Cliff Lampe contributed this review. "Derek Powazek is the designer of both fray.com and kvetch.com, fairly active web "communities" from which he spun off a consulting career, helping others to design online interactions. Being a consultant, he is consitutionally required to write a book. Powazek's book, "Design for Community: the art of connecting real people in virtual places", is an attempt to advise people on adding community features to their websites. As such, the intended readers of this book are people who are considering taking a static website and adding interactive features to it. That is, making online communities. Powazek recognizes the pitfalls of the word "community" in relation to some of these online interactions, but seems to settle on it as a handy short hand for the series of user-generated, self-organizing, deliberative, effective etc. features that have fallen under the general aegis of "online communities". For Powazek, it's enough to define community as users interacting directly on a site." Read on for the rest of Cliff's review.
Since this is at heart a 'how to' book Powazek arranges the chapters in a sensible manner leading the potential community-builder through a series of potential decisions. One of the strengths of the book is Powazek's clear-headed take on the need for community elements in a website, and the first chapter counsels the potential designer to seriously consider whether building an online community is really the best use of his resources. Following chapters range from the sublime to the mundane, including design elements, programming tools to consider, interaction policies, moderation and finally when to know the community is dead. That last element is often neglected in books on building online communites, and is handled with unexpected candor and grace here.
Feature building advice given in this book is typified by Powazek's treatment of design as an element of building online community. When building features for interaction into your website, the following principles need to be considered:
- Design for your audience
- Design for flexibility
- Design for your experience
- Design for simplicity
- Design for readability
- Design for beauty
With each exhortation the author offers screen capture and narrative examples of people who have done it well and poorly. Other features like policies and moderation also are broken into these easily digestible, rarely contentious pieces intended to allow the casual user to consider the options for building community without feeling overwhelmed by issues involved. (As a facetious aside, I thought the designs for both kvetch and fray were terrible, but "do as I say, not as I do").
The real strength of each chapter is the interview with a Real Life (tm) community builder who describes an experience that provides support for the chapter. For example, the chapter on moderation includes examples of what is done at Slashdot, and then an email interview with Rob Malda in all of his curmudgeonly glory. Other interviews include, but are not limited to, Steven Johnson (FEED and Plastic.com) talking about design, Emma Taylor (nerve.com) on barriers to entry and Matt Williams (amazon) on commerce communities. Each community-builder gives a little blurb on what they do, and then goes on to some fairly decent reflections on what it means to run an online community. It ain't all rosy "Love Thy Neighbor" crap, and the narratives really help illustrate the real and solid design issues involved.
The narrative, as mentioned above, makes for compelling reading. Powazek seems to have really done some thinking on the issue, and the practical tone is a nice counterbalance to the Rheingoldian tradition of lionizing online communities. All books (well, this type anyway) are very dependent on audience. If you are a person who is just beginning to think about adding interactive elements to a site that you are running, or want to convince your boss to do the same, this is a very well put together book that addresses the major practical issues.
The counterbalance to the above statement is that if you are already intimately involved with online communities, this treatment will seem rather superficial. 'Yeah but...' will come often to mind. Also, Powazek speaks with the voice of Authority to comfort his intended audience, but in reality the jury is still out on a lot of the benefits of different features in online communities, as well as the value added of user interaction in the first place. Correctly for this style of book, Powazek does not address those issues, but if they are your main interest, you may be driven mad by their absence here.
So What's In It For Me?
If you are thinking of starting an online community, you should get this book. The descriptions of major considerations, with examples from the realities of what's been done before, will be a helpful starting place, though by no means the end of your research. If you are not going to start a community, or are already embroiled in one, this book still has quite a bit to offer. The interviews with various community builders makes for fascinating reading, and could be expanded into a book all its own. Overall, this is not a revolutionary work redefining our concepts of virtual community, nor does it want to be. It is a handy book on designing online interactions, with compelling examples and rich narratives that make for a quick, fun read.
Cliff is a doctoral student at the School of Information, University of Michigan. His research involves self-organizing websites, online deliberation and social captial effects of persistent online interaction. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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