Some Considerations for Facilitating Online Interaction
Nancy White

http://www.fullcirc.com/community/onlinefacilitationbasics.html

Last edited 4/03/04
In Facilitating a Virtual Community we looked at the rationale for online facilitation and some of the more common online faciliator roles. In this article we explore some of the basic considerations for facilitating online interaction.

Understanding Member Roles and Behaviors

We all know that humans will be, well, humans. Just as in offline community spaces, there are a range of behaviors that community hosts will encounter. These mirror offline behaviors, but manifest differently in the text only environment. Without the non-verbal cues, we can misinterpret a person's actions online. Likewise, one voice can be very loud. Good stuff really is great, and difficult stuff can be awful. It helps to understand some of the roles that members take on so you can anticipate and appropriately respond to different situations. For a idea of what you might expect, check outCommunity Member Roles and Types (See also Getting and Retaining Members.)

Rules of the Road - Civility Please!

When you first structure your community, one of your options is to specify your community norms, rules or procedures. In addition, if your community is on a web-based provider like Yahoo Groups, you also have to abide by the overall system rules. Sometimes these are called Terms of Service (TOS) or Acceptable Use Policies (AUP).
The trick is to make the rules as simple and clear as possible. People don't read long lists of rules. Think of things that are simple and relevant to the group's purpose. Make sure that they are clearly communicated to members.
Some communities thrive under very loose, minimal rules. Others have more stringent requirements. The trick is to have the rules that work for your community. Here are some things to consider:
  • Are there audience-related issues, such as presence of children, which would require certain standards?
  • Is this a public or private community?
  • Does the target audience have an existing set of norms, rules or guidelines that would work online (such as scouting groups, or religious groups)?
  • Does the topic matter attract potential problems (politics, religion, etc.)?
  • Are there any issues of libel or liability? This is an emerging but unclear area.
  • Do you want members to play a role in deciding and enforcing rules? A "voting" or other group decision-making structure?
  • Are there minors involved and are there national rules pertaining to your role in hosting an online space for minors (there are in the US)?


Case Study: Electric Minds Rules of the Road

The Electric Minds community has a set of rules, fondly called "The Rules of the Road" which were developed by the community's original founder, Howard Rheingold. Central to the rules are two tenants: "You Own Your Own Words" and "Assume Good Intent." The most important expression of these rules is the behavior and role modeling of the hosts. Many people never take the time to read the rules, but they read their manifestation every day in community behavior. Bottom line: live by your stated rules and guidelines!

Engagement and Reciprocity

When it comes down to the bottom line, people like to be recognized. They enjoy giving in an environment where they are appreciated and can anticipate others will respond in kind. This pattern of engagement and reciprocity is at the core of all online hosting and facilitation. Again from Howard Rheingold; "All communities happen between people, not on computer screens. It turns out that sociologists have been arguing about what "real" community is for a long time. I strongly believe that people who spend time together online can only become a community if and when they reach beyond that screen and have some effect on each other's lives." Engagement and reciprocity help people discover how to interact more meaningfully online. Here are some tools and ideas.

Welcoming newcomers/Greeting/Directing

Every new member who posts should have a response to their initial post. There is nothing worse than sending out a signal (post) and getting nothing back. Some facilitators like to send a welcoming email to new members upon sign up or first post. Others offer new folks a mentor or guide to "show them around."

Creating Personal Profiles

Encouraging members to create personal profiles gives everyone in the community a tool to get to know other members. Encouraging members to view others' profiles, and keeping their own profiles up to date helps build a sense of community. Profiles may vary quite a bit, depending on community purpose. Some communities may promote the use of personas or "pseuds" while others strongly depend on people representing their "real" selves. Communities sometimes profile a member a day or a member a week to help people get to know' each other and to give members their own "spotlight." Permission from the member is a must and privacy issues should be respected.

Creating Topics that Support Engagement & Reciprocity

Sometimes people are hesitant to jump into ongoing conversations and more intense topics. Having fun, game-like topics provides both a testing ground to familiarize new members with the platform and a safe place for those first posts. Some traditional online fun topics include:
  • Just Three Words - the rule is that your post can be no longer than three words
  • One Word Thread - Even easier -- just one word!
  • Group Stories - Start a never ending story with each poster adding a section. Can be a take off of fairy tales or a more limited format such as limericks or group haiku.

Starting Conversations

As a community matures, some ongoing conversations either start recycling as new members join, or become cliquish or closed. By regularly starting new topics and conversations, a variety of members can be engaged or reengaged.

Providing Content (Cybrarianship)

Using Content to Support Your Community Give them something to talk about. Provide a variety of relevant content if appropriate to your community's purpose, such as relevant news stories about topics of interest, web resources or quotes.

Responding to Member Feedback

Members are the best source of ideas to strengthen and grow communities. Seek their opinions and ideas actively and often!

Encouraging Subgroups

As communities mature, you can keep "old-timers" engaged by providing the space and tools for them to create their own subgroups. These might come in the form of offshoot conferences, special interest groups or even new communities.

Expectation Management

Nothing sends a new member away faster than being disappointed. Promise only what you can deliver, then over deliver a bit. Don't set expectations that can't be met. Be fair and consistent in the application of rules and norms. This is essential to building and maintaining community trust.

Pacing

Getting a sense of the rhythm and pacing of a conversation is a facilitation art that improves with time. Sometimes the most important thing you can do is step back and let the action happen. Other times you need to light a fire, or cool a fire. Most experienced facilitators say that doing less is often more. Sometimes you just need to step back and let the members drive. This dynamic varies with purpose. Keeping people on topic or focus is a much larger job for a facilitator in an online workspace.

Rituals and Special Places

One of the hallmarks of offline community over the ages have been their rituals and rites. Online spaces can benefit from these as well, especially long-term and socially oriented communities.

Backstories

Amy Jo Kim, author of Community-Building on the Web has identified "backstories" or the community history as an important aspect to community rites and rituals. A community's history and creation story can provide a strong heart to the group, and should be clearly communicated to members on static pages, in welcoming messages and as part of initiation rituals.

Rituals and Rites

Rites and rituals, celebration of special events and member milestones can help bring members together and feel like a group or community. Rituals might include new member initiations, rituals for elevating members to formalized volunteer roles (greeters, cybrarians, guides) or simply a place for people to note it is a birthday, anniversary or special event and allow other members to "celebrate" with them. Celebrating milestones, friendly initiation rituals, reflection practices and holidays are some examples. A "virtual potluck" can do wonders!

Special Spaces and Places

The use of special topics for community rites and rituals can help communicate these aspects of a community to members and build new rituals along the way. There might be topics just for building community legends and stories, topics to honor service to the community and other forms of recognition. Personal reflection or journal topics are helpful "special places" in work and focused discussion communities and serve as a place for each member to keep track of their learnings, and yet not divert the main discussion threads.

Initiations and Formal Community Roles

As communities grow, members can take up leadership roles such as facilitation, greeting and serving as cybrarian. To recognize these efforts and to ensure they are meeting the needs of the community, the roles can be defined and recognition can be given to volunteers through initiations. The initiations can also serve to increase the member's knowledge of the community, its roles and rituals.

Dealing with Problems

Into every community a little rain must fall. Because of the limitations of a primarily text-based environment, misunderstandings can compound small problems as well. On the other hand, diversity can invigorate and keep a community growing and healthy. So defining and dealing with "problems" is as much art as it is skill. Much of the "problem behavior" you will encounter will be inadvertent. Assume good will!
The most difficult skill for a facilitator is knowing when to become involved. Heather Duggan of Big Bang Workshop wrote "Attention is the coin of cyberspace. Attend to those things you want to encourage and do not attend to those things you want to discourage." Ignoring some things can be a better solution in the long run than head-on confrontation. It is common for people to "defend" themselves. If they are not put in this position, they may let go of a potential conflict and move forward.
Sometimes things "look" like problems, but are in fact the natural dynamics of conversation between certain members. Other times, subtle signs may be warning of bigger problems. Most experienced online hosts suggest that for the most part, erring on the side of standing back is often the best route. This is different is certain environments, depending again, on the purpose of the community. Large, high traffic sites like CNN (before they closed their online discussion boards) had very clear rules and when an infraction occurs, action is immediately taken. It is more about keeping some order than building strong interpersonal relationships in the community.
Here are some basic troubleshooting techniques.

Working behind the scenes

If a member is violating community guidelines, or other members have expressed concern, you can start by trying to clarify the situation by email. This can save face for the member in question as well as for the host/facilitator.

Working 'live' in front of the community

Some communities value knowing what is going on and may be less trusting of "behind the scenes" interventions. When working a problem in front of the community, it may feel as if you are working "without a net." The stakes increase as people's reputations are put on the line. If problems are resolved in public, there should be a clear procedure.

Hiding or Deleting/Erasing Posts

When members post something that is against community guidelines (spam, obscenities) host can either hide or erase posts. Posts with large sound or image files may be hidden to keep from slowing down the systems of users with slower Internet connections. Erasing posts should only be done in extreme circumstances, and for clearly stated purposes, to avoid issues of censorship.

Banning

Banning is when a member is denied access to a community. Members should only be banned according to the stated processes of a community. In private communities, this is fairly easy to do. In public communities where members can register with free email addresses, this is not always an effective solution. Some communities just try and ignore posters who have the sole intent of disrupting a community, known as "shunning."

Helping and Housekeeping

Keeping the online space organized and uncluttered helps members find what they are looking for. Members need pointers and assistance in using the software.
The degree of housekeeping needed depends on the purpose of the community. Work spaces might be more "organized" than social conversation spaces. Here are some housekeeping tools and tips:
Providing technical assistance and the HELP files!
New and old members often need help with technical aspects of a conferencing system. New members should have access to a mentor or guide and then be taught to use the HELP files for the hosting system. Seasoned members sometimes need reminding of how to use less-used features, including the HELP files!
Hiding, or moving posts
Large files embedded in posts can be hidden to avoid slowing the system of users with slower Internet access. Posts can often be copied and moved if they belong in a different topic. Guidelines on post hiding/deleting/moving should be stated and understood by the community.
Pruning topics (archiving, read only)
Old topics never die, they just get archived. Inactive topics can be "frozen" so no new posts can be added, and they can also be archived, which means they will no longer show up on the active topic lists. They can be brought back or "unarchived" and "thawed" as well. By keeping inactive topics pruned, conferences can focus on the active topics and kept robust.
Organizing stuff/Summaries
In outcome oriented communities, it helps to summarize threads and post the summaries for easy access by community members. One of the downsides to linear conferencing is a phenomenon known as the "tyranny of recency over relevancy." We bury our gems in subsequent posts and unless someone mines for these jewels, they are effectively lost to the community.