habitat – a place for communities to build

I’ve always been very fond the the ‘habitat for humanity’ concept… at least what follows from the title itself. The idea that humanity thrives given the right kind of habitat… and that the bequest of habitat is a charitable… indeed a community even that should be participated in in order to support ‘humanity’ inside of every community.

In casting around last spring… looking for a way to talk about online communities and particularly looking at trying to encourage the growth of community in the variety of ways in which I participate in that quixotic venture, I came back to the idea of ‘habitat’. I settled and decided I’d found the right concept after talking to a new friend of mine who is working on tracking the density of ocean floor dwellers based on the given habitat that surrounds them. It seems that random bits of the way a place is structured has a great deal of effect on who is going to come and hang out in that particular area.

** what dave’s been doing professional while not blogging — skip if not interested **’
I’ve been working on the Virtual Research Environment at UPEI, trying to do a little training on community support. We got our heritage canada grant for working with students… detailed in last grant. Working with a variety of people to convert some nice open source tools into nicer tools for kids. Working with the folks at edtechtalk to make the umbrella organization pay for itself. Am building an ‘enterprise’ server at work. I have three articles i need to write. I’m looking very hard at a few Phd programs. for personal stuff see bon’s blog
** end of catching up with dave **

This, then, in simple terms in what I’ve been trying to do with communities. I’m trying to figure out how one goes about creating a ‘habitat’ that will make it more likely for community to form and more likely that that community will do the kinds of things that were intended… that prompted the creation of that habitat. I realize that it is not exactly a mind numbing concept. But at this point I’ve been a part of the attempted creation of… oh… probably 50 communities online and have seen a few successes and by far a larger number of communities that failed to thrive over the long haul. There are several personal factors that lead to the successes of those communities… One particularly charismatic or talented or famous individual is enough to hold a community together for a while… but, I’m coming to believe… the ‘way’ that the habitat is structured has a far greater effect on the success of that community.

We’ll take a little trip here… to try and identify the things that I’m talking about. When i first started exploring MUVEs I’d been astonished at the desire to replicate the real world in the construction of buildings. If, in Second Life (curse them) for instance, you are trying to attract people to drop by your building… why would you put glass in your windows? Glass servers a great practical purpose in my house… keeps out the cold while allowing me to see out. In second life, however, it could be seen to server a ‘security’ purpose… to allow you to see out without allowing people to come in… but if you are actually trying to let someone in, I can’t imagine why you’d do it. So, putting the glass in the window frustrates me… it will not, probably, frustrate someone else who’s thinking is more in line with the creators of that building. They might very obediently drop to the ground (assuming they were flying in the first place) open the door and walk into that building to look at how much it resembles the real world. They might feel comforted by this. They might return to this feeling of comfort and find that the types of people who end up in this building have similar outlooks to them.

This is habitat in action. It’s the same way that the ‘look’ of a coffee shop, or bar or store attracts likes… or at least attracts people to what they think they should like… which is an entirely other conversation. 😛 But as we take this little nugget of information and turn it back to a specific study of community what have we learned. They way a ‘home’ for a particular community is structured could be important to the types of people that turn up there. Again… we’re not exactly breaking the Senator Stevens barrier here.

If we were then, to list the types of things that are going to effect the amount of traffic, the recurrence of traffic, the ‘qualities’ of that traffic, the number of times people break the boundary between casual membership and membership, the direction in which the work done at a particular community follow the intentions of the drivers of that community, we’re going to find that a great deal is going to depend on how that particular habitat was structured.

So… as many of us agree that communities can create very nice results… and most of those who agree with that also agree that communities are extraordinarily difficult to ‘create’ (if it even makes sense to say ‘create a commmunity’) I’m arguing that a careful attention to the construction of habitat can increase the chances of a community forming. This post is starting to stretch out… but lets try following an example for a short while and see how that would work.

I want a community to study Aberlard with. (just the book I happen to be reading)

1. Find an existing one. This is much much easier than starting your own.
2. Join some other communities (if you’re not part of one now) get a sense of what ‘membership‘ means.
3. Decide who you’d like to have in your community… describe that person or those people
a. Like my friends X… she’s studious, but doesn’t take herself too seriously. She likes to ‘build’ knowledge as a partnership with other people and doesn’t feel the need to ‘own’ ideas. Ask her how much time in a week she might devote to such a community. Ask her what kinds of communities (if any) she’s currently part of.
4. Ask yourself how those people need to be supported. Some people need a clear description of things like posting policies… others find this restrictive and overly authoritarian
5. How much to show and not to show. Some people are intimidated and irritated by a cluttered work space. Others find simplicity overly trying. (in that… why can’t they just put the @#$%ing links on the front page where i can find them. The difference between a tumblog and a wordpress blog is a good example of the difference.

tired now…. there are a bunch of other issues, but this should be enough to illustrate what i mean. The thing is… community building through careful attention to habitat is a very simple idea. It’s just that it never occured to me that that was what I was doing. And now that I’m starting to pay attention to it… I’m noticing that my builds are going better. Thought I’d pass it on 🙂

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

5 thoughts on “habitat – a place for communities to build”

  1. i will study Abelard with you…but this Aberlard guy? i don’t trust him.

    bada boom.

    i actually really like the idea of habitat…and i think your points about posting policies and even just aesthetics of a site make a huge difference in fostering an online habitat for particular types of community creation. but my own experience leads me to the conclusion that some type of common interest matters more than aesthetics (certainly true in the case of my own blog readership) – you gotta sense that people are going to be “your kind.” and what i wonder is how to convey that kind of intangible in an online environment. how do we “read” the habitats we happen upon? what makes a person stop on a given site and consider joining in a conversation?

  2. I agree that common interest will ultimately capture the enduring attention of a community member. Aesthetics are often magnetic. The aesthetic tends to represent the common interest of the community. A person stops on a given site and joins in a conversation because the appearance or aesthetics on first glance appeals to them. When the habitat was structured it was structured by the members of the community in an effort to make it a comfortable environment and/or experience. As you said, “Where are the xhyl@# links on the front page?”. That will get restructured if the members are bothered by it. It is a cycle and if it’s working (or not failing), then one may not realize it is succeeding. It continues to grow and the community continues to cultivate that habitat.

    The roads to a community are not always right off the Interstate. It may take many side roads and turns to find. Could “finding it” be playing a substantial part in a habitat’s success?

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