How To Build an Online Community

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Editor's note: If you're launching a website or app today, you need to build a community around your content. But how? Some sites explode while other nearly identical sites wither. It seems the best you can do sometimes is put out content and start sacrificing goats. What little we do know about how to build social apps and sites is folklore, anyway. The art and science of community building needs more attention. Kristen Taylor, an instructor at New York University's unique tech graduate program, the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), is trying to provide the theoretical and practical background for that task. Here, she presents her unusually literate and deep syllabus about learning to build online environments that people love.

Read more entries from our Syllabus-as-Essay series.


On the first day of class, we came up with a name.

The students were enrolled in a course titled "Creating Community Environments," which, while descriptive, felt a little pedantic for this graduate class at ITP. And it was too long for a hashtag.

Intentionally occupying the strange crawlspace between ITP's studio lab sessions with lasers and theoretical discussion sections, CommunITP class has become a community of practice around online social tools and spaces in its inaugural run. We have had a dreamy roster of guest speakers from Foursquare and Hunch to Reddit and RockMelt, and we do community fieldwork by using the services and sites we study, tweeting (@communITP) and Tumbling as we go. The following syllabus is a living document and has been tweaked and refined, incorporating feedback, each week. Our class name was Nisma's idea, and you'll meet the other thirteen students below.

Section I: Locating Identity

Week 1: Awareness and Initial Affirmation

We began with Roland Barthes's "Chopsticks," exploring the hidden cultural bias in tools -- and the varied (and unintended) perceptions a potential community member may feel at the far left of Joshua Porter's excellent Usage Lifecycle. Together, we talked through the 'sort by agony' filter of the new online booking site Hipmunk, how the feature taps into a universal desire for delightful air travel, and whether a community may form around a service hacking at that particular pain point.

Our class guest was Andrew Hyde, who is best known for his work cultivating the TechStars community and Igniting all of Boulder, Colorado; during that September week, fires were raging in Boulder (the local tech scene was active, setting up crisis maps and emergency information areas), and Andrew spoke passionately about a place and people he cares about. Students left inspired to sort out their own online identity and advocate for places and events they believe in. Andrew was kind enough to take the picture of the class below.

Class Photo.jpg

Week 2: Migration and Movement

To talk about migration and movement, we look at hoarding, a behavior that goes beyond collecting friends, objects, points (the shallow "success" authority metric of a user in some social networks) to hold the content and contacts captive; we compared the possibilities of About.me to another professional portfolio site. In a bit of a Web history lesson, we reminded ourselves that the key Flickr innovation was making each image a social object that could be favorited, tagged, and commented upon. Laughing as we refreshed itsthisforthat.com, we learned how the new is often reductively pitched in terms of the familiar. With two pieces from noted ecoliterature writer Anthony Doerr (below, his beautiful "Butterflies on a Wheel,") we pondered the difficulty of understanding communities you do not and cannot belong to and left thinking about ways we navigate off each other.

Week 3: Markets and Ephemeral Goods

Once we feel comfortable with community movement, we can then look at short-term and pop-up communities that often operate underground or quietly. We worked to differentiate the role of a purveyor from a curator, and we chose favorite Etsy sellers and their shops, the better to see many versions of Etsy's governing handmade ethic. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the parody site Regretsy rallies impressive community support (hidden on their Charity page) between NSFW blog entries -- and the creative re-use of content is another semester theme.

We looked at eating designer Marije Vogelzang's "Pasta Sauna" piece (see below) from last year, but were more interested in the NY food maverick Dr. Claw and his clever, almost-legal delivery of lobster rolls. Why do we respond so well to exclusive knowledge and narrative with community goods, we wondered? Class was dismissed so we could go seek out buttered crustaceans.

Week 4: Nationalism and Local Reporting

After markets seen and unseen, we turned to leadership and attachment, journeying far down the superfan spectrum to "drooling fanaticism" and Steve Almond's exegesis of Toto's "(I Bless the Rains Down in) Africa."

We read what may become one of your favorite books too: Arika Okrent's In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language to discover the noble motivations for inventors of failed universal languages. One of the students, Aly Wolff-Mills, pointed us to this passage in our reading:

"...it turned out that many people who may not have been inspired to learn a language in order to use it for something would learn a language in order to participate in something."

Okrent's text brings us to the categorization and math behind language, and how words are structured into families; our class guest was David Sasaki, who spoke on the distributed Global Voices family of bloggers who do local reporting on underrepresented areas of the world. David now runs Información Cívica for OSI, and he helped us think about strong moderation and incentives for local reporting that line up with those of language inventors: nationalism, for increased representation of a country in global media, and transnationalism that transcends borders and offers larger perspective on similar issues.

Section II: External Forces

Week 5: Origin Stories and Gaming

From our focus on leadership, we next looked at early adopters; a potential community member asks not whether they are like the leader, but whether they identify with the rest of the current community. We talked about the humorous conventions of Unhappy Hipsters (beautiful image, ennui-laced caption, snarky tags, monochromatic interior) and how physical architecture can enable or compromise the community it houses using Geoff Manaugh's brilliant BLDGBLOG, as well the larger implications of the Eyewriter.

We also played the Facebook game FrontierVille (the newer title from Zynga where log cabins can be built next to your crops) at the request of class guest Kevin Slavin, Co-Founder of area/code, who defined social gaming as games played on a social network along your social graph.

Kevin, known for knitting disparate concepts together, moved us from questions of clearing brush and game mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics to consumer confidence and hyperinflation in communities.

Week 6: Symmetry and Relationships

Moving from language invention to natural language processing, we looked at relationships between nodes of words, people, and families, especially in Brizzly and other groupchat services. Using Dominic Widdow's Geometry and Meaning, we applied graph theory, shared favorite Venn diagrams to talk about sets, unions, and intersections, and thought about symmetrical and asymmetrical relationships in social sites. Our class guest, Erik Martin, talked about managing the community of Reddit like a band. (Did you know that Reddit has a lively snack exchange?)

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Kristen Taylor is an adjunct professor at ITP and is the founder of Galvanize. She lives in Brooklyn and enjoys drinking raw milk.

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