As usual, good comments on my last post that you should read.
Anca picked up on my last point that one might be able to design the direction a community takes by designing the media interaction spaces for that community. But before trying to design something, I think it’s useful to observe my current and former communities and see how their media usage influenced their structure and interaction.
Media spaces: Email lists, real world gatherings
Comments: TEP’s been using a couple email lists since before I was a freshman, and those email lists provide a level of background connection to the greater TEP community of alumni and friends of the house. As an alum who doesn’t live in Boston, I often only know the undergrads that post to the mailing lists – the others are invisible to me until I go visit. The TEP community is also obviously supplemented by regular gatherings. It’s unclear whether the mailing lists would be able to bind the community together if our community was not based in a living group so that many of us lived together at one point or another.
Media spaces: Email list, real world, wiki
Comments: The main interaction space of the nextNY community is the email list, but Nate Westheimer observes that nextNY is valuable as a social network because it spawns real world interactions. Charlie points out in a comment that the email list functions effectively because the community feels a sense of ownership in the list, and I don’t think that community ownership would exist without the regular reinforcement of actually meeting other people on the nextNY list, as people aren’t “real” when you only know them online.
Community: Ultimate frisbee games
Media spaces: Real world, sometimes email
Comments: Playing ultimate frisbee, both here in New York and back in San Francisco, is primarily centered on the real world interaction of, well, playing frisbee. We use email lists, but primarily for the purpose of organizing when people are going to be playing frisbee (somebody’s been posting about non-frisbee stuff to the NYC ultimate list and getting flamed for it). It’s interesting because the community is so focused on playing frisbee that I have spent hours in people’s company without learning their last name or where they work – I only know which throws they prefer and what routes they run on the field. I had similar experiences with singing in the chorus or playing volleyball in grad school.
Media spaces: Usenet
Comments: I spent a couple years posting on alt.tv.buffy-v-slayer – I even co-wrote the first FAQ for the group. Because the community had a tight focus like ultimate frisbee, I learned how other atbvs posters thought without knowing anything about their lives. Because the interaction was purely electronic, I had no idea what these people looked like or did for a living, but we could still have endless discussions about the characters and writing on the show.
This list makes clear that communities with a tight focus can function as single purpose communities. I have several “ultimate friends” who I know nothing about other than I like hanging out with them on the field. A friend of mine used the phrase “party friend” yesterday to indicate somebody they liked hanging out with but wouldn’t depend on if they needed help. I guess that’s a reminder that friendships and social connections don’t have to be all-encompassing – one can interact happily in a limited domain without ever desiring to expand the interaction beyond that domain.
The other thing about the list is that it reinforces Nate Westheimer’s point that social software needs to “affect my offline life”. My strongest communities are the ones which either grew out of or are augmented by real life interactions. Purely online community interactions seem more fragile – when I dropped out of alt.tv.buffy-v-slayer or out of playing MUDs, nobody reached out to me and asked where I’d gone.
I’m curious what other people’s communities look like and how you think the media used to communicate affects the interactions of those communities. I don’t know if we can come up with any sort of general observations, but I think it’d be interesting nevertheless. I’d be particularly interested about experiences with wikis, as I’ve never been part of a community that used one effectively – is anybody out there a Wikipedian?