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What makes online communities click?

What makes an online community successful? Is it the design, the many flashy functions and gadgets? Is it the aspect of having to be a part of it to be “cool?” Or is it simply the capability to create a good replica of real life in the virtual space and use the capacities of modern technologies to do so?

It can be assumed that an online community in virtual space will follow similar rules to communal entities in real life. Accordingly, it is possible to deduce various factors that influence the success of online communities.

To begin with, an online community must have a clear purpose, one that is also clearly recognisable. This can be indicated, for example, by the URL, http://www.hamsterforum.de or www.babyguide.at.

Or it is explained on the homepage. In the case of facebook.com, this translates into the following statement: “Facebook is a social utility that connects you with the people around you. Upload photos or publish notes, get the latest news from your friends, post videos on your profile, join a network to see people who live, study, or work around you.”

Although not overly specific, it is still obvious what it is about.

Communication and interaction are the central elements of both a real and a virtual community. Consequently, an Internet community must offer simple possibilities to hold private conversations with other members, conduct group discussions, ask questions or post comments and criticisms of other members’ contributions. Mailing, instant messaging, chatting, commenting and voting are the corresponding functionalities. The use of photos and multimedia files are an important extension of the “vocabulary,” as today text continues to be the main means of communication in online communities. But it is still a case of the more sensible possibilities of fast and simple interaction and communication, the better.

It is not only real-life clubs and associations that require rules to ensure a certain order in the group. This principle applies also in virtual space. Even more important: the observance of these rules must be monitored, a task that is usually managed by so-called moderators. There is no room in either the real or a civilised virtual world for insults, personal attacks or immoral and unethical behaviour. In addition, moderators set the tone and act as a role model for the other members.

In contrast to real life, the possibilities to interact with the other members are largely confined to the display screen, keyboard, mouse as well as in some cases microphone and webcam. Intuitive and useful functions, well-organised, clear navigation structures, possibilities of personalisation, private areas for filing certain information as well as the absence of confusing and therefore superfluous gadgets, are important criteria for success. The objective must be to make it as simple as possible for the members to mingle in the virtual group and interact with others: just as people like to do in real life.

A real-life club or association can also only enjoy long-term success if it is dynamic, develops continuously and grows. For online communities, that means: new, improved functionalities, new members who initiate contacts and build relationships. New contents, e.g. photo galleries or comments, motivate members to log in repeatedly and take a look at what is happening in the group.

Online communities satisfy some of people’s basic needs. And these basic needs correspond to those in normal life outside the virtual world. The success of an online community is greatly dependent on the degree to which real life, using new tools and technologies without space and time limitations, can continue in cyberspace.

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