May 25, 2005

For the past few months I've been working on pulling together a web and email presence for our local community organization - the Greater Rockwell Organization. The organization has been around for a couple decades, I believe, and in the last few years has been using 'e-Blasts' to rally members to various causes, from an annual Potluck, to communication about meetings to save local businesses surrounding our beleagured L station, to all the other things a community organization might want to bring people together around. These e-Blasts are managed by one or two people with an AOL account and a huge BCC list. Those readers familiar with the bloofgamatic mailer may be familiar with the vagaries and risks of CC and .forward based distribution mechanisms....

It's been a bit of a lengthy process. A couple years ago another community member, Mike Fried, took the generous step of reserving the domain name, and even went so far as to put together some prototype web sites for the GRO board to review. But for a variety of reasons, Mike never got traction back from GRO, so his work languished and - as the way is for electrons - eventually disappeared. But he kept the domain registration live.

A year or so ago I volunteered to help pull things back together. Mike was able to redirect the domain to a hosting provider (, who also host and And I've started the slow process of getting things going.

My initial plan was to set up mailing lists for use by all members for various purposes. However, the GRO board prefers to protect members from unwanted emails - so instead we will be setting up an announce-only list. Discussion lists will be configured for the various working groups that make the GRO organization run; the web development team is the first operational example of this (and for those readers in the Greater Rockwell area, let me know if you want an invitation...)

Thankfully - given my archaic and rudimentary web design skills - another community member stepped up to design the website. Progress is ongoing, and there should be something available at the, on the illustrious port 80, soon.

What this has brought out is a bunch of thinking about how best physical communities can organize online. Ed Vielmetti has done a bunch of thinking and action in this area, so when I got the chance to sit down with him a couple weeks ago I was able to pick his brain. I'm still digesting the discussion, but a bit of the nutrition has hit my bloodstream....

One of the key items was that an online community is best organized around a specific need or problem.

It's not enough to just want to to get people to talk, you have to give them something to talk about. Thus mailing lists for the working groups that are dealing with special budgets, garden walks, etc. It may be that this lack of focus is part of the reason that projects like iNeighbors (even the one for our own neighborhood) never took up much traffic.

A second element would appear to be a need for mentoring and sheparding. Just as a wiki needs occassional gardening, and a garden needs pruning and tilling, an online group needs guiding - perhaps particularly in this case where for many participants it's a virtual terra incognita. Ed accomplishes this in the vacuum community by quietly slowing or speeding discussion through moderation of the mailing list. In GRO's case this is the role of the "" editor. As one of my plans is to set up a general opt-in discussion list to complement the opt-in announcement list, this may be a good technique to remember.

Do you have thoughts on how online reflections of real world communities can take shape and build?

More updates as they happen in this experiment. I'm looking forward to a snowball effect.

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Posted by esinclai at May 25, 2005 06:38 PM |

Good insights. In my experience the lesson has been that you can't assume "if you build it, they will come." People have to have a reason to come and to keep coming back. Interactivity and frequent changes to the content are ways to keep them coming. And yes, a strong dedicated facilitator is a good thing, too.

Would a strong online community ensure that we interact more or less with the folks at the corner coffee shop? I dunno. I can't help but think it would be a good thing, though.

Posted by: Anne on May 26, 2005 10:51 AM
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