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A Conversation with Online
Community Architect Amy Jo Kim

Amy Jo Kim is principal at www.naima.com and a leading light in the online community realm. Amy Jo shared some of her ideas and inspirations with Nancy on April 4, 1999. This interview came just before the publication of Amy Jo's well-received book, Community Building on the Web: Secret Strategies for Successful Online Communities (Peachpit Press, 1999). In a conversation during the Fall of 2001, Amy Jo reported that she will be working on an updated version of the book to be published in 2002.

    NW: Tell me a little about your background and your book on designing online communities.

    AJK: My background is in both software and design. I went into the field because I really enjoyed building tools that people can use to do their work better. That's what I'm doing with this book which describes guidelines for building online community. "Conceptual tools" (for community building) is the best way to describe what I developed and do. It thrills me when people apply my framework and get value out of it. Clients appreciate my practical, logical, grounded-in-reality-vs.-theory approach. There is certainly theory behind it, but it all came out of experience.

What's Happening With Online Communities

    NW: How would you describe online community today?

    AJK: First of all, the word online community is used very, very broadly. We should define what we are talking about. My working definition for community is a collection of people who have come together for some common purpose, interest or activity, and who are able to get to know each other better over time. That applies to offline or online community. I used "offline" community -- its not great, but it is better than "meetspace." I specifically try not to say "real world " communities because online communities are very real to people. Of course many online communities also have components in the offline world.

    The notion of "get to know better over time" is fundamental. People don't think about this concept before they launch their product or design. It is probably the thing that is most different from doing website design -- really thinking about how you create an online space that encompasses and addresses the needs of people who are at very different stages of their development. They may be experts. They may be beginners. The experts might become leaders or teachers. How you accommodate the members evolving expertise over time? That's what is different about my approach versus an information design approach.

    NW: What about what's going on in online community

    AJK: I'm heartened by what I see. There's less dewy-eyed romanticism and more pragmatism on how can we really help people do what they're trying to get done. There's integration into e-commerce, gaming, and customer service.

    My personal interest in this is not "community for the sake of community." Many people in our industry are what I would call experts in "lets have a place where good conversations can take place." That's wonderful, but some people think that is the community model. That is one model. There are other models that require different approaches.

    I'm interested in using elements of online community to foster ongoing activity such as e-commerce, gaming, pr or research. I'm interested in sustainable business models. This approach has helped to refine my design principals, which adapt to a broad range of community, not just conversational communities like the Well. I'm happy to see that people in the industry are getting that. Two years ago if I would say what I just said to you in public, I would get either puzzled looks or attacked. Now when I stand up in public with my perspectives, people come up to me afterwards and tell me they are thinking about how to really use community in a practical way that delivers value. It's exciting.

    What's going on with online community is not fundamentally different from what is going on with community in the physical world, and which has been going on for thousands of years. I'm driven by looking at the history of sustainable communities. It is different in ways that have to do with tools, the lack of sensory data, and the anonymity. However the dynamics and the business models are identical. Communities that are sustainable have a sustainable business model behind them. Most of the "communities for the sake of being communities," communes are the most obvious example, couldn't last and they didn't last for a good reason. The business wasn't really what people needed.

    For instance, sometimes people get upset if a site puts up a community space and then takes it down. "Oh it's not there, they don't care about community." I'm shocked at that. If a business like a coffee shop down the street opens up, and people start to gather there, and then the shop goes out of business because it wasn't a viable business model, people complain, but they know that's the way it works. It's not an altruistic endeavor. Companies are in business as long as it makes sense to them. So the problem is not so much companies going in an out of business, but expectation management. People have these expectations that there is some kind of altruism that goes along with community, or that just because you put up a free space, people squat there, that they have the right to keep squatting there.

    What people need is to connect with other people around the activities that are an everyday piece of their lives. Not just around an abstract notion of community.

Community Patterns

    NW: Do you see community evolving as a tool for businesses, rather than just community as a conversation space?

    AJK: Yes I hope so. The nine design strategies at the core of my book come from looking at what community is all about. And it's about a lot more than conversation. It's about how do we share purpose, about regular events, about infrastructure. Its about an evolving sense of members' identity, rituals, rights of passage and shared holidays. If you look at successful sustainable communities in the physical world, you would see that they have these patterns of experience. There's a lot to be learned in applying those patterns to online communities. They can help you create the infrastructure in which a community will gel with value for people that goes beyond "gee it feels really good to talk to other people."

    It is important for anyone wanting to launch a community to think out clearly why they are doing it. What value its going to give to members to be part of that community? Everything that they do --every feature they put in place, every dollar they spend -- should be geared to both delivering value to their members and to the organization. That value doesn't have to be making money. It can be saving money, creating a forum for dialog with their customers, market research, or good pr. There are a lot of different reasons why a company might want to actively or run a web community. I'm really interested in helping people figure out how to create value that will be sustainable for them and for their members that will help them meet their goals.

Software Barriers

    NW: What is holding people back from these practical community applications?

    The biggest problem right now is a lack of really good tools. I've had a number of clients who are looking for flexible, extensible community platforms that include chat and message boards with the ability to integrate the elements into a robust database. I can't find good solutions for them. Part of the reason is that the business model is tough. People want it, but they don't actually want to pay for it. The tools tend to need expensive customer support. It is hard to make things flexible enough to apply to different kinds of needs. Some companies that want tools are deciding to just build them in-house. Yahoo is an example of that. Many of the companies that created these things have gone out of business, or shifted business. That tells you that there is not a business model. It is a tough market.

    What's going on in the field of community software is very similar to the evolution I saw 15 or 20 years ago with artificial intelligence (AI). At one point it was a buzzword. "AI, its cool -- use AI!" Companies formed. "We're an AI company." That didn't work out, but what happened was that slowly the techniques involved in AI were incorporated into products. For example Amazon is using AI as a form of collaborative filtering for their book recommendations. They're not an AI company, and they did not buy the technology from an "AI" company. They bought it from a company that makes a very specific tool. I think community is going through a similar thing. It's moving away from "we're a community" or "we do community" and more towards "this is one of the things that you can use to help you run your web business, in whatever form that community takes." There are various tools, techniques, policies, procedures, and staffing that are used. It is part of running your business on the web.

Backstories and Roles

    NJW: Your book addresses the design of online communities. How did you arrive at your community design template? I'd particularly like to hear about what you call "Backstory."

    AJK: Backstory is one of those patterns from physical communities. If you look at communities in the physical world that have sustained themselves for a long time, they always have an interesting backstory or history which is communicated to new members. The act of communicating it to new members becomes part of the ritual of membership, a community building act in and of itself.

    NJW:How do you do that online? How does it unfold?

    There are a number of pragmatic things you can do. One is to express the backstory through words and images right on the website, in the community and make it accessible to visitors. You can call it "our story," "how we got here," or it could be a subsection of "about us."

    Now not everybody is going to read the backstory. So you don't want to tell the whole backstory on the website. You want an additional "something interesting" for people to tell. You can encourage your more experienced members to tell the backstory, and you can make it part of the training program if you have any kind of greeter role.

    NJW:Tell me more about this "greeter" role.

    Let's say that you are going to set up a leadership infrastructure with roles, something larger communities tend to do and which I recommend to my clients. One role is what I would call the "greeter," someone who helps out new members. Sometimes its a person who hangs out and looks for new members. Sometimes it's someone who is assigned to a new member as his or her buddy for a few weeks. Maybe its somebody who is actually in a MUDD who "transports" to the new person, greets them and says, "hello, I see you're new here, let me show you around," -- a tour guide. Part of what you can do in real time is communicate the backstory or at least communicate bits of the backstory through the interaction that is taking place between the greeter and the newcomer. Train your greeters to do that. Make it part of the new member ritual. That can be very powerful.

    The other thing you can do is not give the backstory all away, but have more and more of it be available to members the longer they stay or as they take on new roles. For instance, someone decides to become a volunteer leader and start contributing to their community in an official way. There'll be some orientation process, possibly some training, ceremony or ritual, even if it is just receiving an email saying "now you're a leader. " During that time you can communicate more about the backstory. This is what Scientology does. Cults do this -- maybe you don't want to run a cult -- but they understand community building and how to get people more involved over time to drive repeat business. You can learn a lot from cults and religions. I love it when people quote me on this as it sums up a lot of my approach. "If you want to look for good ideas from the history of communities, look at religion because those guys are the champs of repeat business." They really are. Religion understands repeat business.

Online Community as a Business Tool

    NW: Clearly a lot of people are passionate and interested in online communities. You have even taught an online community course? Who is interested in it?

    AJK: I taught a course at Stanford made up of graduate students and some very advanced undergraduate students -- a really interesting group. There were some computer scientists, communications majors, especially in the Human Computer Interaction program, some biology students, people from the Design, Technology and Society program, and students from the department of education. I get inquiries about that course from people in different departments, all over the world. The course syllabus has been linked to many sites and is a model for an online community course.

    Community is evolving into something to be integrated into many disciplines. I think that because of the kind of calls I get from clients and educators. Business schools think that this is important, for instance. They look at my curriculum and say, yeah, that would be useful to our students.

    NW: Do some of those people in other disciplines want to call it something other than community?

    AJK: They might. They don't necessarily. Tell me about it.

    NW: When I use the word "community" with medical providers and scientists they withdraw into their shells. When I start talking about "comparing our data together" online, they come out. The different reactions in different fields are interesting -- some of the reactions to the word community, and the baggage that it brings along.

    AJK: What baggage do you think it brings?

    NW: Squishy feel-y.

    AJK: Absolutely. I've worked hard to move away from that in my consulting practice. There is a place for the touchy-feel-y. There have been a lot of high profile efforts for creating communities on the web that were very touchy-feel-y. That's great, for some purposes. But it is very important to differentiate between distance collaboration and community. Distance collaboration can occur, but that is not necessarily the same thing as community. That word community is so broad. It is important to define what you are talking about or to use a more specific word.

Community and Content

    NW: What has been your experience with the value of content and community, either content that community reacts to, or community-developed content?

    AJK: I don't think there is a global statement to make. There are some communities for whom extra content wouldn't necessarily make sense, particularly from a business model point of view. Content can be great if it reinforces the goals as a company and it is intimately tied-in with why people are coming to your community. If it's content just for the sake of content, it can muddy your clarity of purpose. When people come to a community, the first question that comes to them is "what is this place? What is this all about? Is it for me? How do I fit in here." The clearer that is, the better off you are.

    eBay is not a content-driven community. People are there to trade and to talk about trading. The people at eBay started to put up content about auctions on the site, but you can get that elsewhere. However content can be useful when it gives people something to talk about or articulates the community's purpose and can enhance the business model. For example, at eBay they put up content that points to specific auctions that people might not have been aware of.

    Now some sites like Salon and CNN are content driven. It is a very different equation. CNN is interesting in that they are also delivering access to celebrities. I cover that in my book . They have a very interesting online community and do a very good job reinforcing their brand. Content really needs to reinforce your brand. CNN's brand is "up to the minute, high quality, trustworthy, news." They run their community that way. They have a strong code of conduct, will filter posts on the board, and they don't apologize for it. They state their policy up front, which is good expectation management, and they focus on things that are up to the minute. Content needs to be reinforcing your brand and reinforcing your purpose or its not really going to work.

Walking the Talk

    NW: You participated on the Well for a long time. Do you also participate in other communities with other goals and purposes?

    AJK: Oh yes, lots of them. The Well is the one that I participated in for the longest time, and in the most sustained way. I would call that my "online home." I participate actively at iVillage, eBay , and Geocities. I participated at Third Age for a while. When I'm researching a community, I participate very actively so I can really understand what is going on,. I participated at Ultima Online for about six months. I tend to get pretty involved. Sometimes I stay involved and sometimes I move on purely because of time.

    So many of my perceptions have been shattered when I actively participate in a community. Its popular to say that Geocities does not have community going on. I believed that as well. But when I actually participated in Geocities, contrary to the popular "digerati" assumption, I found that there was a tremendous amount of community going on centered around the community leader program. It educated me. So that's my pledge --to not to just "think" about what's going on, but to find out what's really going on. And then trying to extract the design principals that cause things to happen, especially when they are positive.

Online Meets Offline

    NW: What are the effects of online community in our offline lives, or the intertwining -- what do you see there?

    I see it happening more and more. I think that there are two kinds of community which play very different roles in people's lives. I define one as "augmented reality" where you're "you," and you're there to integrate with your life -- deal with the issues in your life. For example, the Well or Electric Minds are good examples of places where people are fundamentally themselves. And then there are the fantasy communities that are about escaping from who you are and pretending to be someone else. You are taking on a role. There are many online communities where you (a member of the community) actually can't find out who someone is in "real life." Many game communities are like that and some of the people on AOL are like that. The gaming-oriented communities will affect you emotionally, but they won't tend to integrate into your life as the 'augmented reality' communities do.

    So much about augmenting reality is more about shaping your life, than say, going to see a movie. The augmented reality type of communities have become progressively more entwined in people's lives. There's movement towards regional subsets of communities so people can meet each other. In many cases, it is just another communications channel. The telephone is a communications channel that augments your life, so these communities are sort of like the telephone. Sometimes it creates gathering places for many people to come together, as do 900 numbers. Both of those trends will continue, and become much more integrated into people's lives as a way to hook up with people who share a common interest, shared purpose.

    The fantasy aspect of communities will become richer and more immersive. It will continue to be a place to escape to for entertainment. In that case, it may not integrate much with your life at all, but it will certainly affect your emotions. For example, there was one woman I interviewed who was a very active gamer. She became a leader of a clan. Online she played a very strong, warrior type person who led many other people, and a migrated her gaming family, her clan, from game to game. In the physical world, she is 33 years old with three kids, going to nursing school, and lives in a small rural town. The people in her nursing program don't necessarily know that online she is Charife, the bitch-goddess-warrior. But she feels strongly that the experiences she's had online have changed her. Resolving interpersonal problems in her clan, deciding when it was time to move them to a different "country," have affected her ability to be a leader in her real life, and was a reason she had the guts to go to nursing school in the first place. There is something in her life other than being a stay-at-home mom. So it's very real to her, but it doesn't necessarily integrate with her life. It affects her self-esteem, her emotions, and teaches her very real skills that translate into her life.

Parting Shots

    NW: Do you have any final thoughts on online community, Amy?

    AJK: Online communities are not fundamentally about technology. They are about creating environments for building relationships. And those environments have sustainable business models behind them.

    NW: Thanks!

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