The Main Page - A Review
Howard Rheingold, a prominent scholar on the topic of Online
Communities, has not only spent many years participating in, researching
and writing about virtual communities but he has created quite a few.
He started with a Usenet newsgroup called sci.virtual-worlds and moved
on to River, a virtual community that is it’s own cooperative corporation
in which members can buy one share of ownership and have one vote in the
governance of the community. Then in 1996 he founded Electric Minds,
a webzine with a web conferencing and chat system that fostered the growth
of an online community. After he was forced to sell Electric Minds
due to funding problems in 1997, he created a private virtual community,
Rheingold has gained much experience and knowledge about the governance and growth of online communities,
"Over the years, I've learned that virtual communities are not the norm, but the exception, that they don't grow automatically, but must be nurtured. Any groups that are thinking about adding chatrooms or message boards to their web expecting community to blossom without much forethought, design, or committment of ongoing resources, is headed for failure… In order to succeed, a virtual community has to have an affinity -- the answer to the question "what would draw these people together?" It has to present a user interface that doesn't baffle the newcomer, but gives a range of options to the experienced user. Building a social space online does not guarantee that people will inhabit it. It has to have a social infrastructure, including simple written agreements to a social contract governing online behavior and sanctions for transgression. It needs skilled human facilitation. And there must be some plan for bringing a continuing stream of newcomers into the community. pages, expecting community to blossom without much forethought, design, or committment of ongoing resources, is headed for failure."
Rheingold seems to be lobbying for a governance structure very similar to that of the WELL, the first online community that he participated in. Rheingold states that virtual communities must be built on software that has a user-friendly human interface, and develop a “clearly stated policy regarding online behavior that all participants must agree to.” He stats that many members of virtual communities are content with a set of appropriate, well thought out, rules. These predefined rules of conduct may serve the purposes of online communities better than "‘policy thrashing’ over meta-issues such as how to elect the people who make the rules” because as Rheingold cautions, these discussions “can swallow up other forms of discourse.” To read more about the experience of one online community member with policy thrashing check out The Thrash.
Rheingold, Howard. "Community Development In The Cybersociety of the Future." BBC Online. http://www.partnerships.org.uk/bol/howard.htm
Other Sources to Check Out:
Howard's Website - http://www.rheingold.com/index.html