Failure of Online Communities

Jay Cross is at ASTD TechKnowledge 2006 in Denver and provides this observation on communities of practice:

Next up was Bill Bruck of Q2 Learning on Creating and Sustaining Online Communities of Practice. After the session, several people told me they really appreciated Bill telling it like it is. Early on, he said that while he thought he was pretty good at fostering online communities, 90% of the communities he sets up fail.

I have had similar experiences, with the failure of the R&D for elearning community in New Brunswick as well as our local Sackville SOHO Society, which has died a natural death. I believe that it’s natural for online communities of practice to fail and that we may be putting too much emphasis on their longevity. If they serve a temporary purpose then I would say that they are successful, even if they don’t last.

Blogs seem to work this way. First you start reading other blogs, then you may aggregate them in a feedreader and then you may start to make comments. Later you may create your own blog and continue the conversations of others by linking to their posts.

However, your focus and links will change over time, as will the flow of the conversation. The ‘communities’ in which you are actively engaged will change and some conversations will stop entirely. This is similar to the failure of an online community.

We don’t view a discontinued blog conversation as a failure, but an unused community of practice is seen as a failure. I believe this is because we create most communities within an enclosed web space to which the members must go. On the other hand, most blogs are built around the individual and the community is dynamic (it flows).

Centering on the individual, who then decides on which people to connect to, is more natural than creating a box to which you must subscribe to be a member. With Elgg Learning Landscape, communities have the same properties as people and individuals link to a community as they would link to a friend. It is not necessary to go ‘inside’ a community space. This seems to be more natural. If more communities are built around the way that people naturally work and socialize then that 90% failure rate might drop.

9 Responses to “Failure of Online Communities”

  1. Visitor

    Context MatterHarold, I appreciate your comment about the natural lifecycle of communities. "End "does not necessarily mean failure. And I’m nodding in vigorous agreement with "If more communities are built around the way that people naturally work and socialize then that 90% failure rate might drop." (Do you know where the 90%  failure rate data comes from? Was it Bill’s experience? Or some research?) However, I think that we really havent’ figured out how to do that for diverse groups of people. I also am not sure what an "unused community of practice" is. Do you mean a site set up for a CoP? Because for me, the CoP is the people, not the tools. A very vibrant CoP may never use it’s tools, or it may.

    I want to test the waters here with your statement "It is not necessary to go "inside" a community space." Do you mean this as a generalization? Because I think there are times when going inside some boundaries affords a kind of experience that some communities need. Not every person, group or culture can find ease in an open, flexible (and sometimes seemingly random) aggregation of personal web pages. This works REALLY well for some, and disasterously for others. In some cases it is even dangerous.

    I really  want us to think about our statements and understand if they are generalizations that we think apply pretty broadly, or instead a diverse set of options so that communities can consider, choose and invent what works for them. What thrills me now is that we have more options, a bigger palette with which to paint.  It is the choice to be open that is powerful, not being forced there.

    That said, I want to now learn more about Elgg. I know, I’ve said this before. I really need to take the time. Push me, ok?

    Please keep posting on community issues!

  2. Dr Thomas Groenewald

    My wife started a monthly electronic digest for psychologists & psychiatrists. We offered both an electronic and hard copy subscription – interesting the numbers were 50:50. The digest just did not attract sufficient subscribers to make it viable. The community aimed at just is not into electronic learning and exchange of ideas & practice. We still occasionally receive an enquiry, indicating that there is some need for an online community, but not sufficient.

    • Harold Jarche

      It’s important to be where your audience is. For example, I’ve added an e-mail subscription to this blog and a lot of people have used it. Personally, I prefer RSS readers, but then, it’s not about me 😉


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