Creating Communities

Warning: mildly incoherent rambling ahead…

I’ve been giving a lot of thought recently to what the best way of creating online communities are. This is partly Simon Dickson’s fault.

Back in March, Simon wrote, in a post titled “Because you can’t do bettr than Flickr”:

I’ve just started work with a local community group keen to build a civic website. I’m looking at open source CMS solutions like Drupal as the base system… but I must admit, I’m wondering if the best idea isn’t simply to aggregate stuff from elsewhere…

Take the example of photo sharing… you won’t find a better website than Flickr. So why not just create a group, and let the members feed into it. Let Flickr take all the pain of hosting, user access rights, etc etc – not to mention the expense. That’s why they’re there. Meanwhile, you just consume the various RSS feeds (or whatever) back at base.

The more I consider it, I think this use of best-of-breed web services to add content to a community is the best way of doing things. The problem is with what you use as the ‘base’.

For example, VodPod is a great way of aggregating community chosen video content in one place. It also provides neat tools to display the content through the use of embedded widgets, which work within blog sidebars or within the bounds of a static web page.

It’s easy enough to create Flickr groups, or even just use tags, and use the RSS feed to republish the content and provide links back to source, as Simon points out.

But how to assemble it all in one place? You could have a central blog, which the community members contribute to – but then that kind of goes against the spirit of the enterprise. What would be better would be that members author their own blog posts, and choose in some way whether or not they make it to the community or not. WordPress blogs could manage this as it can produce feeds for individual tags, for example. Another option might be to use a specific de.icio.us tag and pull in headlines from that feed.

So, what about the base system? Drupal could do it, but it’s complicated! You could hack together a batch of pages using MagpieRSS, for example, but it would be a lot of work to get something looking professional.

One option would be to use WordPress and the FeedWordPress plugin to aggreagte blog content to fill the main page, with other media content in the sidebars. But there is a problem with this approach, which is that the RSS feed won’t include this supplementary media!

Perhaps something could be done with Yahoo!’s Tubes system, but I have to admit to not entirely understanding that.

Does anyone have any ideas on how various social sites could be pulled together successfully?

7 thoughts on “Creating Communities”

  1. That’s a good idea, David, hadn’t thought of that. Of course, by using one service over another, you are forcing people onto that platform.

    I guess the basis of my idea is to have a community where people have to do as little as possible to contribute or just to view. But is there even a need for such a thing?

  2. I’ve been giving this subject some thought myself actually. I’m sticking a lot of things in a lot of different places, but I don’t really have an easy way to bring it all together for people like my mum. The ‘custom home page’ services like Netvibes (etc) can do something close… but it’s very much secondary to their main purpose, and it doesn’t give the kind of personal touch I think I’d be looking for. There’s probably a great business opportunity in this.

  3. all good thoughts Dave, and I think you’re onto something many of us are considering (and DavidW and I were discussing just last week) – central community sites you have to log in to are facing an increasing risk of non-attendance because people simply don’t want to be tied into one central space; ideas that they have may well be relevant to one or more communities, may well be better presented on people’s own blogs (it’s their idea, why can’t they publish it?) etc.

    Working with http://www.cilip.org.uk on their online communities project is very interesting – there are clearly defined membership boundaries within which organisational issues need to be discussed – and some CoPs which are better off private, but from an originally formal and private CoP approach (out of neccesity), we are increasingly opening up the access to the communities, by seeing the platform as not a bunch of technical doohickeys, but as a sliding scale of access related to membership, guest etc. For example we offer blogs to members, and these can be public or private; whatever they want. Likewise we have begun aggregating members’ blogs from outside and re-publishing them in the member space, providing everyone with an ‘editor’s view’ if you like – this offers members on the platform an idea of what is going on outside, and those bloggers a chance to feel that their work is being appreciated.. this will grow into something more substantial in the future, but we’re just at the beginning.

    As a quick experiment in distributed community engagement (if you like), I did this site with some friends in Bristol to show our support for our local music festival:

    http://www.weloveashtoncourtfestival.com

    It’s basically a few flat pages and aggregation from flickr and upcoming – the point being we did not want a central space, but to be able to offer people the chance to offer a bit of themselves via channels they are already involved in… which is a thought I am increasingly becoming comfortable with… don’t build monolithic structures and wait for attendance, distribute your brand and trust others to manage their own channnels and how they can interact with you from there…

  4. Thanks for these points, chaps. There are some pre-existing services for aggregating content into one feed and onto one site – like Suprglu for example. You can see my effort here. Perhaps in many ways this could do? Problems with it include a lack of personalisation, a limit on the number of possible feeds and issues around the display of certain content.

    I think there are two viable possibilities: using Drupal to display aggregated content – which may seem like nut cracking with sledgehammers, but the way Drupal modules can handle media and RSS is pretty cool; or with a flat file site like Ed’s, with a custom design and content displayed to suit, with a mixture of widgets and MagpieRSS.

    I think I am going to give the latter a try. It should be possible to get all the content to appear on one page, and use Yahoo! Pipes to generate an RSS feed for the whole lot. I’ve got a spare URL doing nothing at http://www.virtualcommunities.eu so will probably set it up there. As all those who have contributed to this thread write on vaguely similar topics, do I have everyone’s permission to use their feeds for this project?!

    If it works, I’ll be happy to make the source code all available for people to download and customise for themselves.

  5. Good work.

    We were down the pub the other day, discussing how we might have done the Ashton Court site differently, and agreed that it would probably have been easier to have built the whole thing in WordPress from the beginning – we use blogger for the news page, but next time would do the whole thing in WP, using ‘pages’ for the flat files… I’m not sure about aggregating in WP (easy in Community Server/Drupal etc.) though…

    hope that helps 🙂

  6. WordPress can do anything of course – all you need is the right plug-in. In this case, FeedWordPress turns a WP install into an feed hungry aggregating beast. I use it here, for example.

    The only issue with it is that for it to work automatically you have to get authors to ping the aggregating blog when they publish new content, otherwise it’s a case of setting up cron jobs which can be messy. Certainly beyond my capabilities!

    I’ve started using WordPress to create non-blog sites myself – see MediaZilla (a work in progress) for an example. It’s surprising how good the results can be.

    My simple ‘homepage’ approach on the Virtual Communities site should be up and running this evening. It might look a bit basic, but content first, style second!

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