest sites are just as bad. I loved the Compuserve cooking forums, and grudgingly accepted rec.food.cooking when we gave up our Compuserve account for the Internet, but, whew, the first thing I learned about newsreaders was KILLFILE. There were too many answers of "don't bother ..." "the only way ..." "the right way ..." "you never need ..." "you can't do it properly without ..." from the same people. I think it's that they equated other opinions with challenges to their expertise.

forums.teamestrogen.com is a FANTASTIC forum for women bikers, er cyclists. The "google it" answers are replaced by "I googled it, and this is what I found..." or "I searched the forum archives, here's the thread ..." The forums are more than just Q&A; storytelling is encouraged. This encourages everyone. Women post their goals and progress in getting there.

Everyone is civil and is expected to be civil. The best example is a thread I can no longer find, wherein a dog-owner finally understands why her occasionally escaping dog really IS a menace to the cyclists whose tires he bites. In any other forum there would have been flaming without understanding; the posters at TE made the dog owner understand why this wasn't accepted, even if she gave the cyclist a lift home and replaced the tire and tube.

Posted by: SusieJ | Dec 4, 2006 8:37:01 PM

Once again you are right on cue, Kathy! I'm trying to put together effective communications for our entire team - developers and users - through blog forums and other documentation. I wasn't sure what to do to get us on the 'collaboration track.' I'm hoping our users are comfortable enough to ask the "dumb" questions and not feel bad, and I'm hoping other users will feel like they can contribute to answers and say, "What worked for me was..."

I've been on the receiving end of a brutal flaming while answering a forum question. Since I'm entirely self-taught, I must not have used the proper terminology or something. The solution I posted worked on my end, but a "pro" came on and basically told me I didn't know where my butt was located. He then proceeded to give his own answer in much more complicated terms that I couldn't follow. After that I rarely post anywhere (except here, of course!) :-))

Thanks for the inspiration!

Posted by: Lana | Dec 4, 2006 8:56:54 PM

When I started programming, I had lots of great experiences on the microsoft c++ newsgroups. Getting answers, and having the ability to answer early. I haven't been doing ms or c++ for years now, so I don't know about the atmosphere now.

I agree, though, that getting the people to answer soon is a big challenge. I'm using one products uses forum quite often now, and in fact it's 75% the companies developers answering question there. This, too, is great, as they answer with a disclaimer. 'The company is not liable'. At user support you don't get much answers, because of liability issues, but in the forum you get your answers, from the developer, in clear speech.

Johan Steunenberg

Posted by: Johan Steunenberg | Dec 5, 2006 1:28:06 AM

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