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Defining the Purpose of Your Community

Updated 10/02

By Nancy White

"The great and glorious masterpiece of man is to know how to live to purpose."

-- Montaigne

"Thinking well is wise.
Planning well is wiser.
Doing well is wisest and best of all."

- Persian Proverb

Why interact online? Are there alternatives? What do you want to accomplish with your online interaction space? Is it motivating or important enough so that people will overcome time and technical barriers to participate? How will participating in the space benefit them? How have these participants participated in determining purpose and goals? How do you know when you have succeeded?

These are some of the questions to ask before you create your online interaction space. By having a clear purpose that makes sense to you, the space owner, and the members, you can give yourself a head start in designing and running a successful online interaction space or community.

Why Purpose?

The purpose of your interaction space helps you decide both its structure (what tools to use, how to apply them), and what resources (time, information, and expertise) you will need to support and facilitate it. It helps define the boundaries and scope of your work. To help you articulate and clarify your purpose, you may wish to use the "Purpose Checklist".

Purpose helps you articulate your community "backstory" (how it came to be, sometimes a "creation myth!") which helps attract and draw members in. It sustains interaction. Without purpose, you will have an online ghost town.

Most online interaction spaces have at a general level some common focus around discussions, tasks or connections between members. Some have a much more specific focus. But there may also be other elements, which require different tools and design. (In Conference and Topic Structures we'll talk specifically about how you use the starting point of purpose for conference structure.) These different purposes require different tools, facilitation and online interaction space design. Online interaction spaces and communities have been successfully set up to meet purposes such as: Consider:

  • "Gathering" places where people converse, meet, get to know each other. Examples range from small spaces for families to large spaces for a wider public.
  • Discussing topics such as books, current events, news, global warming, chocolate.
  • Socializing - informal connection places.
  • Planning and organizing (community groups, scout groups, sports teams)
  • Teambuilding - strengthening group relationships.
  • Relationship building - finding interesting people and getting to know them.
  • Work spaces for group meetings, interactions etc.
  • Learning spaces (all online or in combination with face-to-face learning, group or individual)
  • Information sharing- a place to share files and ideas.
  • Game playing - just having fun!

Examples of Community Purposes:

Here are some other general examples that help elicit why purpose drives design and facilitation. As you consider them, think about what facilitation needs they each have. Are they similar? Different? How?

Community of Interest

A quilter in Iowa wants to run an online community for twenty quilters spread across 10 states. The purpose of this community is to converse about quilts, share pictures of quilts and discuss how the quilts are made. Members want to share pictures of their quilts, designs, and other graphic elements. They need a tool to easily upload their pictures on a shared web site where they can be easily viewed and discussed by the group.

Group Coordination & Information Sharing

A large city community soccer league wants an online space to coordinate game schedules, post scores and have friendly discussions about soccer. They want the site viewable to the public so new team members can easily join and the community at large can have access to the game schedules and scores. The league members would like a private discussion space to talk about their passion, soccer. They need a calendar for updating playing schedules, a web page to track statistics and game highlights, and an email system, as some of their members want an email address they can access at work or home to be alerted to schedule changes. This group relies on access to information.

Project Management

A group of students want to use an online space to coordinate a school project. They want to use the Internet to post drafts of project materials, schedule chat interviews with experts in remote locations, discuss the project as it evolves and goof off a little on the side. This private, short-term group needs discussion space, a chat feature that allows members to save a transcript, web space and email.

Learning or "E-Learning"

A teacher wants to add an online component to her face-to-face large lecture class to have students engage in small group discussions over key concepts from the class. She also wants her students to have the opportunity to engage in conversation with her, something that cannot happen in a large lecture class. She sets up an online discussion area and assigns her students into smaller discussion groups, then spends one week interacting with each sub group over the course of the semester. Summaries of the small group discussions are used to evaluate the success of the groups and each group reports to the full class at the end of the semester on what they learned.

Supporting a Distributed Community of Practice

A group of HIV/AIDS educators from around the world seek to share experiences and practices of brining HIV/AIDS prevention to rural communities. They work, mostly alone and in isolation. So when they come into a larger town and can hit the internet cafe, they log into their combo web discussion space/email list to get support, ideas and materials.

Conversation "Virtual Community"

A well know online interaction space is the "virtual community" -- a conversation or social community. These are groups of people who enjoy having conversations and meeting new people. This is a very broad and potentially diverse community. What do they need? The ability to organize their community so that people can navigate to very different areas. Conferences that can hold a wealth of topics, alternatives between linear and threaded formats, chat, email, web pages. But more than that, there needs to be more emphasis on community hosting tools: can members start their own topics, can people who break community guidelines be banned, can the host track participation information? These become central issues because of the purpose and the potential size of the community. (Example: Salon.com's TableTalk).

Purpose Checklist

Here is a list of questions to help you define your community purpose. Not all will apply in every situation but they will give you a start. To print the checklist, please click here and you will be taken to a page with just this checklist.

What is the desired outcome for the group? What is the INTENT?
  • Does it have a mission or a vision that you can communicate to potential members?
  • Are the benefits measurable and visible to members and potential members?
  • Is the outcome determined by the organizer? Group members? Both?
  • If the group is part of a larger organization, is it consistent with organizational goals and culture?
  • Is the group's purpose something that can only be done/accomplished online? Will it replace something offline? Or is it some combination?

Target Audience
What kinds of participants (target audience) do you want to draw in or need to participate?

  • How would you describe them?
  • How motivated are your participants to participate? What is "in it for them?"
  • Do they have adequate computer equipment and Internet access to have a satisfactory experience on your system? Do you tell them the minimum requirements up front?
  • Do you want your community to be public or private? If private, what determines eligibility?
  • What is the ideal size for your group? Is there a limit to how many members can participate? Do you have a sense of how your community can expand if there is greater interest?
  • Where might you find potential participants?
  • How might you communicate with your participants to market your online interaction space? (Remember: If you build it, they may not come!)
  • Are you building from an existing pool of participants? Or drawing in new people?

Type of Member Interactions
What kinds of discussions/interactions do you want to foster?

  • Are they more like ongoing discussions or question & answer?
  • Are they focused or wide-ranging?
  • Are they started by you or by the members?
  • Are they intellectual? Social? Sensitive? Controversial?
  • Are they focused around information such as documents or other static content?
  • Will they generate content/knowledge that needs to be captured?
  • Do they need synchronous (same time) and/or asynchronous (different time) interactions?

Time Frame
How long do you want the online interaction to last?

  • Are there specific timelines or a project to be accomplished?
  • Is it an ongoing online interaction space for conversation?
  • Is it time delimited?

Guidelines, Rules and Governance
What kind of rules or governance do you want for your online interaction space?

  • Will there be strong and defined rules, or more general and/or casual guidelines?
  • How will you communicate this to your members?
  • Will there be problem resolution processes? How will you share that process?
  • Do members have to agree to a "Terms of Service" or other form of agreement before becoming members?

Who makes decisions in the community about the online interaction space?

  • The online interaction space owner?
  • The members?
  • Both?
  • How?

Who will host or facilitate in your online interaction space?

  • If not you, how will the hosts/facilitators be trained?
  • What will be their responsibilities?
  • How will they be supported and/or compensated?

Matching Purpose With Tools

In Conference and Topic Structures there is detailed information about the various tools that can be used in a virtual community. With many of the online community building tools, you have a range of free tools at your disposal. Here are some ideas of how each tool might be used, depending on the purpose of your community.

How Other Hosts Have Approached Purpose and Community Design



10 tips for building online communities

Building online communities

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