Google Groups as Community Platform?

Google Groups

I mentioned Ning a few posts ago, and in the comments Steve Dale pondered whether it could be used to power a virtual community of practice – ie, would it work as a knowledge sharing and collaboration tool?

I thought not, largely because while Ning makes sharing photos and videos a dream, making other material available is trickier, if not impossible. The idea, though, that a free hosted solution is an intriguing one, not least in terms of the ease and speed in which they can be set up.

So, I’ve been playing around with Google Groups, which is something I have wanted to do since a raft of new features were added relatively recently. I think it’s now possible to use Groups as a sophisticated collaboration platform, and one which will see some real improvements in the (hopefully) near future.

So, what does Groups do? It’s core feature is as a discussion medium, which runs in parallel on the web and through email, depending on how each user prefers it. This is a super way of doing things, allowing information to reach people within the community in the format that they want it.

Membership can be made public, so anyone can join; moderated, so those who request to join have to be given the go ahead by an administrator; or invite only, which speaks for itself.

You can create web pages now, which are accessible on your group’s homepage. These are edited using a stripped down version of Google’s Page Creator tool, which is nice and easy to use. What’s interesting is that permissions can be set to allow any member to create and edit pages which when combined with the excellent version controlling, which allow you to roll back to a previous version of a page, effectively turns these pages into individual wikis.

It’s also possible to upload any kind of document to the group, which is a nice way of sharing information. However, Google misses a trick here, because the documents, whether word processed or spreadsheet based, can’t be automatically edited with Google Docs. This would turn an interesting feature into a world beating one for me.

The handling of other media could also be better. For example, images are dealt with just like other documents. It would be helpful to have separate sections for different types of media: photos, audio, video. Maybe the photos could work with Picasa Web Albums, audio could use the inbuilt mp3 player used in Gmail and Reader, and video could surely be embedded directly from either Google Video or YouTube.

But for the basics, communicating and sharing information, Google Groups is a really strong contender, given how easy it is to use, the fact that it is free and that there will surely be some very interesting developments to the platform in the near future.

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