Great resources for online community building

At the weekend I got my copy of Rich Millington‘s new book, Buzzing Communities, through the post. It’s excellent and provides everything you need to know about building successful online communities.

Thinking seriously about community building is something that I think digital engagement efforts in government and beyond are lacking a lot of the time. In many ways, I think it is the secret sauce that will take online engagement to the next level.

One of the key parts of this is a platform-agnostic mindset. Whether your efforts at building a community work or not is unlikely going to be down to your decisions on technology (unless your decisions are really bad of course). Instead, community management is a set of skills with which you start a small community and build it up by encouraging activity, fostering conversations and meeting the needs of members.

No matter whether your chosen medium is a forum, a blog, a Facebook page or even just a Twitter feed, you can use community management techniques to foster engagement and encourage people to stay involved.

So, I thoroughly recommend Rich’s book. While you’re at it, here are some free bits he has made available too:

We need to talk about the Knowledge Hub

Or at least, about where people in public service can go to share ideas, ask questions and promote good practice.

Back in the summer of 2006, when I was working as a lowly Risk Management Officer (yes, you read that right) at a county council, I joined the nascent Communities of Practice platform, which was being developed by Steve Dale at the then Improvement and Development Agency.

I thought it was fantastic, and joined in with some gusto – so much so in fact that I did attract a little criticism from colleagues who thought – probably quite rightly – that I ought to have been concentrating on the day job.

One of the first things I did was to launch the Social Media and Online Collaboration community, which I ran until my circumstances changed and Ingrid took over. Under Ingrid’s watchful eye, the community grew into one of the biggest and most popular on the platform.

Over time though it became clear that the CoP platform wasn’t keeping up with the technological times: the interface was a little clunky and a few things didn’t really make sense in an age of hyper-sharing on Facebook and Twitter.

So the Knowledge Hub was born, to take things forward. Only, I’m not sure it has.

I’m not wanting to bash the hard work that people have put in. All I will do is describe my experience – that people aren’t using the Knowledge Hub, and activity appears to be way down compared to the CoPs.

On the rare occasions I log in, I find the site incredibly, almost unusably, slow – and the interface hard to find my way around. I mean, I spend my life on the internet, and I just don’t really know what I am meant to do on the Knowledge Hub.

I’ve been wanting to raise this topic for a while, but what made me do it was receiving a request for information on Twitter by a local government person.

I don’t mind it when this happens. In fact it’s rather nice, as it means people remember who I am, and I get a chance to be helpful. As the owner of a small business, I get that this sort of thing can be a useful marketing tool.

But I do think to myself that there really ought to be a place where good practice, case studies, stories, examples, discussions and helpful chat can take place.

Surely that should be the Knowledge Hub? But as I mention, it isn’t: hardly anyone is on there and people are using tools like Twitter to try and track down the information they need.

So what’s the answer? Given the investment so far, and the organisational backing of the Knowledge Hub, that platform ought to be the future of knowledge sharing and collaboration in the sector.

I’m sure there are a few tweaks on the technology, user interface and community engagement side that could push things forward massively on there, before the goodwill earned by the previous system is used up.

The other option is for something else to emerge to take its place. With a little time and energy, I’ve no doubt someone – maybe even me – could put the tech in place to make it happen. But the time and resources needed to engage an entire sector are huge – and if the LGA are struggling I dread to think what sort of a hash someone like me would make of it.

What are your views? Do you use the Knowledge Hub? How does it compare to the CoPs? Where do you go for your innovation knowledge, stories and chat?

Where do we go next?

Avoiding hyperlocal tragedy

From Rich Millington, in his post “The Tragic Story Of Hyperlocal Communities“:

If we want to build hyperlocal communities, we have to change the way we think about them. This isn’t a technology problem to solve (Facebook-style). Enabling everyone to start a hyperlocal community wont make it happen. This isn’t a content problem to solve (local news style). Pulling in RSS feeds and encouraging user generated content wont solve the problem.

What we need is a genuine community building approach. You identify your first members, initiate discussions, invite members to participate in those discussions, write content about what’s happening in the community, and repeat as you grow.

Brilliant free ebook on online community building

The marvellous Rich Millington is giving away a fabulous ebook on developing online communities.

Rich’s blog, Feverbee, is packed full of great hints and tips, and I recommend you subscribe to that.

All you have to do to get the ebook is to sign up to the mailing list for his Pillar Summit online learning course during September – just a couple of weeks left, so get in quick!

And yes, this is a great way of getting people to sign up to a newsletter like this!

Communities and ‘hyperactivism’

Excellent analysis and writing from Tessy Britton in reaction to the recent disturbances in Bristol:

This is the real landscape into which the Localism Bill will descend. There seems to have been some dramatic shift recently from ‘government knows best’ to ‘community knows best’. With political and media help, a myth that sanctifies community members or groups choices and decisions and demonises everything that local government thinks and does has become widespread. In this paradigm it is very easy to manipulate situations on the grounds of social justice and easy also to make conflict and aggressive strategies look worthy and spirited. In my view this is romantic and wrong and dangerous.

Go read the whole thing.

Anonymity, community and identity

A while ago, I got a bit of a bee in my bonnet about anonymity online, and why it sucked. This was in the wake of the ‘Civil Serf‘ (remember her?) kerfuffle, when a blogger working in government said some things she shouldn’t have done, thinking she was protected by anonymity. She wasn’t of course, and got found out.

Generally speaking, I’m in favour of people being transparent online about who they are: it builds trust and adds credence to what people are saying. There are exceptions of course, for whistleblowers and political activists, for whom being open about their identity could be dangerous.

For me, the Greater Internet Dickwad Theory usually holds true:

Internet dickwad theory

I was reminded of the topic a few weeks back, when I posted about forums, and specifically 4chan. 4chan is a remarkably popular site, and also a remarkably foul one, which is why I’m not linking to it (not because I disaprove, just that I wouldn’t like to be responsible for someone having their internet access taken away from them). It’s an ‘image board’ – basically a pretty simple forum where people post images or text in thread discussions. Sophisticated it ain’t.

What sets 4chan apart from many online communities is that anonymity is not only tolerated, but encouraged. This freedom to post without reprisals results in some truly shocking things being said, but for those with the constitution to sift through it, also some genuinely creative stuff. Quite a few of the popular internet memes started on 4chan – including LOLcats and Rickrolling. Fine, hardly the stuff of huge cultural significance, but creative and cool, and worthwhile.

Anyway, there’s a great article about 4chan, and its founder, Christopher Poole (aka ‘moot’) in Technology Review, which you really ought to read in full:

Support for anonymous communication often comes down to a standard set of arguments: people should have a place where they can speak truth to power (blow a whistle on corruption, assess whether an emperor has clothes) without fear of reprisal; they should also have a place where they can be true to themselves (explore an unconventional sexuality, seek treatment for a stigmatized disease) without risking ostracism and worse. But while Poole embraces these arguments, what he says in defense of the anonymity on 4chan is at once less high-minded and (in ways he is only slowly coming to understand) more far-reaching: “People deserve a place to be wrong.”

The article links to Poole’s talk at the Ted conference, which is both interesting and short:

Identity is a massive issue, particularly for government, and especially where services are being delivered. Yet in terms of the fluffier, engagement stuff I wonder whether we need to be too bothered about anonymity in every case. I’m obviously not recommending that we use 4chan as a consultation platform. Although… no. It wouldn’t work. Would it? No. Definitely not.

Maybe it’s easier sometimes to keep the barriers to entry as low as possible and be prepared to have to sift through an awful lot of stuff to find the gems. Put the burden on the askers, not the answerers.

What community managers should know and do

CommunityFor an internal bit of work at Learning Pool, I was asked to contribute to a list of things that would need to be a part of the role description for a community manager – a position we might be recruiting for in the near future.

I quickly threw together a list and emailed it round, but then thought it might be something worth sharing here.

So here’s my list – this is in no particular order. What would you add?

  1. Network well online – either have or be able to build reach and influence online
  2. Has established online presence and regular use of online communities in either personal or professional capacity
  3. Ability to think strategically about the needs of the community, and of the products they support, and design the development of the community around those needs
  4. Draw up appropriate community guidelines and ensure adherence to them
  5. Encourage new members to join the community
  6. Write high quality, engaging online content
  7. Spread the reach of the community using a range of social tools
  8. Provide regular updates to community members through regular email newsletters etc
  9. Know and understand the community – be able to identify which members would be interested in, or have answers to, certain issues
  10. Good mediation skills and ability to defuse online arguments and tensions
  11. Ability to moderate content and manage difficult members an promoting good behaviour
  12. Has a good understanding of the technology and culture of the net
  13. Ability to measure and track analytics and membership stats and develop strategies to improve them
  14. Ability to identify technological improvements that would improve user experience and make the community useful for the company
  15. Proactive approach to interacting with the community – this is not a 9-5 Mon-Fri job
  16. Knowledge of the rest of the organisation and the ability to identify the people who need to be involved in responding to issues
  17. Good knowledge of the issues involved in the community and the ability to respond to topics in a knowledgeable fashion
  18. Ability to find and share useful related content to the community from elsewhere on the web
  19. Ability to identify key community members, and work with them to help promote and manage the community

Update on the Knowledge Hub

Knowledge Hub

I spent an enjoyable afternoon at the advisory group for the Knowledge Hub (KHub) last Tuesday (sorry for the delay in writing this up…). Steve Dale chaired the day which featured a number of updates about the project, in terms of procurement and project management; technology platform and supplier; and communications and engagement.

Remember – the Knowledge Hub is the next generation of the Communities of Practice. Think of it as CoPs with an open API, plus some extra functionality.

The Knowledge Hub is going to be built by an outfit called PFIKS – who I must admit I had never heard of before. Their approach is heavily open source based and apparently they have about 80% of the Knowledge Hub requirements already working within their platform.

I’ve come away with a load of thoughts about this, most of which I have managed to summarise below.

1. Open platform

One of the strongest improvements that the Knowledge Hub will bring as compared to the current Communities of Practice platform is the fact that is will be open. This means that developers will be able to make use of APIs to use Knowledge Hub content and data to power other services and sites.

One compelling example is that of intranets – a suggestion was made that it would be possible to embed Knowledge Hub content in a council intranet – without the user knowing where the information came from originally. Later in this post I’ll talk about the engagement challenges on this project, but perhaps creative use of the API will enable some of these issues to be sidestepped.

Another aspect of this is the Knowledge Hub app store. I’m not quite sure whether this will be available within the first release, but it should come along pretty soon afterwards – it’s something Steve Dale seems pretty excited about. Developers will be able to create apps which make use of content and data stored within the Knowledge Hub to do cool stuff. I’m guessing it will be a two way thing, so content etc externally stored can be pulled into the Knowledge Hub and mashed up with other content.

It’s certainly something for Learning Pool, and I guess other suppliers to local gov, to consider – how can our tools and content interact with the Knowledge Hub?

2. Open source

The open source approach is to integrate various components into a stable, cohesive platform. This appears to be based on the Liferay publishing platform, with others bits added in to provide extra functionality – such as DimDim, for example, for online meetings and webinars; and Flowplayer for embedding video.

On the backend, the open source technology being used includes the Apache Solr search platform which is then extended with Nutch; and Carrot2, which clusters collections of documents – such as the results of a search query – into thematic categories. I think it is fair to say that the search bit of the KHub should be awesome.

What is also cool is that PFIKS publish their code to integrate all this stuff as open source as well – so not only are they using open source, they are also contributing back into the community. This is good.

Open Source, as I have written earlier, is not as simple a thing to understand as it might first appear. There are numerous complications around licensing and business models that have to be considered before a project commences. It certainly isn’t the case that by using open source tools that you can just rely on the community to do stuff for you for free – which seems a common misunderstanding.

Still, from the early exchanges, it appears that PFIKS get open source and are taking an active involvement in the developer communities that contribute to their platform. Hopefully the Knowledge Hub will end up as being a great example of collaboration between government, a supplier, and the open source community.

3. Data

One of the original purposes of the Knowledge Hub was that it would be a tool to help local authorities share their data. This was a couple of years ago, when Steve first started talking about the project, when didn’t exist and the thought of publishing all purchases over £500 would have been anathema.

It would appear that the data side of things is taking a bit of a back seat at the moment, with the revamp of the communities taking centre stage. My understanding up until this point was that the Knowledge Hub would act as a repository for local government data to be stored and published. It would appear from some of the responses at the meeting that isn’t going to be the case now.

This is, in many ways, probably a good thing, as authorities like Lincoln, Warwickshire and Lichfield (amongst others) are proving that publishing data isn’t actually that hard.

However, all those authorities are those with really talented, and data-savvy people working on their web and ICT stuff. Are all councils that lucky? Perhaps not.

Hadley Beeman’s proposed project seems to be one that pretty much does what I thought the Knowledge Hub might do, and so again, maybe a good reason for the KHub not to do it.

When a question was asked about data hosting on KHub, the response was that it could be possible on a time-limited basis. In other words (I think), you could upload some data, mash it up with something else on the KHub, then pull it out again. Does that make sense? I thought it did, but now I have typed it up it seems kind of stupid. I must have got it wrong.

4. Engagement

You could count the number of people who actually came from real local authorities on one hand at the meeting, which for an advisory group is slightly worrying – not least because this was the big ‘reveal’ when we found out what the solution was going to be and who the supplier was. Actually – maybe that’s not of huge interest to the sector?

Anyway, it’s fair to say that there hasn’t been a huge level of interest from the user side of things throughout this project. Again, maybe that’s fair enough – perhaps in this age of austerity, folk at the coal face need to be concentrating on less abstract things. But now the KHub is becoming a reality I think it will become increasingly important to get people from the sector involved in what is going on to ensure it meets their needs and suits the way they work. By the sound of the work around the ‘knowledge ecology’ that Ingrid is working on, plenty of effort is going to be put in this direction.

It will also be vital for the Knowledge Hub to have some high quality content to attract people into the site when it first launches, to encourage engagement across the sector.

For all the talk of open APIs and the Knowledge Hub being a platform as much as a website, it still figures that for it to work, people need to actually take a look at it now and again. To drag eyeballs in, there needs to be some great content sat there waiting for people to find and be delighted by.

Much of this could be achieved by the transfer of the vast majority of the existing content on the Communities of Practice. There’s an absolute tonne of great content on there, and because of the way the CoPs are designed, quite a lot of it is locked away in communities that a lot of people don’t have access to. By transferring all the content across and making it more findable, the whole platform will be refreshed.

5. Fragmentation

The issue of fragmentation occurred to me as the day went on, and in many ways it touches on all of the points above. For while the Knowledge Hub both pulls in content from elsewhere and makes its own content available for other sites, there are still going to be outposts here and there which just don’t talk a language the KHub understands or indeed any language at all.

It’ll be great for dorks like me to automatically ping my stuff into Knowledge Hub, whether posts from this blog, or my Delicious bookmarks, shared Google Reader items, or videos I like. But those sites which publish stuff without

One striking example of this are the Knowledge Forums on the LG Improvement and Development website, which have continued despite the existence of the functionally richer Communities of Practice. My instinct would always to have been to close these forums and port them to the CoPs to both reduce the fragmentation of content and the confusion to potential users.

What about the content and resources on the rest of the LG Improvement and Development website – will that continue to exist outside of the rest of the platform, or will it be brought inside the KHub?

There are plenty of other examples of good content existing in formats which can’t easily be resused in the KHub, and for it to be the window on local government improvement, it’s going to need to drag this stuff in. Maybe a technology like ScraperWiki could help?