Building successful online communities: Evidence-based social design by Kraut & Resnick

The book covers different aspects of building a community. It explores the importance of the users and how to engage them to contribute and be committed to the community. It also covers how to create a culture in the community and teach new users to adapt to them. Some of the topics can be overlap over different chapter.

I found the book to be easy read and provides a lot of different example to support the authors’ argument. Most of the communities that they use as example repeat themselves to prove different points throughout the book. The last chapter focuses more on economic theories and less empirical studies where the rest of the book shows more empirical studies to set the design claims.

Next is a brief summary and thought on each chapter of the book.


The first chapter serves to explain what the book is about and the method to be used to explain their points. The introduction shows the motivation behind the books and the limitations that it has. It also explains how this book should be use and interpreted.

It starts by defining online community as the interaction between different agents in a way that is controlled by computers. It explains the benefits and drawbacks that online communication has over offline communication and how this impact online communities.

After having a clear understanding of what an online community is, the chapter introduces the different design challenges that will be cover in the book and the design alternatives or options that online community designers have to work around those design challenges. It briefly introduces 9 levers that can be used around the design challenges. Each chapter of the books is focus on a design challenge and uses different levers to provide design alternatives or options.

The chapter then continues by explaining the morality of manipulating the design of an online community to achieve certain goals. The authors point out that any design already manipulates the outcome the online community has, so using certain design to better achieve a goal is not so wrong. They argue that more of a concern is the moral aspect of the goal that wants to be achieved. 

After clearing the morality of using or not certain design claims to improve the output of an online community based on its goals the authors explain the method that they’ll use to make their design claims. They briefly mention different social theories to be used throughout the book to explain how to manage the different design challenges that each chapter will cover. Then they explain how this design claims should be interpreted and used.

Lastly the chapter concludes by explaining once again the boundaries of the book (early stage of an online community). It also explains what is not covered in the book (limitation), this includes how to maintain a community fresh or how to use it to encourage innovation.

Chapter 1: Encouraging contribution to online communities

The chapter focuses on the different ways that collaboration can be enhance in an online community. They section this chapter in 8 sections where the last one is a recap of all the design claims they do in the chapter. They back each claim by carefully explaining different studies that have found findings similar to their claim.

One of the biggest concerns of communities is allocating help, most communities have more help in one are than in others. For this the authors argues that communities have to specify where help is needed so that contributed where they can start to improve the community. The authors also argue that providing useful tools for finding and tracking work needed will also help in this area. Finally this section finish by explaining how members will be more comply to contribute to the community if the task assigned to them is align to their preference. Meaning that the community needs to know and understand the preference or knowledge of each member so that it can assign task accordingly to their interest.

The next section focuses on how to handle request to optimize contribution by members. They point out that asking specific people for help is more efficient that asking the community as a hole. If the community can manage to point task especially to each member is better than posting all the help need openly. Also request should be kept as simple as possible when the issues at hand are non-important, this is because not everyone cares about all the domains and fully explaining the benefits of contribution should be explain to those who care about the domain. Fear campaign can be effective because it brings a persuasive appeal but at the same time it makes members evaluate the quality of this persuasive appeal.

The section continues by explaining that the person that makes the request is important to incentive contribution by members. If the request is done by an important person of the community, more members are likely to contribute. At the same time the more likeable the requester is the more likely members will comply. The authors also argue that request have a social aspect, meaning that when a member sees that other have comply he is more likely to comply to a request

The last part of this section focus on how the goals requested to members have to be specific and challenging to the level of the member requested. The authors also explain that when goals and deadlines are matched, contribution will increase as the deadline approaches. Finally the goals will have the highest effect when feedback (especially positive feedback) on the performance is given.

The fourth section focuses on enhancing the intrinsic motivation of members in a community. For this the authors explain that by mixing social contact and contribution between members will enhance the contribution of this members, this can be done by creating conferences or meetups where members socialize but at the same time contribute to a certain goal of the community. Also the community has to challenge the skills of each member by creating experience with clear goals and feedback that goes to the limit of their skills but at still give them in control. The feedback most be based on performance and given in a systematic and quantitative way to be more effective on motivating members to perform a task. This feedback will be effective on motivating member if they perceived it as sincere. When the feedback is going to be compared to other, the community should know that members will be motivated when they can find that the comparative performance feedback is desirable and potentially obtainable, the comparative feedback is a delicate issues because if done wrongly it can have a major negative impact on the community.

The fifth section talks about managing extrinsic motivations to attract contribution by members. The authors explain that providing rewards can incentive members to collaborate, the problem of rewards is they can lead members to trick the system and even if they don’t trick the system this type of motivation doesn’t help improving the quality of the contribution. The more the reward is based on quantity and not quality the higher risk the system has of being tricked by other members. This leads the authors to argue that is better for the system to provide rewards based on status and privileges than on a tangible way. Also the less transparent the system is on how it provides the rewards the less likely the system is of being tricked by users.

Extrinsic motivations have to be handle with care since providing extrinsic motivation to task that members have intrinsic motivation towards can be counterproductive, the exception comes if a tangible motivation is significantly higher than the intrinsic motivation the members have towards a certain task.

The next section focuses on the expectancy-value of group outcomes. The authors find that the more committed the members are, the more they will contribute to the community. Also they argue that smaller communities, compared to large ones, incentive members to contribute more. This is possible because these smaller communities can better portray the uniqueness of each member and how this uniqueness benefits the community, members that see this portray of their uniqueness are more willing to contribute to the community. Finally the Authors argues that members of a community will do more contribution if they feel that other member are complementing their work instead of substituting it.

The seventh section explains how different online communities use and match the different design claims that the authors have mention and how they work around some of the issues mention in the chapter.

Chapter 2: Encouraging Commitment in Online Communities

The chapter covers the commitment aspect of users towards online communities. The authors explain the different types of commitment that users can have towards the community and claims to improve those commitments. They categorize the commitments in affective, normative and need based. The affective commitment they subcategorize in identity based and bonds based. Each type of commitment has a purpose and affects the involvement of the users and the community in a different way.

The chapter starts by explaining how identity based commitment impacts the community and how to incentive this type of commitment. Identity based commitment implies that the user identifies with the community as a hole and this makes the user more committed to the community even if other member are no longer part of it. This type of commitment also helps user follow the norms and regulations of the community since they feel as an integrating part of the community.

To enhance the identity based commitment the authors imply that clustering users based on similarities or other functions can help with it. Similar creating subgroups and providing name to it can help them identify more with the group and create their own identity with the community. This subgroups will help with the identity commitment as long as the values of the subgroups are align to that of the community as a hole.

If the community has a name and a slogan that stimulates the interest of the community or the subgroup in the community this will help to develop the identity based commitment of the users. Similarly, making goals and purposes explicit to the users will incentive it as well. This can be accomplish by providing interdependent task to users at the same time this approach can be effective in reducing conflicts that may happen between subgroups of the community.

Promoting competition with other communities can improve the identity based commitment of the user, this competition should be moderated since having threats can make core users more committed to the community but at the same time can lead to less committed users to defect. This issues is discuss further in the need based commitment. 

When a commitment is based on the loyalty to other users it is called bonds based commitment. To incentive this commitment the authors argue that communities should recruit new members based on their social ties to current members. Also creating interaction between the friends of friends will enhance the bonds that exist in the community. The more users interact with each other can increase the bond the form to each other and this increases the bond based commitment to the community; these interaction could be seen as personal communication between members, repeat encounters between them in virtual spaces or the constant display of current information of the users recent activities among other things.

The ability to provide an user profile and allow them to personalize them to show relevant data can also help to increase the bond based commitment to the community.

Communities that actively support the self-disclosure of users can lead to higher bond based commitment, especially if it allows anonymity when sensitive information is shared. Anonymity can also help develop identity based commitments.

Communities have to learn how to manage high traffic since having them can reduce the bond based commitment of users unless they are cluster to the user’s interest. This can happen because users should be able to relate to other to develop this type of commitment, this is why highlighting interpersonal similarity can help increase it.

Diversity can be a problem with commitment to community because having many differences in interest can drive away those users that are committed based on identity. Off topics can cause greater troubles in this area unless the community goes off-topic as a group, if is done this way then it can actually revers the effect of off-topics and incentive both bonds based and identity based commitment. When the community doesn’t go off topic as a group, applying filters can help reduce the negative effect it can have over both subtype of commitment explained before.

The second mayor type of commitment that affects online communities is the normative based commitment. This type of commitment is based on the feeling of obligation that users may have towards the community. This type of commitment can be enhanced by highlighting the community’s purpose and successes. 

Social proof can help the normative commitment to the community in many different ways, such as showing other their normative commitment to the community, highlighting what users have gotten from the community, reminding of helps received by other members and the opportunity to contribute back. Finally portraying positive thinking of normative obligations will increase their commitment to the community.

Finally the third commitment discussed is the need based. This occurs when the users feel a need from the community and this can be enhanced by showing experienced related to the motivation that lead the user to the community. The need based commitment can also be enhanced by creating tied in to the communities, this can be done by creating niche communities that are not being served at all or by making it difficult to export or transfer assets obtained in the community. Making the community unique is a way to incentive the need based commitment. Showing information from competing community can reduce need based commitment since users can jump ships.

Finally the authors claim that by creating it difficult for users to enter the community can create a need based commitment on them, this is by having high entry barriers or by pushing users to invest heavily in the community. 

Chapter 3: The challenges of dealing with newcomers

The chapter focuses on how to properly handle newcomer. The author properly explains how to attract and keep new member, how to make them learn the norms of the group and how to protect the community from them.

When attracting new members a community has to focus not only in getting them but also on making sure that they are the right users to become members. New members are important because they will keep the community in cases where other member deflects and they will also make the community bigger and more powerful. This affects that new members bring to community is what make is so important to choose the right members.

By having an active recruitment policy a community can bring more prospective members. The utilization of word of mouth is an effective tool that will bring more new members than simple advertisement. Simple advertisement is not bad since the utilization of it will bring new members that had no previous knowledge of the community. Having visibility of the community to the outside is a crucial and this is way the authors claims that by letting existing member share content from the community to their friends can easily bring more new members to it. Endorsements and recruiting materials will also help with the visibility of the community and have the same effect, as well as constantly showing the name of the community. All of this will bring visibility of the community and familiarity to prospect members.

One of the most effective ways to bring new prospect is by utilizing the social network of existing member. If the community encourages the known influential members to recruit from their existing social network, this can be more effective than encouraging existing members at random to do this. 

At the same time if the community shows how others are benefiting from the community and how new members can also benefit is more productive in attracting new members than portraying how the community would benefit from the new user. This can be accomplishing by showing pictures (or other formats) of what it is to be a member of the community.

But the recruiting purpose of a community is not gain new members but to gain new members that will be committed to the community and will fit and contribute to it. This is why the community has to create mechanisms to secure that new members want to be part of this. One way to do this is to create waiting time before posting or interacting in the community, this will assure that those who wait really want to be part of the community. Also applying some fee or demanding the completion of certain tasks could replicate similar outcome.

Screening is another way to assure that new members will be important assets to the community. A task competition, mention before, can be an initial screening mechanism implemented to select the right members. Demanding credentials from new members could be a different way. As mention in the previous chapter creating entry barriers can assure that the members that enter the community as committed to it and contribute to it.

Having a referral system can assure that new member are good fit to the community since this implies that someone already knows them and backs them to enter the community. This is good as it controls who come in and someone is responsible for the actions of this new member. At the same time, this can be less effective in communities that attract people from different parts of the world since it would be difficult for older members to know them before they enter the community.

But it is important to create a community that attracts newcomers and secure that they have an environment to grow. This is way it is important to treat new members nicely when they join so that they can contribute to the community. For this policies must be set so that when a new member makes a mistake the older members don’t attack them for it.

Creating an environment for newcomers to grow could include making them introduce themselves so that they can integrate more easily, creating a welcoming committee that will greet newcomers and incentive positive interaction between new members and old ones. Having positive socialization will encourage a positive fit to the new members and encourage them to contribute to the community.

Creating a place where newcomer can learn the process while they adapt to the community can prove to be positive since it wouldn’t disturb the old members but at the same time it would help the new ones develop to what the community expects. Having a sandbox or controlling the level of access of new member can be an optimal solution for this. Older members could help new one develop themselves in those controlled environment before entering to where all the other members are.

Chapter 4: Regulating behavior in online communities

The chapter focuses on how to set normative behaviors in the site and how to manage improper behavior effectively. The authors cover topics as preventing spam, managing conflict between user and setting users to follow norms among other topics covering the culture of the community.

The authors argue that having a moderation system that handle inappropriate messages can limit the damage that those messages can have to the community. To properly handle this messages they also argue that the system should be able to move them to appropriate places instead of just deleting the message. By moving it, the system can create a mechanism of letting users know that this type of behavior is unacceptable in an specific place, but it can be done in another place of the community. This will help users understand the norms and not get angry if they feel the system mismanaged the action of an user.

To reduce misunderstanding between users and a moderation system the criteria for moderation should be clear. This system should rely on member of the community that are impartial, at the same time the power should be limited or rotate over time.

Communities can be affected by trolls or disruptors that hole focus is to disturb the environment in the community. To limit the damage they might cause it is important to be able to roll back to previous version where damaged hadn’t occurred. At the same time providing filters can reduce the damage of post from this trolls as well as setting a recognize police to ignore trolls by not feed them with response to their posts.

There are many ways to reduce the amount of trolls that enrolled to the community or at least to limit them, having activity quotas can be a productive way as well as having mechanism to prevent trolls to game the system. These mechanisms could be by producing some type of gain (it could be currency inside the community or points), also introducing verification like CAPCHA can reduce automatic attacks.

If the system is able to highlight good behaviors, members can better understand what is expected of them by the community. At the same time, the system can portray inappropriate behavior and compare it to proper behavior so that members can have a much better understanding of the community norms. 

Other mechanisms to induce members on proper behavior are by providing positive feedback on their actions as well as displaying statistics of formative behavior. So that users properly know what is expected from them, is important for the community to have explicit rules and guidelines. The trick of rules and guidelines is that if shown too frequently it can indicate to some members that those guidelines are not always followed.

Truly committed members are less possible to break the norms and this is why the system should be built to encourage commitment such as allowing members to correct bad behavior by giving them a chance of face saving. Also building the norms as a community can increase this feeling of commitment and compliance to them.

The best way to prevent inappropriate behavior from members is to allow the system to detect infractions and warn members before they commit one. Also by not allowing search engines to follow links published in them can reduce targeted spam. Member verification can also do this, as explained before. Creating mechanisms to benefit users with long term id or having entry barriers can be effective on preventing id switch in users that have been sanction. These could be seen as creating a cost to enter the community, providing bonds, requesting sponsorship from current members, providing point, access control based on merits, etc.

The most effective way to prevent bd behavior is by providing gradual sanction, allow members to face save them, increase cohesion, having explicit rules, have anti-retaliation measurement. Also having mechanism where other members can report abuse or an automated system to do this can be effective on scaring users to commit bad behavior

Chapter 5: Starting New Online Communities

This chapter focuses on the economics of starting an online community. It discusses the topics of building the community on a niche and how to build critical mass on it. It discusses concepts covered on other chapters but with a view more focus in one of the topics previously mention.

It start by arguing how important is for the community to have a niche to start on how engage users to it. It discusses the cost of interruption that the community might cause to the members and how to handle this properly to both increase users and not annoy them. The authors argues that by utilizing push notifications it is important for the designers to understand that it will produce benefits when the cost of interruption is low, the volume of notification is low and the time sensitivity of interaction is high.

For starting community is important to have a narrow scope. The volume of interaction can be negatively affected if the range of topics is high. Also, a narrow scope can help in focusing in specific task while getting to critical mass. The only time that different topics are effective is if they relate to each other. In this case bridging identity between them can create value to the community. However, not having a clear scope can be helpful in adjusting the community to members needs and on creating a sense of ownership.

It is important for the designer of the community to understand that at first they should let the flow follow its course and then identify what subtopics have traction for then subdividing. If this is done from the beginning the community can suffer from having some subtopics without any traction.

Navigation aids can help for users to identify content that is located in the community, this tools is more effective and important when the community has large amount of topics. This allows the users to loose less time when looking for an specific topic. Recommendation systems can also work in favor just like navigation aids, especially when there is high volume of interaction.

In cases where the space is not active all the time is important for the community to indicate the time they are, so that member can create expectation and contribute to it during the appropriate time.

Competition will arise and when confronted with an incumbent the design elements of the community will have an effect on the success of the community. Having different user interface elements as well as not sharing user IDs and/or profiles increases the cost of new communities and provide advantages to the incumbent community. Content sharing on the other hand can post value to both. In one hand the exporter gains from awareness, meaning that it will create visibility of the community in the other community. The importer in the other hand will gain from being the one where the content is actually consumed.

When using data generated from a third party to fuel the community it is important that the data is used in an innovative way that generate values. If it is used as in other places the community would be doom to fell since users could just use the community where the data came from originally.

Attracting member is an important part of the early stage of a community because it will allow the possibility of archiving critical mass and being successful. Attracting new users can be achieved by having a short and unique selling proposition of the community. Endorsement and advertisement brings awareness and helps the community to become a focal point when competing with others. 

If early members are motivated to generate content this will increase the bootstrap, this must be set to gain more members. The user generate content is the king for bootstrapping. Another way to help with bootstrapping is by showing membership to those that are nor a member yet. Also, by allowing actions of members to be shown to those outside of the community can be an effective way to bootstrap.

If current members send content from the community to the outside they can gain awareness and bootstrap new members. Also providing mechanisms to allow current members to invite outsiders can have similar effect. Different paying referral mechanism can have similar results as invitation mechanism have.

Community features don’t have to be implemented from the starting point of the community; content generated by only a few users can start the traction that could lead to a community. Having professional content can lead to the same result. The trick of using professional content is that it can disincentive user generate content, to limit this effect professional content should be used as a last resort way.

Early adopters are crucial in online communities since they will be the one starting its content. Bots and other automated systems can fill in when interaction between users is critical but there is not enough users to interact with. This is done to discourage early adopters.

The early adopters could be attracted by utilizing different mechanisms such as offering permanent discounts, promoting the benefits of being an early adopter, promoting the community as exclusive and creating claimable resources among other mechanisms. Attracting the new users is not the only thing communities have to do, engaging them is also a crucial part of attracting them. To engage an incentive the contribution from the early adopters the community can create minimal contribution policies so that those users can keep the advantages and benefits they get as early adopter.

Communities have to portray success; to do this is important for the community to have a professional design. Showing that high investment is being allocated to the community can show commitment to it and users can have higher expectation of success. Also displaying the contributions that users have done, indicators of their activity can also increase success expectation.

When the community is small and growing slowly it is good to acknowledge the activities of members. Once the community start to grow at a faster rate but still is small is better to portray percentage growth over real numbers. However, once the community is big is better to present real number over percentage growth.

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