Ownership And Online Communities

Ownership And Online Communities

James FarmerAnnelieske and I was fortunate enough to have dinner with James Farmer (Edublogs founder) and Cait when we visited Melbourne.

Since our dinner I have been reflecting on what James said about online communities like Ning. He said that a Ning community may initially start off well but in the long term will always struggle because for one simple reason — “ownership.”

Firstly I should explain why am I worried about about online communities floundering.

Well I do spend considerable time reflecting how to make online communities work because:

  1. If I want to effectively use social networking and online communities with my students, for educational purposes, I need to understand what will make it thrive and why it will flounder.
  2. I am working with the aquaculture industry in my State looking at ways to use these technologies to support their training needs.
  3. I set up etools and tips for educators Ning community to assist others become involved with using emerging technologies.
  4. We are planning to implement social networking tools within our College.

So what does James mean?

Well, people are more likely to participate if they feel a sense of ownership — which is what a blog give you. Communities set up by an individual lack this sense of ownership which means members are less likely to feel obligated to participate. They don’t own the space so there is less emotional reason for them to buy in to be involved.

Geek Squad Story

This reminds me of the story about the Geek Squad and how Robert Stephens spent considerable time and effort creating an internal wiki for his employees to use for communicating, collaborating and sharing resources — only to find slow uptake of it use. When he investigated the matter he found that they had formed their own community, for exactly this purpose, but were using the online game Battlefield 2.

The Geek Squad story is my favourite because it keeps me focused on the fact that you can spend a lot of time building what you think is a site that is “a goer to ensure community interaction” but that does not mean people will use it.


Would love to have all the answers but community interactions are really complex.

Think about how people interact in f2f situations like within a kids sport community — what makes individual donate so much of their time when others won’t (you know the individuals who coordinate the canteen, cook all the food while others sit on the sideline)? What drives people away from these communities?

So what are some strategies that might help Ning type communities? Well I have written some of my thoughts previously in my post on creating thriving online communities. I agree with James — ownership will always be an issue and will not be easy to overcome.

I am more willing to become involved if I feel a sense of obligation to the individual who set up the community or a very strong bond to the group involved. For example of the individual or group has willingly helped me, as I have helped them, off course I will go out of my way to participate. But if everything has felt like a one way street — where I am always expected to give with nothing in return — forget it – not interested.

Also don’t expect people who have not been involved in online social networking to suddenly understand or want to social network. This is not how it works.

And don’t use the whole digital natives/digital immigrants myth to justify why you should be using social networking tools with our youth. Or that because our youth already know how to social network they will help you out. Pleeeease they social network totally differently from how we need them to network. Most youth social network with mainly their f2f friends and are very good at using the tools they like to use. Whereas we need to learn to mass collaborate with a global audience with a wider range of tools.

So what are your tips? Have you found some online tools better than others for social networking? And if so, which ones? How have you managed to get encourage the development of an online community?

14 thoughts on “Ownership And Online Communities

  1. We keep thinking of online communities as destinations – but they’re not –

    We ‘make’ wikis, websites, but we also don’t use these for our own communities. My community is Twitter, gtalk, a couple of forums, some Elluminate/web meeting and SMS/phone…Skype

    I use these multiple channels to communicate – and select tools to help me find and collaborate in the way I need.

    Given that we’re already doing this – why are we still trying to ‘build’ communities…. for learners/staff…

    An effective network is uncontrollable, that’s what it’s for – it will develop in the way it’s members choose.

    This is a fairly challenging thought for education, which at the moment is still largely hierarchical and controlled…

    But it doesn’t matter, because we can’t stop it – it’s already happening – Geek squad.

    In one of our projects, we have a 15 yr old who chooses not to have a mobile phone, likes discussion forums, and communicates through World of Warcraft.

    So, do we have the courage to allow these informal amorphous networks to develop, and the skill and innovation to find ways to capture what happens in them.

  2. There’s something in all this which brings me back to think about our concept of learninng/thinking and our understanding of what we expect the outcome to be. It used to be about making the same widget, without error, without fail (for some it still is)- now there seems to be a shift where it’s a more organic concept that generates something beyond what we could imagine – if we are brave enough to let it go. I guess when you think about communities you have to think about which mindset they are in, and so then what motivates them to engage (is it for a product or for the experience) – for me “the journey is the destination – and at the moment I’m having one hell of a trip!” (The fact that none of this appears to be producing anything instant for me isn’t a distraction at all)

  3. You don’t build communities people you find them and get involved and enhance them, help them grow. But if the seed is not there now then I don’t think the community wants to be online.

  4. I think Harriet is on to something here. I’m drawn to supporting individuality, creativity, and the right to choose what works for you. Heck Web 2.0 practically ensures this diversity.

    Do we NEED to build networks? Well probably yes in this ‘on the cusp’ phase of our learning about the whole Web 2.0 kit and kaboodle, certainly in a formal educational setting. I suspect many of these communities of practice or learning will drop away, and others take their place as tools, needs, learnings and learners change. Along the way, if you’ve got some kindred souls prepared to engage in mutual hand holding to assist in the journey, then all’s good.

    As to ownership, well in my experience working in a team-enterprise (theatre production) ownership, accepted responsibility, and understanding of the goal by the individuals in any team will pretty much get you to where you need to be. The ‘distributed leadership’ model works for me in most community enterprise. You know, ‘the sum is greater than the parts’ thing?

  5. I don’t think online communities differ much from face-to-face communities. Participants in both want to feel ownership, belonging, and achievement. Of those three, I think ownership is the weakest of the desires. A person should come to own whatever they contribute, but they wont contribute much if they don’t think they belong in the community or are not able to achieve anything. For example, if a participant takes the time to write a post, and that post received very little attention/comments, that participate loses some enthusiasm and dedication to the community. The lack of interaction to their original contribution makes the argument that they don’t belong and can’t achieve anything in that community.

  6. Thanks Harriet, Sally, Gary, Kate and Joel for your comments. To be honest my brain is in total hyper drive pondering all the implications of what each of you have said.

    Actually I don’t think I am making much sense at all. It probably relates back to the 4 reasons why I want to understand online communities better – 1. Educational use 2. training use 3. organisation use 4. personal learning.

    Before I get us all totally confused with my ramblings I think I will reflect longer on my thoughts.

    Please feel free to post comments to help me unclutter my thoughts — could be the four context’s is clouding my thought process (headache 🙁 ). So if you can help me come to terms of similarities/differences would be good.

  7. Sue, you’re right – I sense confusion in this posting.

    Not sure why James Farmer would say that there is less ownership in an online community such as a Ning network than in a blog. I can understand how this applies to a “Web 1.0” website that just presents information.

    I administer 2 Nings, and belong to about 13 others. Each has its own sense of community. Certainly, each has its own shelf life based largely on the founder’s vision and persistence, as well as the core group that surrounds the founder .

    Martha Goldman’s TROPIC project evaluationis here: http://www.avetra.org.au/publications/14-Goldman.pdf
    Martha says that it is important to build a strong core group first, and then maintain it carefully.

    Martha also refers to Wenger’s community of practice requirements: domain, community & practice

    Other helpful publications about building online communities are here:

    Sue, I admire your energy and persistence in creating and maintaining your online network. You have a precise manner that gets right to the point, and you have a genius for elucidating information – the right information – from people. I see this as both your strength and your community’s strength. I think that ownership in a community flows from members being involved – being paid attention to – in this way.

  8. Hi Sue,
    I think Harriet nailed it in her response Sue. Add to that the fact that these online networks and their popularity waxes and wains in some cases, in months if not weeks and you have a situation where the communication method is very much an individual experience and choice.

    Getting an online community going for education is a good idea, but some will always prefer alternative online tools (there are enough of them!) and others will just never be interested. The online world is not where they choose to live or socialise.

    It just means if you take online communities as a way to reach students it has to be a supplement to, and not a replacement for whatever you have used up to now for communication with students.


  9. There are four types of systems discussed here: knowledge collection, collaboration, communication (one to many) and communication many to many).

    Knowledge collection doesn’t need to be collaborative, but if the content isn’t used or it’s hard to update, a new system will be born outside it.

    Collaboration comes in many forms, verbal, written, pictures. Few systems do all of these well, so there is usually more than one system.

    Twitter’s difference is the time relevance to a large but chosen group. Old news has passed by, but big news is repeated often.

  10. Thanks Simon, Dan and Cait for adding your thoughts.

    Simon – thanks for your links.

    What James is saying is that because an individual has not set up the Ning space there is far less reason for them to want to contribute compared to say their own blog. If you look at etool.ning it has progressed as James suggested. Started off well and now I am struggling to get people to want to participate — Better Blog is having similar issues. Which is okay all you can do is encourage conversation but if you compare levels of conversation between these two sites: my blog has more conversation happening than etools Ning does.

    So where does that leave etools.ning? I have no problem with it. Our Ning communities have inspired people to get involved and our members have gained. Just as my blog has done the same. I will continue to use both online tools to inspire.

    Thanks for the nice works about maintaining my online networks — even if due to work and family commitments I am really bad at commenting back on readers comments. I do value them. As always I thank you for all your support and help. You inspire me — and I still think I am now your Mini-me.

    Dan – LOL Harriet is a whirl wind in real life :). Lets hope she has not got comment notification switched on (mean in the nicest way). The chaotic mess would just totally appeal to her – and she is right but you and I both know that while we may find this type of learning good it is not going to appeal to all learners.

    As I said before my mind has tried to grapple with too many systems being discussed. Which in many ways are different. If we just look from an education point of view that in itself is complex. How you structure elearning into a program for face-to-face students is totally different from the mechanisms you would use for students that are totally remote, and who have minimal contact with you.

    Getting back to face-to-face one of the biggest messages from mlearn was the fact that too often teachers adopt the use of technology and throw out all good teaching practice. Or worse still add technology to already bad teaching practice. I agree we need to remember good teaching practice, it should be about supplementing not replacing and as you point out maintain your methods of communication.

    Cait – thanks you have definitely helped unclutter my mind!

    As you point out I am talking about reflecting on how online communities work based on 4 scenarios that I am trying to work out how to deal with. Within each scenario you have highlighted the issue — I need to go back and reflect on the four systems being discussed and put it into context of what I really am wanting to achieve — hence why might it be important.

    Any more thoughts please feel free to add them.

    Once again, once I have totally uncluttered my mind I will post on this. Please note issues relating to online facilitation, building sense of community and where does sense of community fit with online facilitation is inside my head scrabbling it — did I say Harriet was the whirlwind?

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