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design for community
buy this book at

New Riders
$30.00 USA $44.95 CAN £23.50 UK
ISBN 0-7357-1075-9


December 20 , 2001 | Design for Community by Derek Powazek

This book is an excellent resource for would-be community builders, written by one of the best-known and successful virtual community pioneers around. Nonetheless this is not the first book you should own on the subject - that would probably be Amy Jo Kim's book, Community Building on the Web or Cliff Figallo's Hosting Web Communities. Design for Community (DfC) is not a sort of "Communities for Dummies" talking you step by step through all of the stages of virtual community management - determining why you want one, choosing or writing your software, day to day management, monitoring your goals and so on. At less than 300 pages with large type and illustrations it isn't big enough, and in any case writing a textbook just isn't Derek's style.

Instead (and just as interestingly) this is an easy to read collection of handy tips on various aspects of community building, drawing on Derek's own experience and that of eleven other virtual community luminaries. I was never bored, and even when I disagreed with some of his ideas they definitely made me think.

Next week in Mindjack:
An interview with Derek Powazek

His thinking is definitely flavoured by his background - if you are looking to set up sites that are primarily "personal" and informal in tone and spirit this book will be just what you need. If you want a virtual community to help distant office teams work together or provide support for your company's products you will find it harder to apply as it doesn't give you much guidance on the sorts of issues you'll run across there, like "what if our message boards are full of criticism of our product and marketing want to shut them down?" or "what is a virtual community's contribution to the bottom line?" Perhaps because of the traditionally free-booting attitude of West coast Internet pioneers like Derek there is also very little discussion about legal issues whether in the US or abroad. His section on "policies and policing" talks well about how to make your terms and conditions readable but doesn't indicate how to deal with libel, privacy protection issues with user registration or the provisions of the American Child Online Protection Act.

Once you have decided you want to make a space where a virtual community can gather, one of the first things you need to do is figure out what the underlying software will be. In the 16-page chapter dealing with this issue he tells you up front "this is not going to be an all-inclusive list of every community software package out there…" In fact, he mentions very few - one or two from each "category" - and the "lazy man's community package" most people will have run across, Yahoo Groups, is only mentioned in passing. Largely unimpressed by the off-the-shelf software available he says, "nine times out of ten, you'll be better off building something yourself that's custom fit to your needs". This may be true in principle, but I wonder how many of the people reading this book will have the resources available to re-invent the wheel one more time?

Similarly, there is lots of information on how your community should look to the users but little on how it should work "behind the scenes" when you are trying to perform tasks like searching or editing message postings - the day to day work of virtual community managers.

It is in questions of "design" in its narrowest sense of "look and feel" that Derek provides some of the most interesting tips. He suggests, for example, that you should deliberately make it hard to post a message to the messageboard. This is a startling thing to propose, but he makes the point that if you make people read some of your content and other people's writing before they post, "users who are looking for trouble or aren't really engaged in your content will be put off by the distance." He also suggests that as well as what previous people have written, the overall colour scheme of a site can actually change the tone of people's posts. And he points out that pictures of people can help "humanise" a site but says that you should "use real photos of real people connected to your site. An amateur photo that's real will do more… than a legion of fake smiles from Photodisc".

If you run a content-led site you will find his design tips particularly useful - time and time again he points out the importance of integrating the content with the community elements - something I agree is absolutely vital. And he devotes a whole chapter to a little-considered element of community design - how to manage email lists and, particularly, how to format the email bulletins you send.

Even if you aren't in the "front lines" of community building, however, this is still an interesting book. The interviews give you an interesting insight into how large community websites are run and he does a good job of explaining how virtual communities can form out of text on a screen. It may not be the first book you should own on virtual community but it is definitely worth a read.

David Brake is a UK-based virtual communities consultant and one of the Rheingold Associates team.




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