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Jan 15, 2002: The Yin and Yang of Online Community IA

One of the case studies in the new edition of Information Architecture for the World Wide Web will cover an online community's information architecture.

Because so many of these communities live and die by discussion (via mailing lists, newsgroups, etc.), it's impossible not to consider discussion venues a part of the community's information architecture. So any discussion of online community IA shouldn't be limited to web sites.

Each online community has a yin (ephemeral discussion) and a yang (static content--ranging from FAQs to articles--that the community stores on a web site). And each community typically starts with one or the other, though in my experience a community will ultimately accrue both.

Is my assumption correct? Can a community thrive with just discussion lists or static content? Or is there a particular threshold in an online community's lifespan where its is forced to add the yin to its existing yang?

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Comment: Stewart Dean (Jan 15, 2002)

Interesting questions.

I would say that along side dicussion lists and 'static' content there is at least a third driving force for communities and these are events.

Looking at the broader picture we see families collect together at events such as weddings and holidays, sports fans come together at matches and games and industry people come together at conferences and exhibitions.

For this reason I would say any information architecture relating to community is likely to have to deal with this element of time.

For example the growth of interactive TV will increasingly allow the conversations that happen between friends and family triggered by the events on screen to now be communicated via the screen (give an imediate enough interface).

The web has lead to many of us relying on space rather than time due to the slow loading of pages. Real time events will mean the information architecture will probably favour an increasing 'chunking' of information.

Do you have a view of how broadband is affecting information architecture?

Cheers

Stewart Dean
User Experience - Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper

Comment: Lyle (Jan 16, 2002)

Lou,

You mentioned the next edition of the Polar Bear book. Any ETA yet on when it will be out?

I just loaned my copy of the 1st edition to someone at work today, and was wondering about the new edition...

*Looking forward to it.*

Lyle
http://crocolyle.blogspot.com/

Comment: Lou (Jan 17, 2002)

Yes, it's true: there really will be a second edition out. July 2002. You saw it here first...

Comment: Ed Vielmetti (Jan 18, 2002)

With some discussion tools you get both for free - e.g. the Yahoo Groups setup where you get a permanent searchable archive along with the mailing list. That works out well for a lot of small groups.

In my experience the effective groups only happen when there is in person contact among the membership -- it doesn't have to be a 100% solution where all people know all other people in the group, but if you have less than 10% of the group that's ever met anyone else in person people are quick to flame and do stupid online tricks instead of treating each other as people.

Comment: Lou (Jan 18, 2002)

Ed, which 10%? Or does it matter?

Comment: Ed Vielmetti (Jan 18, 2002)

It does matter. If you had perfect information about who all knew (and got along with) who ahead of time, you could probably map it all out and select key introductions that you'd have to make to maximally connect the group & knit it together. Alas, you never have perfect information.

A good mix usually includes people who are "linchpins" (the term is from Duncan Watts) who connect together disparate parts of the world. So, for instance, you might pick (ref Wayne Baker's book)
- temporal linchpins, e.g. veterans of a field who know people and have worked with people of a lot of different ages and eras
- cultural linchpins, e.g. people who have international experience and have lived in more than one society
- genre linchpins, e.g. people with special techniques and talents in more than one field
- geographical linchpins, e.g. people who have contacts that extend beyond a single place

The last thing you want to do is get 10% of a big group and find that they're all the same age, working in the same place, with the same professional and academic background and who never talk to anyone else except themselves... a little clique.

Comment: Seth Gordon (Jan 18, 2002)

Another driving force of an online community is the flow of new source material and discussion topics. For example, discussions of biblical interpretations might recirculate and rehash because there might not be a lot of new content (I'm guessing here). But, conversations about the War on terrorism could be quite lively and change daily because the perspective and news changes daily.

I have been part of several online communities, but tend to become less active after I've gone through a round or two of the discussions that recur on a regular basis.

Lou asks an interesting question. . Can a community thrive with just discussion lists or static content? I think it depends if community implies a static set of members, or is a high level of member turnover acceptable. Let's use Pink Floyd fans for example. Almost every guy went through a phase where they thought Floyd was the best thing ever and dive headfirst into the community and want to know all things Floyd. But, most eventually grow out of it and move on - leaving the community. But, a newbie comes along with new zeal and jumps right in. So, the membership of the community has changed, but for all intents and purposes, I think the community remains fully intact while the newbies feast on the static information.

Comment: mantruc (Jan 25, 2002)

I think you're right Lou. The growth and development of an online
community requires a good balance between it's yin and yang. I hadn't
really thought of this as being part of the community's
Information Architecture, it's a very interesting question.
Take for example, the SIGIA-L. The mailing list is fantastic,
but the articles people from that group produce are published in each
one's space, thus avoiding the formation of a real online community.
One can feel how most of the regular participants of that list are
anxious to set a common place for their yang. Yet none of the nice
attempts made so far has recieved unanimous support.
I've been very involved in an online community that has had an
exceptional development over time. I've been in the administration group
since it started. I think one of the keys for our success was that
the project started with a tight group of people and a clear focus
on what we wanted to achieve (mission and goals).
We planned from the beginning to include both ehtereal discussion
and static content. There are people attracted by each of the dimensions
by separate, even some of them aren't even aware of the existance of
both, but most members take advantage of both our yin and yang.
javier

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Comment: Lou (Jun 29, 2002)

Wow. Thanks Mrs. Juliet. Must have really been worth your while.

When I get back home, I'll have to clean this up.

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