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Case History: A Community of Purpose - John Aravosism of Wired Strategies

By Nancy White

John Aravosis is president of Wired Strategies, a Washington, DC-based political Internet consulting firm that helps non-profit, government and corporate clients use the Internet for advocacy, community-building, and public relations.

John Aravosis of Wired Strategies, shared his experience of building an online community on the OrgWeb listserv. Here is his story:

"I had quite a surprising experience lately with one that worked fabulously. I say "surprising" because up until now I had always poo-pooed bulletin boards as simply being chaotic locales where people either mouth off to the extreme, or don't use them at all. Well, this board was different."

"It was a bulletin board that I set up surrounding the Matthew Shepard assault/murder (the gay college student murdered in Wyoming in October 1998) - the board can be found at <www.wiredstrategies.com/wwwboard>. The board was intended to be a place for folks to share their feelings about the attack, and grieve. It was frankly an afterthought, added on to a much larger Shepard site I built containing factual information on the case."

" Almost immediately, the bulletin board became wildly popular. In a period of less than 2 weeks, it got 40,000 hits. Initially, the board was a place to grieve, share news etc., then within about a day, folks started using the board to plan candlelight vigils in Matt's memory (post vigil info, ask anyone if they knew of a vigil taking place nearby, etc.) By day 3 or 4 of the board's existence, I asked people to dedicate it solely to vigil planning, and that's what it was used for, by groups as far away as Australia, for the next 12 days or so. Around 70 vigils were planned/coordinated/announced via the board. A number of folks emailed me that the board was how they found out about their own local vigils."

"Since that time, the board has continued to get up to 2000 hits a day, with about 10-100 daily messages. (Hits went up during the trial of Matt's murderers. . I suspect that interest will again increase this August during the second trial. ) The board has been used to form a virtual nonprofit, help students around the world get information to write papers on hate crimes and homophobia, and help individuals who are just "coming out" to find friends and a sympathetic voice."

"An interesting aside: when I recently considered shutting the board down for good after it was over-run by several thousand unruly wrestling fans, writing hateful anti-gay and anti-Shepard messages. I had an immediate outpouring of pleas from the board regulars to keep it open, but even more interesting, a number of "lurkers" who never posted but visited often to read the other posts, added their two cents that the board was a valuable resource to them. You can read about the attack on the board in a recent San Jose Mercury News story: <http://www.mercurycenter.com/archives/reprints/time121898.htm>.

"Suffice it to say that I was quite astounded to find that bulletin boards can actually work to help bring together, create, foster and organize a community."

When asked why he thought his efforts were successful, John noted that the galvanizing effect of the event was an important element along with the fact that no one else had created a similar service. He took the time to monitor the community and deal with both the needs of the community members, and those wishing to disrupt. He also credited the content site as an attractor that helped draw people to the community.

As the community has matured and the trigger event grows farther in the past, John has had to confront new questions about the future of the community. Internal bickering became an issue, and along with those intent on destroying the site through hacking, have caused him to question if this community is coming to a natural end. As he said in his January 1999 post "I guess you can't predict how your children will mature."

When last we contacted John in May, he said, "Overall, the site is still alive and well, though a tad less busy - and that's cool. My intent was to create something useful for a specific event. If the need has passed, I'll simply maintain the site as a resource/memorial. Interestingly, I have had a number of high school and college students email me that they've found the site a useful resource for essays and articles they've been writing on hate crimes. And for me, something like that is perhaps even more important in terms of impact than the number of daily hits."

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