How To Build an Online Community

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 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, 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:

" 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?)

Week 7: Networks and Catastrophe

What happens when bad things happen to good communities (or any community)? Using research in Connected: The Surprising Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler on the self-annealing property of real-world networks, we looked for examples online of the process.

Our favorite found examples include Facebook's suggestions for you to write on a friend's wall, as if to strengthen a weak participation link, Gizmodo's ban policy reminder notices, the Engadget leadership change announcement, and how Wikipedia quickly removes off-topic edits, no matter how innocuous. Thinking about clusters and mourning, we watched Nicholas Christakis's TED talk on early detection of epidemics, and James Fowler on the danger of not thinking of yourself as part of social networks.

Week 8: Midterm Presentations

The midterm assignment was to make an impassioned presentation in five minutes proposing an improved feature for an established online community, on behalf of the community. Max Friend's concise plea for smarter tagging in Jinni was the class's favorite.

Here we all are introducing our midterm presentation topics:

(In order of introduction: Kristen Taylor, Mark Triant, Nisma Zaman, Fred Truman, Scott Wayne Indiana, David Phillips, Noah King, Sava Saheli Singh, Martín Bravo, Monica Fajardo-Krishnan, Aly Wolff-Mills, Peter Holzkorn, Emeri Yarnoff, Max Friend, Matt Swenson.)

Week 9: Creative Cartography

Geolocation is the new hotness in online services, and we worked to contextualize its implementation in sites and applications by visiting the "You Are Here: The Psychogeography of New York City" exhibit at Pratt Manhattan with Jell-O city buildings and scratch 'n' sniff neighborhood stickers. After following the Hand Drawn Map Association, we drew our own maps that turned out to be surprisingly personal; we listened to Mark's audio map of his apartment roof at night, smiled at David's comprehensive fanverse, and nodded as more than one map presented relationship histories and spatial boundaries we have imposed. Aly's narrative map illustrated overlapping themes in her personal reading.

We were joined by Foursquare Community Manager Chrysanthe Tenentes, who talked about using enterprise social tools to manage community, the ways she handles privacy concerns, and how she created the entire FAQ section. She even brought her own handmade maps and Foursquare pins, stickers, and tattoos for us (Chrysanthe is on the far right).

Eavan Boland's poem "That the Science of Cartography is Limited" led us into a discussion of the pleasure in the inexact and the consequences of the errant in cartography (the Nicaraguan invasion of Costa Rican territory based on incorrect Google Maps information was reported the same day as class).

Section III: Material Culture

Week 10: Craft and Prediction

From making our own maps and visualizing personal movement, we moved to placing ourselves in similar company, looking at the prediction indicators in Hunch, a recommendation engine. Hunch engineer Ben Gleitzman joined us and gave a great presentation (entirely in Emacs, of course) on how their team is trying to build an ecosystem of taste for every Hunch member rather than a prediction engine in just one category--and how the service can be both a discovery tool and a mirror.

In week 7, we learned how our behavior can affect our network, and this week we also learned that we may share preferences with others we have never met; we may each be part of a particular, unique set of beautiful snowflakes that lives scattered throughout the world. We also talked about the first chapter of Richard Sennett's The Craftsman (what drives us to excellence?) and discussed our Tumblr posts about craft and using digital and analog tools to create personal work.

Week 11: Ownership and Upcycling

Still thinking about strangers with similar preferences, we started interacting with the digital people in our neighborhoods using Micki Krimmel's Neighborgoods. Having fun with what we could borrow or lend (seat at an Alan Kay talk? Sense of entitlement, anyone?), we also left feedback for the Neighborgoods team on their page on Get Satisfaction, a community site for customer service. The CommunITP class is a formidable beta testing force when we critique community sites and tools together.

Eyal Ophir, User Experience Designer at RockMelt, Skyped in from San Francisco to talk with us about working on a new Web browser in 2010 and how the team is honing a more personal browsing experience.

Working through definitions of upcycling, we debated Saul Griffith's "heirloom design," visualized our consumption habits with his WattzOn, and after reading Lisa Gansky's The Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing, weighed in on what shared services (ZipCar, rented Christmas trees) we would actually use, grappling with the larger questions of trust and altruistic integrity with brands, business models, and each other.

Week 12: Objective Agency and Desire

For this class on Thanksgiving week in the U.S., we read the fourth section of Michael Pollan's lyrical The Botany of Desire, discovering the pull that potatoes have on us, and how we want to control them. We started class by looking at Black Friday promotions from geolocative services we have studied before and talked about Stickybits, a service that uses barcodes to offer specials. Then, we listened to class guest Tricia Wang explain her ethnographic research on migrant Chinese populations and how they share services and are refused others with their vulnerable legal status. Tricia's article on quanxi helped us to understand how localization and importing cultural expectations can fail.

Pollan's text led us into discussions of agency on the part of plants, the sometimes scary ways biotech companies protect intellectual property, and the difficulty of seeing beyond monoculture once it becomes the dominant paradigm. Mentioning epidemics as they relate to our earlier work with Connected and early detection in networks (Week 7), we left thinking about saving seeds as an act of civil disobedience, geographical areas being linked through food products with barcodes, and how steady caretakers of gardens craft sustainable ecosystems through polyculture and the practical application of years of knowledge.

Week 13: Big Unanswered Questions

For the penultimate class, each of us will lead discussion for five minutes on the community question that we still find most intriguing--likely, topics will range from issues of scalability to alienation within community structures.

Week 14: Final Presentations

For their final projects, students will apply the theory, readings, and fieldwork to an existing or new piece in their portfolio that addresses community. A distinguished final crit panel and the audience of their peers will offer feedback after the presentations.


It's been a wild and wonderful semester so far; as Noah put it, "We're learning to make awesome communities as a science rather than a happenstance."

Thoughts for us? Feedback is kind of our thing.