Software to run a community. The tools

Table of contents

  1. Software is just applied tools, no more, no less
  2. Nuances one needs to pay attention to
    1. The three places
    2. The platform provides a way to facilitate synchronous and asynchronous communication
    3. The platform has many customizable parameters
    4. The platform allows to moderate both the content and the relationships
    5. The platform provides a way to access data using SQL queries
    6. The platform automatically creates backups and data dumps

Software is just applied tools, no more, no less

Social software should cover three essential areas:

  1. Tools to achieve the mission, a set of possible actions users can perform on a platform. Without tools people will not be able to do what you invited them to do on the site. Upload videos, edit posts, vote, etc.

  2. Tools for coordinating the common effort. The more people involved in any activity, the more resources needed to be spent on coordinating the group itself so that it does not turn into chaos. This requires providing users with tools to coordinate collective activities and self-govern the group.

  3. Tools for creating and maintaining groups. Tools aimed at enabling individuals to connect, communicate, and engage with others and foster their relationships.

Everything that does not fall into these three categories is good to have but not necessary for a community to operate and per se does not play a significant role in the success of the community.

Nuances one needs to pay attention to

When you are about to select a platform for your community, pay attention to the following aspects of the software.

The three places

Sociologists distinguish three distinct social environments where people operate. The first place is home, where we spend most of our free time. The second place is the workplace, the place where we go to do something. The third place is the place of socialization. In the context of online communities, the first place is the main site, the second place is a site for meta discussions, the third place is a site for off-topic conversations.

Without the second and third places, the growth of the first place is limited.

  • Once you get the critical mass of people on the main site, you will need to launch a dedicated space for meta discussions. The main purpose of that space is to assemble a group of volunteers who will care about the community itself.

  • If at some point you do not provide opportunities for users to socialize based on their personal interests beyond the topic of the community, then either the users will be unhappy with the community or there will be off-topic conversations on the main site.

All three places can be on the same platform and in the same format (for instance, separate sections on a forum), or on different platforms in different formats (for instance, a wiki for the main site, a chat for socialization, and a forum for meta-discussion). If you use different platforms for the places, do your best to make user accounts on the different platforms linked and have the same user names across the platforms. The places need to be moderated regardless of if they are public or private, most probably, by volunteer moderators.

The platform provides a way to facilitate synchronous and asynchronous communication

Synchronous communication is interaction between people that occurs in real time, like chatting. Such communication is more engaging, but harder to moderate and organize.

Asynchronous communication means that people who participate in a conversation do not expect all the other parties to be in the same place at the same time and respond immediately. When communicating asynchronously, people have time to think, structure ideas, and format their messages. The resulting content usually has higher quality than in case of synchronous communication.

Communication in any of the three places can be synchronous or asynchronous, depending on the design of your community.

The platform has many customizable parameters

One good way to engage and retain users in a community is to give people the opportunity to adjust the environment in which they interact with one another. When users can discuss an issue, come to a consensus and then somehow get that consensus implemented they get the sense of ownership over the community. Users begin to feel complicity, identify themselves with the community and care about its future.

The more settings your platform has and the more often you change them to meet the specific needs of the community, the greater the engagement of the users in the community.

The platform allows to moderate both the content and the relationships

In online communities it is necessary to moderate the content that the community has created and relationships between the users. The tools for content moderation must be separated from tools to moderate relationships.

  • Content moderation should be available to a wide range of potential contributors. Any reliable user who knows community standards and wants to keep the community clean should be able to contribute, at least by reporting a violation they observe.

  • Only people who are trusted by the other users and know how to talk to people in tricky situations should have the ability to moderate relationships between users. In most communities those are selected or elected “moderators”.

To make moderation more effective some common categories of violations should be automatically detected and reported to the users who are helping moderate the community.

The platform provides a way to access data using SQL queries

There is no platform that has a user interface for all possible things you would want to know about your community. If the platform supports the ability to run SQL queries and download the results for subsequent analysis, this will make your life much easier and improve the quality of your decisions.

The platform automatically creates backups and data dumps

Before launching a community, you need to make sure that you can download all the data from the platform you chose and re-create the community based on the data dump. Technical glitches happen all the time and you risk losing everything in an instant if you don’t have a backup. Additionally, in some rare cases you may need to change the platform the community operates on. It is possible only if you can download the full dump of your data.