Leadership and effective moderation are critical to the success of online communities (Bourhis, Dubé, & Jacob, 2005; Gairín-Sallán, Rodríguez-Gómez, & Armengol-Asparó, 2010; Gray, 2004). Leadership and moderation are key factors for cultivating and sustaining a knowledge-sharing environment. Forms of leadership can vary greatly from visible and daily moderation of community interactions to behind-the-scenes nudging and support for members. Successful online communities have involved leaders who skillfully encourage participation, learn about the knowledge and expertise of their members, develop diverse avenues for knowledge exchange, build alliances within and outside the community, and help to establish a cadence for community activity. Leaders of successful communities have a broad vision for the ways in which their community fits into and complements a larger network of both face-to-face and online communities. Their competence and credibility within the field enables them to establish an atmosphere of trust and more readily identify and value member expertise. Because of the important role that community moderators play in the success of the community, it is not surprising that their work requires a significant time commitment. The time a moderator devotes to leading an online community can range from several hours per day to full-time work.
In addition to the official moderator(s) of a community, core community members can also play important leadership roles. Each member brings to the community their stories, their experiences, and their tacit knowledge of practice. Through ongoing exchange of this knowledge, they develop social identities within the community. Over time, these identities may evolve into informal community roles, such as thought leaders, answer people, peacekeepers, or fans. Members’ knowledge of others’ expertise can be a key component in network formation. Good network formation results in networks that have increased both expertise and the potential to strategically access this expertise to enhance individual and community functioning (Coburn, Choi, & Mata, 2010).
Planning and Implementation Guidelines
- Select a well-connected community leader who has competence and credibility within the field.
- Select a community leader who is attuned to the key issues, passions, and concerns of the group.
- Select a community leader with excellent online communication skills and experience moderating online communities.
- Recognize the time commitment needed to lead the community; allow for and compensate for that time accordingly.
- Increase “expertise transparency” among members to facilitate development of unique member identities and roles. Detailed and persistent profiles are one means of increasing expertise transparency. These profiles can include representations of members’ activity within the community and across communities. Opportunities for small-group collaborations provide another way of increasing expertise transparency.
- Provide opportunities for members to take on leadership roles within the community. Some leadership roles, such as spearheading the organization of a webstitute, may be short-term; and other leadership roles, such as being the community cybrarian, may extend over time.
- Identify community members with leadership potential and provide them with opportunities for e-leadership and e-moderation training.
- Offer ways for leaders within the community to connect with leaders from other communities.