Blogging and communities

How can communities, which are purpose-driven and group-driven, be supported by blogs, which are solo-user-driven?  Is there a connection between blogging and communities?

I gave a presentation on this topic last Tuesday to the SIKM Leaders ("KM leaders from system integrators and consultants") group, which meets once a month on the phone.  Here is what I had to say.  (The presentation notes are available at the YahooGroup, but they don't make much sense out of context.)

For people that have been thinking about blogging and communities for a while, this should be quite familiar.  One of those people is Nancy White, who has propagated "community_indicators" as a tag for articles like this one (del.icio.us and technorati).  Luis Suarez, one of the KM bloggers community, reported on my presentation in Blogging and Knowledge Communities - Is There a Connection?

Communities

What are communities?  They are groups of people who explicitly come together for a common reason.  They might gather because they share a common history (school, town, country, family), or a common event binds them (a success or tragedy), or because they share a common interest (chemistry, knowledge management, blogging, derivative markets, bicycling, basket weaving).  Communities form around this shared interest, and the stronger groups turn that interest into a passion.  You'll see a range of communities from the neighborhood barbecue to the SIKM Leaders phone call to the thousands of online groups supported by YahooGroups to those communities internal to the companies and associations that sponsor them. 

Communities tend to meet at a place, whether that is the local restaurant, an online forum, or on the phone.  Many will use a mixture of the possible meeting places, such as the SIKM Leaders who meet on the phone and then use YahooGroups for questions and follow-up during the month.  The place is somewhere new members can visit and where the community members know to go, if they've gotten busy with other things and want to re-integrate.

Most communities also have a leader who helps maintain momentum and encourage others to participate.  Frequently without their active participation, the community falters.  Family gatherings only happen through the diligent work of Uncle Joe, and the internal company community of physical chemists hangs together because Denise is very active in publicizing their activities. 

Rather than a strong leader, some communities survive because of their strong sense of purpose, shared by all the community members.  When a leader steps aside, someone else fills their shoes because there are many who believe in the importance of the community itself.  If the community direction starts to veer off-course, the membership serve to point it back in the correct direction.

Participation in communities ranges from the activities of the champion or leader, to the very active members, to the people who show up to events, to those who are members but sit at the edges and do not actively participate (lurkers).  All of these people come together to create the community.  Even those who do not participate regularly provide value in the small discussions they have with their colleagues, based on what they've learned through the community.  These bits of conversation and thinking all serve to sustain the interest in the community. 

None of this would matter, if there weren't people connecting with other people.  At some level, all communities are about making human connection across a shared interest or passion.  And it is those people with whom community members want to continue interacting.  This is the sadness people feel when a community disappears, or otherwise becomes unavailable.  And, if it is strong enough, this connection will draw people back together again, whether or not the original topic-of-interest remains central to the relationship. 

The level of interest in communities ebbs and flows in natural and predictable ways.  Communities disband for many, many reasons.  Some of those include loss of that champion or leader, or the loss of the common passion that held people together.  If the community loses its "place" and cannot regenerate it elsewhere, the community frequently disbands.  Even with a successful move, the community will frequently lose members who were on the fringe of the community.  Similarly, when a community changes purpose, even if only slightly, it can lose (and gain) members which further changes its make-up.  I've seen these things happen in both local and online communities.  And I have seen successful changes and not-so-successful changes.  It depends on a multitude of factors, which I won't cover here.  There are plenty of discussions of communities of practice with much more detail for those who are curious.

Blogging

You're reading this, so you don't need much of a background on blogs and blogging.  The main thing I discussed, beyond the basic structure of blogs, is that blogs tend to be individual efforts, at least on the first blush.  An author writes about whatever strikes her interest.  Rarely does an author focus on One Thing to the exclusion of other topics.  More likely, the author's own interests ebb and flow over time.  This has certainly happened in my own blogging, and I've seen it in how others write as well.

Blogs and communities?

Blogs are driven by an individual, the topics wander, and there is no space for a gathering of community members.  So, is there a connection between the idea of community and how blogs are used?  Here are some of the underlying aspects of blogs and blogging that provide hints of community within blogging.

1. Community of readers.  Blogs are written with the expectation that there are people reading and reacting to the material [1].  The community of readers is very much centered around the individual blog / author.  The fact of the community shows up when the blog author asks for help or assistance on a specific matter, and this shows up even more in the other hints of community. 

The caveat with this particular angle on communities is that it's pretty much a one-way street from the blogger to the readers. 

2. Comments.  Most blogging platforms allow readers to leave comments on individual articles, giving readers an opportunity to more obviously participate in the conversation with the blogger.  Over time, as a blogger sees comments from the same people, a sense of who the readers (community) are develops more fully.  Most blogs receive a few comments from time to time, and this is generally a function of the size of the readership. 

As with the community of readers, comments are centered around the blog.  Comments are generally directed toward the blogger or the article in question, and there is little opportunity for readers to interact with one another outside the confines of the blog.  Only on the busiest blogs do conversations develop within the comments.  And most blog platforms are not geared for threaded discussions like typical community forums. [2]

3. Outbound links.  Another hint about the community is information the blogger provides about the other sources s/he reads.  Many bloggers provide a static list of other blogs that they read (blogroll), or they provide lists of their most common reference materials, recently-read books, etc.  In terms of layout, these lists are usually provided in side bars to the left or right of the main text. 

There are also the quotes and references that the author places directly in the text of blog entries.  These are the traditional, "look what so-and-so said" references of weblogs.  Over time, readers of the blog get a sense for what sources provide inspiration for this particular author [3].

These outbound links help visitors get a better picture of the world in which the blogger operates.  Do they regularly read the New York Times?  Who are the other interesting bloggers that they read?  Have they read the same books that I've read and found interesting?  They also begin to give a sense of the larger community in which the blogger operates.  If blogger A frequently cites blogger B, then you might expect that they participate in the same community.  In fact, I'd expect their readership to overlap quite a bit as well.  Anjo and Lilia have reported work on visualizing communities based on the outbound links.

4. Inbound links.  Along with all the links a blogger sends out from their blog, other bloggers link back.  Technically, there is the ability for blogs to ping one another via a trackback, depending on the underlying technology of the blog.  The idea is if blogger A references something B has written, that a comment will appear on B's blog that A has referenced the article. 

Not all blogs have this capability, so there are other ways of discovering whether there are references to a given blog post.  Traditional search works, but given the nature and speed of blogging, blog-specific search engines tend to be better at seeing conversations as they develop [4].  As with other search tools, there are tools that look across all search services.  I am partial to Talk Digger, which finds all references to a given URL across many search services.  And these can be embedded into a blog, so readers don't have to go hunting themselves.

Again, the sense of community arises over time.  How frequently do other bloggers reference this blog?  Is it the same bloggers?  Is it the same bloggers who are referenced by this blog?  Or is the circle of references wider?  Are many bloggers talking about the same topics and referencing one another at different times, depending on who has written what?  This is the real sense of community that emerges over time.  It's no longer centered on one blog, but on a pool of bloggers who share the same interests and passions in a given topic area.

5. Shared language.  Another way to identify a community is to look for people who share a common language.  This is typical of specialized disciplines, where the members have developed their own terminology and acronyms. 

That language comes out in blogs as well.  So, not only do community members reference one another and talk about the same topics, but they probably use the same language and terminology as well.  Of course, finding authors who use shared language is harder than tracing paths through hyperlinks, but it is possible.  WayPath does content analysis to find related blog posts.  And I believe the ever-productive Anjo is working on a mechanism to compare blogs based on this kind of similarity.

Blogs and communities? Yes!

A community of bloggers looks like many other communities.  They come together due to common interests, and they are held together by that interest.  There are vocal members, and there are lurkers, and everything in between.  Community discussion happens at one blog, or across many blogs, depending on the topic and the style of the community members.

Since there is no fixed "place" for the community, the sense of community develops in the interaction with readers and across multiple blogs, but it's much harder to see, as the community is somewhat ephemeral.  There is also no official leader, though there are frequently authors who act as touch-points for conversation threads within the community.  To make up for this, the participants in a blog community are held together by very strong ties of common interest.  The common interest, the core of why communities form, is the only thing left that brings blogging communities together.

But what keeps them together?  Certainly the ongoing passion in the topic at hand.  But blogs are written by people and, just as in traditional communities, those people get to know one another and develop a sense of community and togetherness that extends beyond the common interest - or it deepens the sense of commonality.  How do readers get to know the blog authors?  It is almost natural that the author's personality will show up in his/her writing.  Over time, regular readers will understand a slice of the author's personality and personal interests.  Similarly the blog author gets to know the regular commenters and the authors of the other blogs in his/her reading sphere.  This connection to people keeps blog communities alive and vibrant, to the point where blog-friends will check up on one another if things go quiet.  Lilia Efimova did a great job of describing this particular aspect of blog communities in Weblog networks as social ecosystems.  I appreciate the drawing she used to highlight the process of how a community develops amongst bloggers and readers.

Constructing blog communities

Businesses set aside time for their people to participate in a wide variety of communities, whether formal or informal.  Could a company that wants to encourage the formation of communities use blogs as part of that effort?

The issue here is that blogging will require a commitment from the author.  There is the basic commitment of time required to read and write materials.  And then there is the long-term commitment to blog, because blog communities don't form overnight.  It takes time for the blogger to find their voice, and it takes time to build that community of readers and other writers. 

I suspect the best opportunity is to build upon existing communities and find those people who are blogging already - or who are considering taking up blogging.  For example, bloggers could publicize the activities of an internal community to the company.  Or, in the example of Microsoft, bloggers are writing publicly about internal projects.  Not only are they connecting Microsoft to the larger world, but they are connecting the community of internal experts to a wider world of experts outside the company.  This builds an even larger community in which these people participate.

Summary

Communities are about shared interest.  Blogs are about individual interests.  There are enough blogs out there that there are bound to be many bloggers who share the same interests, and thus are born communities of shared interest amongst blogs.  Communities, whether blogs or otherwise, stick together because those common interests remain strong and the connections between the people engage the community members.

Endnotes

[1].  Most blogs at least: the discussion about making things explicit came out of my statement that people wouldn't blog if they thought no one was reading.  There are certainly opportunities to write for the sake of writing.  Those blogs are not the ones that become part of communities.

[2]. The most comments on a post at this blog have been 13, but only about 1/3 of my posts have comments at all.  The average comments per post is 0.6 in total, and 1.9 for posts that have comments.

[3].  Lilia Efimova and others argue that this linking behavior is much more indicative of community than are blogrolls, as it demonstrates an actual conversation around a shared topic.  Blogrolls declare a shared interest, but don't demonstrate it.  Check Lilia's two topic areas on blog communities and blog ecosystem.

[4].  Technorati is probably the best-known blog-specific search engine.  Others include PubSub, WayPath, Feedster, Blogger search, BlogPulse.  All the big names offer blog-specific search too: Google, Yahoo.  All of these services define their search space differently, which is why I like Talk Digger.  A lot of people are talking about the search aggregator Gada.Be, but it isn't specific to blogs.

7 Comment(s)

Interesting that you choose now to bring up this topic, Jack. It's one of the current threads of discussion on the actkm discussion email list. I'm not sure if the discussion archives are online but you can sign up to the list at http://www.actkm.org

You offer some very useful perspectives.

Kris Olsen said:

Jack - I've always viewed blogs as the voice (individual OR group) for a community about what is happening, what is going on, or what should be happening relative to some common interest. It is the soapbox for 'talking the walk'.

Wikis on the other hand are a better forum for the group to actually communicate while in the act of actually doing something that is being advocated on a blog. I think of it as the playing field for actually 'walking the talk'.

» Communties on my own terms from Knowledge Jolt with Jack

George Siemens has an interesting comment about how decentralized communities could work - or how bloggers would like to see it work. Read More

» Communties on my own terms from Knowledge Jolt with Jack

George Siemens has an interesting comment about how decentralized communities could work - or how bloggers would like to see it work. Read More

» Blogs in relation to communities from Knowledge Jolt with Jack

Andy Roberts links to a discussion by Miguel Cornejo Castro. Essentially, the question is whether blogs build or tear apart other online communities (listservs, online forums, etc.). The answer: it depends. Read More

Carmelo Lisciotto said:

Blogs have their place when used in a constructive fashion and don't exist soley to promote controversy. There are currently far to many unethical HATE BLOGGERS online bringing discredit on the genre.

Carmelo Lisciotto

jackvinson Author Profile Page said:

Thanks for your comment, Carmelo. I hope you haven't run into too many hate bloggers in your time online. They are mostly to be ignored, from my perspective.

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