John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace
This article dated January 1996, revised October 1998 (v1.5)

Making Virtual Communities Work

Entering a virtual community can be confusing for a new user. In his article "Nine Principles for Making Virtual Communities Work" (located on HotWired!), Mike Godwin ( suggests "it's a bit like being dropped in the middle of Manhattan without a map or a guide and trying to find a place you want to live." The nine principles he outlines for maximizing the possibility that a virtual community will survive are:

Use software that promotes good discussions
Don't impose a length limitation on postings
Front-load your system with talkative, diverse people
Let the users resolve their own disputes
Provide institutional memory
Promote continuity
Be host to a particular interest group
Provide places for children
Confront the users with a crisis

Godwin's suggestions seem to focus on the use of newsgroup style postings as a means to communicate, rather than chat areas or mailing lists. Some of his ideas do apply to real-time online discussion groups. However, other principles could be suggested that pertain specifically to chat groups and mailing lists. For example, some guidelines for chat groups might include:

- make it easy to locate other users when they are online

- make it easy to locate groups that are in progress

- provide the option for users to save discussions

- provide the option for private messages among users in a group, and consider the pros and cons of enabling users to know that others are communicating privately - as, during in-person meetings, when people whisper to each other

- provide public meeting areas as well as private rooms that users can create themselves and perhaps even "lock" the door to prevent uninvited intrusions (what, in group dynamics terms, amounts to maintaining group "boundaries")

- encourage continuity through ongoing (weekly, or even daily) groups - including both topical discussion groups and especially groups devoted to self-help, personal support, and discussions concerning the welfare and development of the online community

- encourage the forming of new ongoing groups and the communication among different groups, especially communication among the founders or "facilitators" of the groups.

- don't try to over-control the community with too many regulations or imposed structures. Give it some space to develop spontaneously into what it needs to be.

Drawing on her own experience as well as interviews with several pioneers in building online worlds, Amy Jo Kim concluded that there are nine basic principles for creating a community:
    1. Define the purpose of the community

I've highlighted principle #9 for a reason. I like to call this the "integration principle." For a community to be healthy and productive - for it to have "staying" power - its members must integrate their online lives with their in-person lives. What does that mean? On the simplest level, it means they talk about their online experiences with the people they know offline, which will give them a clearer understanding of those experiences - especially if the online world is an ambiguous text-only or fantasy/avatar environment, where it's very easy to misinterpret other people's moods and intentions. Without the reality testing offered by one's friends and family, it's too easy to loose perspective, act out, and find oneself in a hurtful rather than enjoyable situation. When that happens too often to many people, the community can be destroyed. "Integration" also means the members of a community contact each other offline, by telephone or meeting in-person. Face-to-face, they become familiar with each other's lives. Again, more reality testing and less acting out. As strong as online relationships can be, they are always made stronger when people meet in-person, when they commit to the intimacy of face-to-face encounters. While not everyone in the community can meet everyone else in-person, it is extremely helpful when there is a critical mass of people who have solidified their relationships offline. These people often become the stable, enduring core that hold the community together.

As a clinical psychologist who creates, facilitates, and consults to various online communities, I have my own Top Ten list of issues for understanding such communities. You can find that list in the article entitled "Maximizing the well-being of online groups."

See also in The Psychology of Cyberspace:

Maximizing the well-being of online groups: The clinical psychologist in virtual communities
Steps in studying an online group: The Geezer Brigade
Early history of an online community
Integrating online and offline living

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