Posted by: lindapemik | November 29, 2010

Online communities are people first

Why don’t people post comments?

Our Nunavut Arctic College community blog is in its second week of life and still no comments,  people are however emailing me about the blog and making private comments.  Interesting.

Reminds me of Angela Byrnes‘ blog post last week. She wrote  in reference to a lack of comments on her class blogs :  “I am finding this a little discouraging.  I know that parents are reading the blogs because in informal conversations they have brought them up and talked about them, but they are not commenting.”

Although Angela is not setting out to build an online community her experience with a lack of response triggered me to reflect on the bigger challenge of how to encourage participation in online communities.   Alec Couros did try to prepare me for the no-comment scenario so I was not surprised but I was still disappointed.  I suppose that there are many reasons why people don’t leave comments to blogs or why building online communities is so challenging.

Sometimes a lack of response can be chalked up to people’s discomfort in the online world–they don’t know how to post, how to write for the online environment, or they don’t understand the protocols or etiquette of this foreign environment, or they fear that their comments will appear foolish or irrelevant.  I think back to the beginning of this course and my own confusion and fears about blogging and commenting on my classmates blogs.  I was afraid that I had nothing worthwhile to say and  that I could not make a valuable contribution to the learning of others in the eci831 community.   If I wrote something stupid–the whole world could see it. I am no longer fearful nor reluctant to blog and comment on others blogs.  What caused the shift?

Some of the factors were:  familiarity with the environment, developing a higher skill level in ICT, reading other educators’ blogs and their comments, discovering the power and excitement found in self-determined learning that lead to relevancy and authenticity in my learning, discovering that when I felt passionately about something, I did have something worthwhile to say, and that others found it interesting and noteworthy (recognition and influence).  As time passed I also began connecting on a more personal and private level with some of my classmates which also encouraged me to share more. (feeling like I was a welcome member in our eci831 community).

How do you encourage participation in an online community?  How do you create community?  Is it possible to design for commitment in community?  These are common questions in the online community world.

In their paper, Encouraging Contribution in Online Communities, Kraut and Resnick, describe a number of strategies for building online communities based on findings derived from research in the social sciences.  They write, “To be successful, online communities need the people who participate in them to contribute the resources on which the group’s existence is built… We use theories from psychology and economics to identify techniques that can increase resource contributions from members, and also to identify common ways to go wrong.”

From a less academic perspective but equally as informative, Rich Millington, author of Online Community Manifesto, has lots of practical advice about starting and maintaining online communities.  Underlying much of his advice is the absolute necessity to focus on people and relationships and to not simply convey information. He writes that the three things people want most out of an online community are:

1) Recognition amongst peers.

Help members think they can get increasing levels of recognition from those they consider their peers. This is by far the biggest motivator for anyone in any online community. The more you can create an environment that highlights contributions from members, the more successful your community will be.

2) Influence within the community.

People want to know what they did has made an impact. If you kick a ball and it doesn’t move, you don’t kick the ball anymore. You have to demonstrate the impact they can make. You have to give them increasing levels of power and influence to have this impact.

3) Sense of community.

This is about trust and feeling secure to express yourself within a group you know feels similar things to you. This is about finding the people like you, having inside jokes, self-disclosing information and being rewarded with a layer of emotional safety. This is achieved by attracting the right members, ensuring high levels of interactions, real-time meetings and soliciting self-disclosure.

My research, dialogues with my online community and reflection on my own experiences in online communities tell me that successful online communities don’t just happen and that they are first and foremost about people. photo by Mike Shouldice, Rankin Inlet



  1. An excellent post, Linda. Don’t be discouraged by the lack of comments on your college community blog. It is still in its infancy and people are likely in the early stages of familiarity with this new landscape.

    I appreciate that you reflect on your own learning experience in our eci831 class as, like you, it has taken me some time to become comfortable posting on other people’s blogs. I still don’t post anywhere near as much as I read. I find it takes me a while to process what the blogger is saying. Also, I often must engage in additional research to better understand concepts before feeling I have anything of value to contribute.

    You mention that you are getting some private emails and are having some informal conversations with individuals about blogposts. This speaks volumes!

    • Thaks for the comments Vanessa, I am beginning to recognize that blogs are only one of the communication tools in our toolbox that we can use to encourage dialogue and the sharing of knowledge. As you pointed out it often takes time to craft a meaningful response to a blog post and I too have difficulty sometimes imagining how my comments will contribute to the learning of others. I think that I need to gain more experience with blogging to develop a better understanding of how to support continuing dialogue. Which leads me to wonder how my blog writing might change if I focused more on encouraging dialogue as opposed to sharing information. Always hard for mem to step out of the “wise woman” role! 🙂

  2. I think you are asking all the right questions, and your perception that ‘people’ are the most important in communities is dead-on.

    I am hoping that others will help here. As I’ve mentioned to you before, it’s easy to setup a blog/Ning/wiki etc., but very difficult to get people to participate. In some cases, it may because there are so many spaces and so little time. However, I reckon it’s more about a culture shift. In fact, many of your observations about why people don’t comment are accurate.

    I can’t tell you what it’s going to take exactly, but I know that conversations will be part of it. Your colleagues wouldn’t have had this experience (being part of this class), so there will definitely be a gap in what you know about the tech. and the potential of online communities. However, I am sure they have lots to say and contribute. So, I guess, how do you help them feel that your space is an important one – that they should have some vested interest? And, how can you help them feel safe and confident about commenting or contributing?

    I wish you luck with this initiative – and I’ll definitely be helping you after this course to help get this going.

    Thanks for your post.

    • I was singing the Hallelujah Chorus this morning when I checked the community blog and saw 2 comments!
      Thanks for your encouragement and offer of continuing support.

  3. Several years ago, when we first founded the Program for Online Teaching, we set up a forum at the website (it was inside Moodle). Not enough people logged in, but they emailed me with many questions. The forum didn’t take off at all.

    I set up a listserv and invited everyone, all the faculty teaching online. About 25 people signed up, but no one responded to my prompts or started any conversations.

    We opened a forum just for Moodle users, since the school had no Moodle support and I had tired of answering individual questions by email. About once a month, a faculty member using Moodle has a question. I usually answer it. Not a community either.

    Then a couple of years ago we shifted things. I decided that having to log in to ours site was burdensome, and moved the project web page to a WordPress blog open to everyone. I tried putting a forum in there, but still no one participated.

    Ultimately, the program grew and we decided we had enough on-campus workshops and interested faculty facilitators that we could offer our own certificate. We didn’t just want participants taking workshops, though — we wanted them comfortable and working in the online environment, even though we had few workshops offered synchronously online.

    We decided to require weekly blogging for the certificate, the first semester following a list of areas to explore each week (basic online pedagogy, RSS, videos, slideshows, community, etc). The second semester faculty would have to post on how they were applying the ideas, and help each other out. It’s all volunteer anyway, which set the tone.

    People were uncertain at first, but they were required to post, so they did. I modeled, gently, in my own posts. They started replying to each other, commenting on their work, helping each other. It’s a community now, after one year.

    I’m not saying you need to require things, but it might be helpful to start off as a project of some kind. I know that the “informal” community idea, as noted by Rick Schwier, has a particular cycle. But to get it started, I think there’s a stage between formal and informal that you might want to consider.

    • Thanks for sharing the “history” of your online community building at MiraCosta with me Lisa. Very informative, and I think that you are right about there being a stage between formal and informal group development of online communities. Food for more thought here about what that inbetween stage looks like. I have visited your POT site and think that we could learn a lot from from your experiences, so I put a link to your PD website in our 20/20 Vision blog hoping that our staff would get some ideas from your group! I think I also need to be more deliberate in developing shared leadership of our community..I have a tendency to pull people along when I should back off or at least push from behind!

  4. What great thoughts linda! Like Vanessa, I find that I need time internalizing the thoughts and ideas of others before I can make a contribution. I have always struggled with finding the right answer or being able to say the right thing when posting! I think it’s probably my fear of reaching out and people taking notice of what I have to say. I have been pushing myself in this class to reach out and share thoughts and ideas and it has been quite pleasant so far!! Thanks for sharing this Linda! 🙂

    • Hi Shalini, good to hear from you. So often I hestitate to comment out of a fear of appearing uninformed; and for me there is always a question in the back of my mind about posting…am I really being helpful by posting or am I like the conversationalist who talks a lot because they like to hear their own voice! Or by the time I have thought about the post and formed what I think is a useful opinion–weeks may have passed, and the discussion has moved off in a different direction!

  5. Hi Linda,

    You, like some of the commenters on my blog, have given me more to think about.

    When I talked to my parents about commenting, many of them said that they hadn’t realized it was that easy to comment, and they hadn’t realized that the students would want them to comment. One parent even commented about being a little intimidated but the comments from others. The first, I had a pretty good idea about. I knew that many of my parents didn’t have strong tech skills and that would be a barrier to work on. However, the second and third had never crossed my mind. I guess because I hear the students talk about their parents and home-life every day, to me it was obvious that they wanted comments from their parents. I also never thought of intimidation, which is silly because at the start of this course, that is exactly how I felt, intimidated.

    I came across this resource, Cultivating your Online Community and I thought I would pass it along. I am not sure if it will help you, but hopefully it can.

    I’m glad that although our final projects are different, we do have some similarities. That way, we can learn together! Thanks for your post and the questions you have asked. I look forward to reading the responses you get from our network.

    • Hi Angela, I’m curious to know if your efforts during the parent-teacher meetings will increase parents comments. and thanks for the link to Laura’s slides on community building..the whole presentation was thought provoking but a couple of her points have stuck in my mind–“why will they want to do it” meaning participate in an online community, of course! and give people small simple tasks–ie deliberately invite people to do something online and the last one kind of hurts but only because it hits too clsoe to home…”don’t sound like a know-it-all” lol.

  6. This looks very interesting


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