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Visit RealCommunities

Read a whitepaper on The 12 Principles of Civilization

See an article in Fast Company entitled “Community Standards”

A wonderful book on Web Communities

Hosting Web Communities by C. Figallo

Community Building on the Web by Amy Jo Kim

Online Community Report

Visit some real communities


Forum for Women Entrepreneurs

Sara wants to make a career change. She enjoys developing new business strategies and wants to pursue a career in business development. But where should she start? She doesn’t think she has the experience to get a job in the field today. Should she get an MBA? Take an entry-level job in marketing? She decides to do some research online.

First, she goes to a popular web site for finding jobs. She looks at the job descriptions for business development directors and notes the qualifications. She searches for other materials and finds a couple of articles on making job changes and a message board, but nothing specifically on business development. She leaves a message on the board describing her experience and interests. When she returns two days later, the response to her question from the moderator does not offer her any new insights. Sara doesn’t return to the site. A week later, a community member has the answers and resources Sara was looking for. Sara is not notified.

We know what Sara wants to do. It’s what all of us want to do regardless of the content we are looking for or the type of web sites we visit: We want to find the answer to our question. The answer we are looking for may very well be on the site or in the head of one of the site’s community members, but if we can’t find it when we need it in the context we expect, the site becomes useless to us. Sara came to the site with a purpose, but she did not have her needs met. She did not find a purposeful application.

What’s a purposeful application?

Imagine this scenario instead...

Sara decides to try a web site that a friend recommended to help her with her career questions. On the home page, she easily finds two categories of interest: changing careers and business development. She explores both of these finding articles, job openings, and other resources. As she explores the content, she finds message boards on the topics of interest. She also finds experts and mentors whom she can contact. She clicks on the profile of the mentor who is a VP of business development at a well-known technology company. She finds it easy to learn this mentor's availability, to read feedback on his mentoring abilities from others in the mentoring community, and to contact him without either of them revealing their email addresses. Sara sends him an email through the mentoring application.

The next day the mentor responds to her inquiry via email, answering her questions and letting her know how he might be able to help. Based on this exchange, she clicks on a link in the email that returns her to the web site so she can sign up with this mentor.

The technologies in the first scenario were separate things: a message board for communicating with other members and a search engine for finding articles and job descriptions. In the second scenario, the mentoring application combined several communication technologies with content and community members’ experience to provide a meaningful context for Sara to find the answers to her questions.

Too often the question is: What technologies do I need for my web site? The questions should focus on the members of the community and their needs: How can I attract a specific community to my web site? What do the members of this community need? How can I make the members of the community available to each other in a meaningful way? The answers to these questions lie in real world, face-to-face communities.

The 12 Principles of Civilization ™

Although it exists online, a web community is primarily a human association. To best identify the necessary elements for building such community, it’s vital to look to the study of human interaction. The 12 Principles developed by RealCommunities, Inc., are based on sociological principles and offer a framework for creating and sustaining vibrant web communities. These principles are also a tool to help community producers remain rooted in their community vision while making strategic or tactical decisions. Once we’ve established the underlying human qualities that drive our coming together online, the 12 Principles give us a unifying view from which to design and implement technologies to support and enable such online communities. And finally, they provide a methodology for figuring out community functionality priorities.

These principles are ordered in two groups: The first six relate to the underlying human needs and expectations inherent in any community, while the final six focus on the framework and structures that must exist to ensure a group’s viability and success. None of these principles exists in a vacuum; each relates to and depends on the other factors. For instance, without identity and trust, there can be no reputation. In many cases, each principle stems from the previous principles. Thus, identity grows out of shared purpose, trust flows from identity and reputation builds from trust.

1.               Purpose: We have a shared goal or interest.

2.             Identity: We know who’s who.

3.             Reputation: We recognize and build status based on our actions.           

4.             Governance: We regulate and moderate behavior according to shared
               or stated values.         

5.             Communication: We have ways to share information and ideas.           

6.           Groups: We can relate to each other in smaller numbers.

7.             Environment: We interact in a shared space that is appropriate to our goals.

8.             Boundaries: We know who belongs and who doesn’t.

9.             Trust: We know with whom we’re dealing and that it’s safe to do so.           

10.       Exchange: We have a system of exchange or barter and can trade
         knowledge, support, goods, services, and ideas.

11.       Expression: We have a group identity and know what other members
         are doing. We can easily indicate our preferences and opinions.

12.       History: We can look back over our history and track our evolution.

Moving up the pyramid from foundation (history) to high-individual need principles
(purpose) illustrates both the relationship between principles and their relative importance.

Online tools can facilitate each of the 12 Principles in online communities if the tools are designed and implemented to help community members answer their questions. We will look at examples from sites that have effectively expressed one or more of these principles.

The First Principle: Purpose

Community performs a necessary and useful function for its members.

Every community needs a purpose. According to Cliff Figallo, author of Hosting Web Communities, a “community should be a practical and useful thing for people to join.” An online community must have a purpose to exist. There should be a specific and identified core interest that draws people to an online group; sharing a common purpose is the best first step to building a loyal community of members. An online community will fail if there is not a compelling reason for people to come together.

But how do communities implement purpose online? Because they exist in digital space, web communities must rely on a broad range of tools and applications to help members accomplish goals. These tools can include member-generated content from others who have been in similar situations; communication tools like chat or discussion boards; functionality such as calculators or group calendars; and applications that provide mentoring, recommendations, expert advice, or opinions. Whether the goal is to become a more knowledgeable individual investor, share gardening experiences with others, or tap into the power of community to lose weight, the tools should support the community’s purpose.

To truly enable members to accomplish their goals, we need to tie the communication and tracking tools together. An application of purpose—one that helps members accomplish goals—is an integrated approach to providing user functionality that combines many of the elements that make a community into a community. For instance, a weight loss community might feature an application of purpose that does a variety of things, such as:

q      Provide a body mass index (BMI) calculator and other tools.

q      Offer a dynamically-generated journal function for tracking progress.

q      Provide context sensitive means to form relationships with other members who have knowledge or experience in losing weight.

Mentoring provides users with a clear purpose: help others resolve relationship issues or find
others to help with relationship questions.

The Second Principle: Identity

Members can identify each other and build relationships

In any community, we want to know who’s who. But since web-based communities rely on words on a screen, traditional sensory cues are missing. For example, we can’t look at the person and see his body language. The only way for a community to thrive online is if it has ways to identify its members to each other. The challenge is to present a useful picture of each member that’s consistent, current, and complete. Every participant must have a persistent, yet dynamic identity, often in the form of a unique member profile. In most cases, such identities are permission-based and dynamically generated and updated according to the member’s behavior on the site. This makes it clear to everyone who is responsible for any posts or actions. While members don’t need to reveal their true off-line names or addresses, they can adopt a consistent and recognizable identity in the community.

What do you want to know about the members of your online community? Who they are in relationship to your site’s purpose. The key elements to building a member’s online identity include:

q      Dynamic, self-generated member identity—the member typically creates an identity with core information such as username and an email address. Each member leaves a signature trail left by the member linking each contribution or action—so others in a community can know members by what they say and do.

q      Context-sensitive views of the member—so different members can access different views of a member’s profile, depending on permission level, their relationship to that member, or what part of the site they’re accessing.

q      Ability to browse and search for members based on various criteria—members can look for other members who share characteristics. This ability is key to enabling members to share knowledge, build relationships, collaborate, and do things together.

Motley Fool’s Personal Profiles give users access to helpful information about other users.

The Third Principle: Reputation

Members have a reputation based on their activity and the expressed opinions of others

People in communities need ways to know how reliable or useful another member is. This allows them to act on advice with some expectation of its quality without the community producer acting as a reviewer or the police. Reputation lies at the juncture between identity and trust and it influences behavior in several ways. Reputation gives members a way to evaluate each other, so they know whom to trust, or whom not to trust. Reputation helps people form the best alliances to get the desired information. And the desire to have a good reputation discourages bad behavior and encourages members to request feedback from others to build their reputation.

Knowing where you—and those with whom you are dealing—stand is important in any community. Online, visual cues often alert members about the hierarchy and ratings of other members, allowing visitors a way to sort high quality member-generated content, such as discussion board posts or product reviews, from less useful contributions. These cues also help community producers determine who and what the community likes and dislikes.

Each member should be able to gain status through expertise and appropriate behavior, as defined by the community vision. Reputation can be based on many things, from transaction volume, amount of contribution, or quality of contribution. This encourages repeat visits and good participation, as well as ensuring that appropriate behavior occurs over time, every time. Some of the main ways that status can be granted and seen within a community include:

q      Icons that show how well thought of a member is—such an icon would appear anywhere the member’s name appears.

q      Status based on the feedback of others—such as the number of other members who recommend a member.

q      How many messages posted or actions performed on the website—often, status and popularity are reflected through making many well-received contributions.

In eBay’s transaction community, users rely on the reputation of buyers and sellers to decide
with whom they should trade.

The Fourth Principle: Governance

The facilitators and members help manage the community, allowing it to grow

Members of every community need a clear sense of what they can and cannot do, and who is in charge. Communities need to have tools that fit with the level and type of governance they want. For instance, if users are in charge, then they need the tools that let them be in charge.

On the web, community governance is really about self-governance. Given the scale of large and popular web communities, it is important that members take responsibility for their own behavior and have the administrative tools to self-govern in different situations. Self-governance is more efficient, scaleable, and community-friendly than reporting infractions to the community producer who then acts as a community police. Obviously, there is a key link between reputation and governance: the better your reputation, the more say you have in how the community runs.

Some of the key elements of online governance include:

q      Community standards posted and enforced.

q      Clearly stated rules for communication.

q      Self-governing features, such as allowing members to silence or expel other members.

q      Hosted message boards and chat sessions, where the moderator acts to maintain community standards.

q      Feedback and interaction mechanisms.

The style of each community drives the type of governance it has. A closed and hierarchical community might feature a greater degree of centralized control than a free-spirited forum for an anything-goes debate.

The Producers Workbench enables the facilitators of the community to monitor individual members and the community’s
overall activity, as well as manage the look and feel of the site for members.

The Fifth Principle: Communication

Members must be able to interact with each other

In order for a community to exist, members must be able to communicate. One of the key factors in the success of an online community is the richness of possible communication vehicles and choices for members. On the web various tools enable both synchronous (real-time) and asynchronous communication. These tools include:

q      E-mail

q      Discussion groups/message boards

q      Chat

q      Newsletters

q      Instant Messaging

q      Phone

q      Face-to-face

q      Data/image file sharing

q      Product or service opinions and recommendations

Not all tools are effective on every site. They depend on the context of the site and the audience it hopes to attract. Often asynchronous methods, such as message boards or discussion groups, work best with organized and archived information. Synchronous methods, like chat, can be good for casual conversation. Chat may be popular on a teen site, but not as appropriate for a site targeting corporate CEOs. There, discussion boards may be more useful. Instead of providing maximum variety in communication tools, it’s usually best to offer a couple of appropriate ones that work really well and are easily accessible from all areas of the site.

Motley Fool’s message boards enable users to find relevant topics and to communicate with other members.

The Sixth Principle: Groups

Community members can segment themselves according to specific interests or tasks

People in communities belong to groups. Forming groups is a necessary and organic process—it’s what humans do. All communities have groups within them that focus on some subset of the community’s purpose or otherwise segment the membership of the community. It’s how we get things done, whether off- or online.

Within an online community this tendency to group and re-group must be respected and facilitated. Technology that enables individuals to create, join, and participate in purpose-oriented groups is key to making the website more useful, hence more sticky. Web-based communities must enable groups of members to have a group identity, a group place with clear privileges, a way to administer group rules, and access to tools to implement joint purpose.

GolfWeb supports the formation of groups, such as Women Only (Sorry Guys!), and
communication between the group members.

The Seventh Principle: Environment

A synergistic environment helps members achieve their purpose

While an online community does not share geographical meeting space, it does happen in a digital environment, and just like in the real world, that environment affects each member’s experience. All web communities exist within the framework of an online environment. To be effective, that environment—the cyber town hall or recreation center—must be well-thought out and integrated so the way it looks and navigates, and the types of content, commerce, and functionality it offers, reflects the community and its goals and values.

Every community is different and functions best in an appropriate environment, tailored to its specific needs and style. But, just as real-world meeting spaces share certain characteristics that make them more welcoming and useful—clearly marked entrances and exits, access to parking and transportation, enough room for everyone—successful web sites must provide a relevant and consistent experience for their users. Some of the key elements of a successful, synergistic online environment include:

q      Seamless and intuitive navigation throughout the site—both within the community and between the community and non-community areas of the site.

q      An easy-to-use and consistent interface across all areas—including welcome pages, communication tools, applications, and pages of member-generated content.

q      A cohesive and recognizable style—that crosses all areas, including the design and layout, the types of content and commerce offered, and the user functionality provided.

q      Lots of relevant content, commerce, and applications linked in context—and easy to access, search, navigate, and use.

q      Controls in place to uphold environmental standards—such as an appropriate profanity filter or restrictions on HTML and member-generated content.

q      An appropriate business model that fits within the community’s purpose.

No matter what you are buying on Amazon, the Amazon look, feel, tools, and content make the
site cohesive.

The Eighth Principle: Boundaries

The community knows why it exists and who is outside and inside

Any community needs a clear definition of who can be a member, as well as an understanding of who isn't or can't be a member. Without clearly drawn boundaries, there is no incentive to become a member and no ability to control access based on membership.

Boundaries aren't just in place between members and non-members: Some sites reward long-time active members with special privileges. Boundaries are also important in creating and managing groups and sub-groups. For example, if a group of people creates a specific weight loss group they have the right to decide who can join, how they can join, and the mechanisms used to administer these boundaries.

Some of the chief elements of boundaries in an online community include:

q      Registration to participate—so that members can have an online identity. 

q      A policy regarding non-member participation—typically, sites offer read-only access to non-members, or make only certain parts of the site available to them. 

q      Limits to who can be a member—these could be as simple as anyone who registers, or as complex as those with offline contractual relationships. 

q      Identification of member-generated content. 

q      Public, semi-private, and private areas—with clearly posted boundaries, depending on what type of area it is. For instance, in a semi-public area, non-members may be able to view content, but not post.  

The Wall Street Journal entices non-members with free content, but reserves its prestigious content for its
member. Users must pass the login gate to access this content.

The Ninth Principle: Trust

Members must be able to build trust over time with other members and with community facilitators

Without trust, a community cannot function. Sociologists have extensively researched trust in communities. They have identified that multiple positive interactions, comprehensive understanding of the individual’s identity, and concurring opinions of other trustworthy members are key to gaining trust in other people.

Building trust increases group efficiency and enables conflict resolution. As Cliff Figallo states, “Trust is the social lubricant that makes community possible.” Two kinds of trust exist in a web community: trust between members and the site and trust between the members themselves. Software mechanisms must be built in so members can reveal themselves to others incrementally, as trust is earned. And since most people do not want to reveal more about themselves than another is willing to reveal to them, tools that enable “reciprocal disclosure” are necessary.

Trust grows out of identity and is the basis for reputation. Key elements of online trust include:

q      Let members build trust over time.

q      Privacy policy

q      Online Actions policy

q      Different levels of privacy—so members can reveal more about themselves as they get to know each other.

q      Certification and detailed profiles of certified experts—so that members are able to trust that “experts” have the qualifications they say they have.

q      Member verification of profiles

q      Community management style and trustworthiness—Hands-off management garners more trust and encourages greater self-governance than interfering or policing management.

Creating a web of trust allows Epinions users to develop a reliable, personal resource of

The Tenth Principle: Exchange

The community recognizes an exchange of value, from knowledge and ideas, to goods and services.

Many people join communities because they hope to exchange something they have, whether it’s expertise, experiences, or services, for something that other members have. These exchanges can be:

One-to-one—such as when someone mentors you and you give feedback that improves her reputation in the community or make a donation to his favorite charity.

One-to-many—for instance, you run an online seminar on investing strategies you have used.

There are three major benefits to these types of online exchanges:

1.  A marketplace of members who share a common purpose and who might therefore reasonably be expected to place similar values on things.

2.  A vehicle for checking the reputation and trustworthiness of those with whom you are considering an exchange.

3.  A “currency” based on a member’s standing within the community, allowing members to exchange positive feedback and reviews for goods and services.

On QuestionExchange, users, identified as experts, exchange answers for payment and increased status as technology experts.

The Eleventh Principle: Expression

The Community has a recognizable character and community; members are aware of what other members are doing

Just as each individual member has an identity, every community has a shared sense of self. This “soul” or “personality” is an essential part of the community, and can be seen through the ways that members communicate and how they express themselves. If the concept of environment is how things work within a community, then expression is how things feel. If identity is how we know the individual, then expression is how we understand the group.

While the principle of environment refers to more permanent things, such as the style and tone of the community, expression is current, immediate, and forever changing. A successful community expresses itself by:

q      Profiling popular or currently “hot” users so other members know what they’re doing.

q      Reflecting user opinion throughout site—what the community as a whole thinks is currently important.

q      Polling the community.

q      Posting the most recent contributions to demonstrate activity.

q      Posting chat schedules and current activity levels.

Abuzz displays the top individual performers in a category that highlights both community members and what the community

The Twelfth Principle: History

The community remembers what has happened and reacts and changes in response

A sense of history is vital for an evolving online community. To get the full value of a growing community, that community needs ways to remember, as well as ways to forget. An archive of member-generated content adds value, increasing the pool of available information and guiding further development. While member-generated content should be eternal, since it represents the collective wisdom of the group, individual transgressions should have a statute of limitations.

Members should be able to redeem themselves, because a successful community learns from its mistakes and from its members. A community also remembers its members, even if they drift out of contact.

Some elements of online history include:

q      An archive of old contributions, with the best member-generated content highlighted or excerpted.

q       Member profiles indicate what a member has done as well as when it was done.

Bid histories on eBay provide information about both products and community members who buy and sell these products.

The 12 Principles provide a framework for understanding how many sites have answered for themselves the questions that we started with:

q      How can I attract a specific community to my web site and keep them coming back?

q      What do the members of this community need?

q      How can I make the members of the community available to each other in a meaningful way?

Now it’s your turn to use this framework to answer these questions for your own online community. Remember to listen, watch, and learn from your community members as you go. You can probably think of several applications of purpose that would help your community members communicate with you as well as with each other.

Melissa Koch is Senior Product Marketing Manager at RealCommunities where she leads the development of purpose applications. She has been working with online learning communities for more than seven years. You can reach her at or at



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