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What types of virtual communities can I build and what tools are available?

By Sue Boettcher

The purpose of your community and the needs of the group will dictate what tools you use and kind of community you build.

Internet access, access costs, computer and browser types, geographic and time zone issues all affect the type of community you'll build. If you've got a group of people who all have high Internet connection costs, or who don't have web access, you might be best off using the email, email topic subscription features,and newsletters rather than expecting people to show up and spend (expensive) time in online in conferencing. If you have a geographically diverse group with international time zone disparities, it's hard to get them together for a chat very often, which requires that people show up at the same time and place.

In addition, you'll need to decide if you want a private or a public community. If you're discussing sensitive or private issues, as might be the case in an illness-support group, or a business workgroup, you may want to develop a private community. If you want to attract new and diverse members and ideas, you should choose a public community.

What Kinds of Communities Are There?

Types of Communities

People come together online for all kinds of reasons: (please note: many of these links no longer work. A testment to what happens in 3 years!)

Issues to Consider

You probably have a pretty good idea why you want to build a community and what sorts of visitors you have in mind. If you think about it, you can probably figure out what types of people would be most likely to visit, where they're likely to be located, and what kinds of equipment and internet connection they'll have. These are crucial issues to keep in mind as you decide what types of tools will work best to help your community members connect.

Here's a short checklist of issues to consider when you decide what tools will work best for you:

  • Will your users be visiting from home or from work?
    • Home users
      • Often slower connections
      • Maybe not state-of-the-art equipment
      • Don't have tech support available to them
    • Visitors coming from work
      • May have fast T-1 connections
      • Probably have newish computers and software
      • More likely to be Windows users
      • Tech support may be available
  • Will your users be in one time zone or not?
  • How many visitors are you anticipating?
  • Are there any physical limitations that your users share? (low vision, mobility restrictions, etc.)
  • How technologically savvy do you anticipate your users will be?
  • Will you need access to shared schedules, software like Microsoft Project, etc with which to collaborate?
  • Will most of your users speak the same language?

Public vs. Private Communities

Another decision you'll need to make is whether your community will be public or private. Will it be open to just anyone who happens by, or will it be be private, requiring some kind of application to be made or requirement to be met before access is granted? If it's private, who gets to decide who gets in, and what are the criteria?

Private communities are safer from disruptive individuals who can make life difficult for everyone. They're good places for business workgroups, for illness-support groups, and for families, as well as groups discussing sensitive or private subjects. But it may be difficult with private communities to get enough community members to create what's known as "critical mass" - where there are enough people participating for the community to take on a life of its own. Public communities generally have more potential for growth and diversity.


Tools and Their Roles

Community-building tools include email, newsgroups, chat, message boards. Here are some of the advantages and disadvantages of each type of tool.


An email list, sometimes called a Listserv, after the Listserv™ software which often used to run email lists, is a community tool which connects people via email messages. There is one central address to which everyone sends messages for the group, and from there the email is sent out to all subscribers. A person receiving the mail has the choice to respond either to the sender individually, or to the whole list. Digest forms are often available for people who prefer to get one or more longer emails with lots of messages in it rather than each individual post as it arrives. Email lists are sometimes moderated, meaning each post is approved by a moderator, or the list owner, before it is sent out.

Some web-based community-building systems include email tools to mail everyone in your group, as well as the ability to create sub-group mailing lists and send newsletters.

    • It's a "push" technology: you don't have to remember to go check it - it comes to your email box
    • It's inexpensive for people with high access costs - messages can be composed and read offline
    • You can reach virtually anyone who's online
    • Messages sometimes come out of order
    • Archiving is not always used. If a list's messages are archived they are sometimes difficult to retrieve
    • "Spammers" can send messages to the list and gather email addresses for advertising purposes
    • Often a talkative group can quickly produce a daunting number of messages

Other Roles for Email:

Some community software has a feature called "topic subscription" which allows people to participate in conferencing via email. They receive the posts in their mailbox rather than signing onto a website. You might suggest to users with expensive online costs that they subscribe and participate in that way.

Email can also be used as an adjunct to your other community tools. You can send newsletters to keep in touch with those who don't visit your community regularly. A newsletter can help you keep these people in touch with what's new, reminding them that your community is there when it arrives in their mailbox. Remember, though, that your newsletter list should always be opt-in - in other words, don't spam people who don't want it.

Email is also a good tool for you, as host, to keep in touch with members individually. Sometimes you need to say something to someone that it isn't appropriate to say in a public space. A good host can encourage lurkers, show appreciation to core members, and defuse trouble - all with the judicious use of private email.



Newsgroups are like a cross between public message boards and an email list. You have to subscribe to a newsgroup, and sometimes only subscribers can post a message. They are usually not moderated, and it's not unusual for newsgroups to get quite contentious. There are long-established netiquette rules about how to behave in a newsgroup.

To read newsgroup messages, you need a newsgroup reader. Often these come with your browser (like Netscape Messenger) or your email software (Microsoft Outlook). You subscribe to the newsgroup, download the "headers," or title lines, and then you can read as many or as few of the actual messages as you choose.

DejaNews is a searchable archive of thousands of different newsgroups. If you want a flavor of newsgroup life, take a look there. http://www.dejanews.com

The advantages and disadvantages are similar to email, with two differences:

Newsgroups are not "push" technology - you still have to remember to go check them. And with news readers, you can download just the titles ("headers") of messages and avoid downloading the entire message if, based on the title, you don't want to read it.



Chat is simultaneous communication by people who are online at the same time and typing messages to each other. Chat can be done in public rooms, open to anyone, or private rooms where only those of the community can enter. Chat is usually, but not always, a many-to-many communication mode - in other words, there are a group of people in a room at once, conversing. It can also be used for one-to-one meetings, brainstorm sessions and other work-oriented applications. So don't think of it as just a casual social tool.

It's also possible online to use software to send "live" or "instant" messages to one particular user. This is a one-to-one communication. On some systems you can use built-in "live message" features to do this.

    • Good for meetings where you want to come to a conclusion with everyone there
    • Can have a real-time discussion
    • Can have a guest speaker to answer questions
    • Can log the transcript to be posted later
    • Difficult to schedule a time if you have users around the globe
    • Sometimes inexperienced chatters have difficulty keeping up with the pace
    • On the web, sometimes access issues make it difficult to build a room which will accommodate everyone (Java is often used to power chat rooms, and some operating systems and browsers have difficulty with Java.)

Some online community system's chat is based on IRC, which allows more or less universal access, in case the person's computer is unable to use the usual Java interface.

Message Boards/Conferencing:

Message board software online is much like a message board in an office or school: you post a message on the board and come back an hour, a day, or a week later to see if anyone has responded to it. Therefore, message board communication is asynchronous - all participants don't have to be online at the same time. Message boards are also sometimes called "forums" or "conferencing."

There are two ways to organize messages in a message board system: threaded and linear. Some software allows you to choose which way you want to present the material.

  • Threaded:

    With a threaded system, messages are arranged into "threads," or topics. A message will be attached to the message to which it's replying, whether or not it appears in chronological order. Often you'll see only one message per HTML page.

    Advantages of threaded boards:

      • Good for technical information where people need to be able to find answers to a particular question easily
      • Keeps topics neatly organized

    Disadvantages of threaded boards:

      • Sometimes is more organized than people are - i.e. difficult to hold a conversation because real conversations drift.... if the drift creates a new topic, you'll lose track of where it went because it's categorized under the thread from which it originated.
      • Less conducive to social communities
      • Often have to load a new HTML page to see the next message
  • Linear:

    With a linear system, each post in a given topic arrives in chronological order. The result is more like a real conversation. Often with a linear system you can read more than one post per HTML page, which speeds things up when you're reading. Linear message boards are sometimes called "Conferencing,".

Advantages of linear boards:

    • Great for social conversation and in-depth discussion of important issues
    • More conducive to displaying conversation the way people really talk
    • Often can see a number of messages on one HTML page
Disadvantages of linear boards:
    • Difficult to come to some kind of resolution or conclusion
    • Hard to find specific information again if you want or need to later
For a listing of current conferencing software, check out David Wooley's Think of It site.


What will I need to support my community?

Once you have your community goals worked out, your users in mind, and your tools selected, you have a good foundation for community building. But there's more:

Administrative Tools:

Any community needs host tools. Common host tools are broken into two basic categories: content management and user management.

Content management:
You'll need a way to get rid of dormant topics, add new topics, assign host tools to others, log the chats if you use them. You'll sometimes have the ability to edit or hide or delete the posts of your members, or to move those posts to a more appropriate area. Host tools allow you to do all this, and sometimes more.
User management:
Users sometimes do things you wish they hadn't. Occasionally it's necessary for you as a host to step in and revoke the privileges of that user to post. Or to moderate their posts - meaning that you will review what they have to say before it's made public. Sometimes in a chat situation someone needs to be removed forcibly from a room and kept out. Sometimes you'll need to remove someone permanently from your community.
Even if you never need to use your user management tools, you need to have them there.

Trying to run a community without host tools is a little like driving without car insurance.


Facilitation skills

You'll need some experience and training in how to host or facilitate. This includes some familiarity with your host tools, but mostly involves an experiential knowledge of how online community works and how best to deal with disruptions. You, by virtue of your host role, will be seen by a cop by some, a mom or dad by others, and a regular user by almost no one. Try to keep things in perspective by remembering that any flak you get is not personal.

Beyond the "big brother/sister" issues, it's important to know how to facilitate conversation: when to ask leading questions, when to email people privately, when to post publicly, and when to say nothing and let conversation flow.



One of the things that keeps people coming back to communities is good, fresh content. In one way, your users are generating their own content by continuing their conversations in your community space, but it sometimes helps to be able to provide other content to them. This can be in the form of links to other appropriate, interesting sites, articles written by you or other community members, or discussion-starter posts from you which help to jump-start a conversation about some hot topic or vital issue.


Publicity :

"If you build it, they will come." Well, on the web, that's not exactly true. Publicity and marketing are crucial to your community's success. If no one knows about it, no one will show up. Depending on your community's goals, you may find that one or all of these techniques are what you need to draw traffic:

  • banner ads,
  • advertising in your email signoff signature
  • posting on appropriate newsgroups or in other communities,
  • news releases,
  • notices or links on your home page
  • registering with the forum directory at Forum One
  • networking among those you know who would be interested,
  • print advertising,
  • business cards, or
  • other techniques

One of the very best sites with ideas about promotion is Virtual Promote.

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