This section outlines different types of community functionality that may be valuable.

8.1 Content Tools

Content management and file repositories—Many communities of practice revolve around sharing and disseminating knowledge artifacts. Community platforms need to mix more traditional Web content management with social networking or other forms of collaboration. Variations run from simple file lists with folders to more complex hierarchical listings with metadata-driven filters. The amount of content a community might hold is obviously a primary driver in the choice of needed features. Larger amounts require a greater ability to organize and browse content. Size of community and familiarity of members with each other also makes a difference here. Smaller online communities reflecting existing offline networks can often manage a more utilitarian offering than one with a larger, less established one. Examples: Any of the major “all-in-one” community platforms such as SharePoint, Central Desktop, Jive, and Drupal Commons.

  • Blogs—Blogs are a great tool for facilitating discussions when users wish to do more than just ask and answer questions. Blogs allow one user to post a brief or extended idea or opinion and invite others’ comments. The structure thus lends itself to a case where the community needs one or a few individuals (the authors) to have a priority position relative to the rest of the community members. Facilitating active group blogs may require an intuitive interface for posting that allows easy inclusion of images, video, and other multimedia. In addition, blogs should offer a user interface that highlights the authors, making it easy to see their profile and picture. This gives users a clear sense of the relationships they can make and the expertise they can tap. Examples: WordPress, TypePad, BlogSpot, and many others (including “all-in-one” platforms such as Drupal Commons and Central Desktop that include blogs as part of a larger feature set).
  • Microblogs/Status Updates—Microblogs, which are functionally equivalent to status updates, emerged from the desire to take the “anyone can publish” ethos of blogs and apply it to short thoughts, quick observations, a shared links with minimal explanation. Twitter is the best known example, with its famous 140 character constraint on expression. This has spawned a litany of jokes, poems, and even mininovels, but it has also become a place for serious community interaction. Examples: Twitter, Tumblr; also increasingly a common feature of larger “all-in-one” platforms such as Jive and Drupal Commons.
  • Wikis—Wikis are special websites that make it easy for users (or selected users) to add and edit pages as part of collaborative content development. While wikis are good in some situations such as developing conference agendas, developing software documentation, and compiling frequently asked questions, the lack of preexisting structure often makes them chaotic or confusing for novice users. Although there are exceptions, posting content to a wiki often works better for more sophisticated users of the Web and for those with deeper content expertise. Some participants are hesitant to click on a button that says “edit,” and, if they do, often change their mind and decline to post something when an entire page opens up and is editable. Other tools that allow a user to simply post a single question or upload a shared resource tend to require fewer clicks and are less intimidating to novice users. Examples: MediaWiki, SocialText, PBWorks, Confluence.
  • Collaborative document authoring tools—The best known example of such a tool is Google Documents. These tools work like a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation tool, or other familiar software in many ways, but multiple users can edit documents simultaneously with all edits tracked for reference. This feature can greatly ease collaboration as well as provide immediate feedback to a principal author(s). Less advanced tools provide a check-in/check-out capability so that versioning is clear. Examples: Google Documents for simultaneous editing; “all-in-one” community tools like Basecamp and ProjectSpaces for check-in/check-out.
  • Social bookmarking—The ability to collect links from across the Web is an important feature for online communities of practice. There is great deal of content that has already been produced and just needs to be brought to a single place where members can access it. Social bookmarking services allow leaders as well as members to collect links to external Web content and categorize it. Newer services also allow annotation and commenting that displays on the page when other logged in users of the bookmarking service go to a linked page. Examples: Diigo.com, Delicious.com, StumbleUpon.
  • Media libraries and albums—In many cases it is valuable for a community to share multimedia—photos and videos, primarily—in order to both capture knowledge and build camaraderie. Some community tools provide a means to do this within the application in a way that is well suited for the medium in question. Even when it is possible to include this content within a tool, it can still be valuable to use outside services as the “home” for the content and embed the players they provide within the community platform. The embedded player provides an excellent user experience and the community leader does not have to worry about hosting the much larger files. Examples: Flickr, YouTube, some “all-in-one” community tools like Ning and BuddyPress; Facebook.
  • Data visualization tools—When communities use data and want to share information and knowledge within that data in simple ways, they should consider collaborative data visualization tools. Data visualization tools can make data “come alive” and thus make it easier for members to access, use, and share that data across knowledge levels in a community. Examples: Google Spreadsheets, Many Eyes, Swivel.
  • Profiles and social networking—For large communities, strong social networking functionality (that is, indicating who in a community knows whom and allowing users to follow the participation of others they know) is a valuable way to build, deepen, and maintain relationships (Cambridge, 2010). Members connect—or reconnect—with contacts in their professional field or personal contexts and create new avenues for interaction with these people. This is especially true for social networking systems such as Facebook, where the profile includes not just biographic information, but an entire history of contributions (including The Wall). A rich profile feature can also be important for reducing barriers to participation and helping members be more comfortable interacting and sharing with people whom they may have never met in person. This can be a more important element of topical communities where users are seeking knowledge. Examples: most “all-in-one” community platform tools like BuddyPress and Ning; LinkedIn for professionals.
  • Member commenting—Many online communities deploy user comment threads on other content as a primary means of interaction. Tying comments to wiki pages, documents, and blog posts allows rich discussions around all content. Providing this facility across all content leads to an increase in both the quantity and quality of user interactions. Advanced commenting tools allow rich threading, easier access, and the ability to track an individual’s comments across multiple communities. Examples: All blog platforms; nearly all “all-in-one” community platforms; Disqus (to cross multiple communities), Omeka.
  • Discussions—Most communities allow members to engage in meaningful discussions to ask questions, test ideas, invite input, and share lessons learned. Unlike blogs, where there is an implied hierarchy of author(s) over others, discussions are generally set up with all participants as equals (though it can be valuable to call out some participants as being “special,” e.g., if they represent the sponsoring organization or are known experts). Examples: Many “all-in-one” community platforms; social media tools like LinkedIn and Facebook; phpbb, ezboard.
  • Webinar services—It can be valuable to intermingle asynchronous online activities (in which members can participate at any time) with synchronous, virtual interactions (which require members to be online at the same time). Sometimes a conference call is sufficient for this but, in other cases, adding the possibility for users to share a screen and view the same Web tool, presentation, and so on in real time provides a more powerful and efficient means to get work done. These tools are commonly stand-alone services that go alongside other community tools. Examples: WebEx, Adobe Connect, Elluminate Live, Dimdim.
  • User-generated ratings and popular content—Many communities allow members (and, perhaps, other users) to rate the utility of content, comment on it, and find things according to the ratings and usage of their peers. For sites that present a lot of content, ratings can be a powerful tool for users to quickly find the most useful content and understand how it is being applied by other members in the network. It also helps to highlight what is energizing a community at that moment. Examples: Ratings and reviews on Amazon, eBay, and other ecommerce platforms; Facebook’s “Like” feature. Some “all-in-one” community platforms now incorporate this feature.
  • Polls and surveys—These tools are excellent ways to facilitate participation from a broader group of participants. Some users are more willing to respond to a poll or survey than they are to post to a discussion forum or add a comment to a blog. They are also an excellent means of facilitating participation and involvement from larger communities, which often have a greater “fear factor” for posting ideas that many other people can see. This fear can create an ecosystem of a few active participants who dominate the discussions and a larger group that is hesitant to contribute. Examples: SurveyMonkey, SurveyGizmo, Wufoo; polls included in some “all-in-one” community platforms such as Jive and Drupal Commons.
  • Event calendars—It can be useful to have a central listing of events so all members can understand upcoming activities and find information from past gatherings. Examples: Many “all-in-one” community platforms, including Central Desktop and Ning; MeetUp for online access to communal offline events; Evenbright.
  • Task management tools—A more project-oriented community will want project management tools such as task lists and milestone tracking. Examples: Basecamp, Central Desktop, ProjectSpaces.
  • Decision support tools—Groups collaborating on projects must develop strategies and make decisions. Decision-making processes can be supported by tools for ranking ideas, establishing consensus, or systematically analyzing a situation through a structured set of steps. Examples: Decision-support tools are offered within some project-management suites, such as SAS Streamworks and through online idea ranking and deliberation system, such as IdeaScale and HERMES.
  • Badges—Indicating levels of stature or achievement within a community can help motivate participation and help members identify experts. This is often done by allowing users to earn, give, and receive badges indicating some accomplishment. The badges become part of the user’s profile. Examples: Edmodo.com; customized versions of BuddyPress and DrupalCommons.
  • Rewards systems—Though still emerging, a step beyond badges is the ability to earn physical rewards for actions within a community. Obviously this increases costs but could increase incentives in some situations. Examples: uBoost, Webcentiv, and Love2Reward.
  • Reputation management systems—As people become more and more connected online, it is useful to know whether the person making a particular comment is reliable. Reputation systems that assess a user’s behavior and gives other users the sense of whether the user is an active participant, if others have responded favorably to the user’s contributions, if the user has a history of acceptable discourse, and so on. In that way, a reader of a piece of contributed content in isolation gets the added context of the author’s general reputation. Examples: eBay and Amazon “rate this seller” tools; Slashdot and other community news sites; customer support “was this valuable/helpful” features that roll up to the author.
  • General social networking sites—Online communities these days have blurred boundaries. Because of the proliferation of social networking sites, particularly Facebook and LinkedIn, community designers need to decide which activities exist within sites branded, in some way, as the organization’s own and which are pushed into third-party sites. Some organizations choose to only focus on third-party sites, although the community functionality of these sites is limited.

8.2 Member Interaction Tools

  • Profiles and social networking—For large communities, strong social networking functionality (that is, indicating who in a community knows whom and allowing users to follow the participation of others they know) is a valuable way to build, deepen, and maintain relationships (Cambridge, 2010). Members connect—or reconnect—with contacts in their professional field or personal contexts and create new avenues for interaction with these people. This is especially true for social networking systems such as Facebook, where the profile includes not just biographic information, but an entire history of contributions (including The Wall). A rich profile feature can also be important for reducing barriers to participation and helping members be more comfortable interacting and sharing with people whom they may have never met in person. This can be a more important element of topical communities where users are seeking knowledge. Examples: most “all-in-one” community platform tools like BuddyPress and Ning; LinkedIn for professionals.
  • Member commenting—Many online communities deploy user comment threads on other content as a primary means of interaction. Tying comments to wiki pages, documents, and blog posts allows rich discussions around all content. Providing this facility across all content leads to an increase in both the quantity and quality of user interactions. Advanced commenting tools allow rich threading, easier access, and the ability to track an individual’s comments across multiple communities. Examples: All blog platforms; nearly all “all-in-one” community platforms; Disqus (to cross multiple communities), Omeka.
  • Discussions—Most communities allow members to engage in meaningful discussions to ask questions, test ideas, invite input, and share lessons learned. Unlike blogs, where there is an implied hierarchy of author(s) over others, discussions are generally set up with all participants as equals (though it can be valuable to call out some participants as being “special,” e.g., if they represent the sponsoring organization or are known experts). Examples: Many “all-in-one” community platforms; social media tools like LinkedIn and Facebook; phpbb, ezboard.
  • Webinar services—It can be valuable to intermingle asynchronous online activities (in which members can participate at any time) with synchronous, virtual interactions (which require members to be online at the same time). Sometimes a conference call is sufficient for this but, in other cases, adding the possibility for users to share a screen and view the same Web tool, presentation, and so on in real time provides a more powerful and efficient means to get work done. These tools are commonly stand-alone services that go alongside other community tools. Examples: WebEx, Adobe Connect, Elluminate Live, Dimdim.

8.3 Member Feedback and Research

  • User-generated ratings and popular content—Many communities allow members (and, perhaps, other users) to rate the utility of content, comment on it, and find things according to the ratings and usage of their peers. For sites that present a lot of content, ratings can be a powerful tool for users to quickly find the most useful content and understand how it is being applied by other members in the network. It also helps to highlight what is energizing a community at that moment. Examples: Ratings and reviews on Amazon, eBay, and other ecommerce platforms; Facebook’s “Like” feature. Some “all-in-one” community platforms now incorporate this feature.
  • Polls and surveys—These tools are excellent ways to facilitate participation from a broader group of participants. Some users are more willing to respond to a poll or survey than they are to post to a discussion forum or add a comment to a blog. They are also an excellent means of facilitating participation and involvement from larger communities, which often have a greater “fear factor” for posting ideas that many other people can see. This fear can create an ecosystem of a few active participants who dominate the discussions and a larger group that is hesitant to contribute. Examples: SurveyMonkey, SurveyGizmo, Wufoo; polls included in some “all-in-one” community platforms such as Jive and Drupal Commons.

8.4 Project Coordination

  • Event calendars—It can be useful to have a central listing of events so all members can understand upcoming activities and find information from past gatherings. Examples: Many “all-in-one” community platforms, including Central Desktop and Ning; MeetUp for online access to communal offline events; Evenbright.
  • Task management tools—A more project-oriented community will want project management tools such as task lists and milestone tracking. Examples: Basecamp, Central Desktop, ProjectSpaces.
  • Decision support tools—Groups collaborating on projects must develop strategies and make decisions. Decision-making processes can be supported by tools for ranking ideas, establishing consensus, or systematically analyzing a situation through a structured set of steps. Examples: Decision-support tools are offered within some project-management suites, such as SAS Streamworks and through online idea ranking and deliberation system, such as IdeaScale and HERMES.

8.5 Incentive and Recognition Services

  • Badges—Indicating levels of stature or achievement within a community can help motivate participation and help members identify experts. This is often done by allowing users to earn, give, and receive badges indicating some accomplishment. The badges become part of the user’s profile. Examples: Edmodo.com; customized versions of BuddyPress and DrupalCommons.
  • Rewards systems—Though still emerging, a step beyond badges is the ability to earn physical rewards for actions within a community. Obviously this increases costs but could increase incentives in some situations. Examples: uBoost, Webcentiv, and Love2Reward.
  • Reputation management systems—As people become more and more connected online, it is useful to know whether the person making a particular comment is reliable. Reputation systems that assess a user’s behavior and gives other users the sense of whether the user is an active participant, if others have responded favorably to the user’s contributions, if the user has a history of acceptable discourse, and so on. In that way, a reader of a piece of contributed content in isolation gets the added context of the author’s general reputation. Examples: eBay and Amazon “rate this seller” tools; Slashdot and other community news sites; customer support “was this valuable/helpful” features that roll up to the author.

8.6 Social Media and Community Sites

  • General social networking sites—Online communities these days have blurred boundaries. Because of the proliferation of social networking sites, particularly Facebook and LinkedIn, community designers need to decide which activities exist within sites branded, in some way, as the organization’s own and which are pushed into third-party sites. Some organizations choose to only focus on third-party sites, although the community functionality of these sites is limited.Many communities now coexist with the social networking sites, with core activities occurring “on domain,” but with some conversations and activities extended into Facebook and LinkedIn. A number of platforms support automated (or facilitated) linkages to the social network sites. In other cases, versatile APIs offered by the major social networking sites combined with simpler options for building widgets allow custom integration. And in some cases, community managers choose to inhabit both “on domain” and “off domain” communities in parallel efforts, acknowledging that the third-party sites represent “where the people are” and, therefore, need to be included into the discussion of community strategy, design, and platform.
  • Topic-specific community sites—In some cases, developers have built platforms that are specific to a topical sector (such as education) and which offer many of the features of more general purpose platforms. These can function as any other community platform if the specialized design serves the new community’s needs and if they are open to the audiences that the new community seeks to target. They may also include features that are needed within the context of the domain, such as greater privacy and control for social networking in a school environment. In some cases, using such a community may provide a strong way to recruit members, because individuals may already participate in these systems in other contexts and be comfortable with them. These services are also likely more tailored to specific audiences and may offer higher levels of security and privacy. Examples in the education sector: edmodo.com, Edublogs.org.
  • Content-type-specific social media sites—A number of sites have emerged that allow social sharing of specific kinds of content. YouTube is the best-known example, where the content type is video. These can be valuable services for disseminating media content and encouraging communal interaction around it. Examples: YouTube and Vimeo for video, Flickr and Picasa for photos, SlideShare for presentations, Scribd for documents, Swivel and Many Eyes for data.

8.7 Supporting Utilities

  • Notifications—Notifications are critical components of an active community. While some complain they get too many notifications, e-mail is still valuable to many members and remains the primary way most users are notified of activity in communities where they participate. E-mail notifications allow busy people to stay informed about new resources, discussions, and other activities without having to log in each day to check. Some users prefer e-mail and other, more sophisticated users might prefer content syndication via standards such as RSS or Atom. SMS notifications also may prove important for some users, as may notification via social media tools such as Twitter. Examples: Many “all-in-one” community platforms, including Basecamp and Central Desktop.
  • Public facing and password-protected content—For some groups, much of the community content, such as sharing best practices, lessons learned, and tools and resources, could be on publicly accessible pages. Putting content behind a password raises the bar for participation and may deter some users from engaging in the community, but it also provides a level of trust and feeling of privacy. Different tools offer different levels of ability to make some content private and some not. In some cases there is a broad brush: this whole “site” is private, this whole one is not. Others offer the ability to make some individual sections, or even content items, public and private. Essentially all “all-in-one” community platforms, with Jive and Drupal Commons allowing more graanularity; Facebook.
  • API—An Application Programming Interface (API) provides a set of rules and specifications
  • to allow one Web-based program to interact with another program. The proliferation of APIs—one of the most consequential recent trends online—allows for “mashup” applications, which pull data and functionality from multiple sources online to combine them in new presentations. Most users see the results in Facebook and mobile phone applications that enable presentation and updating of Web content outside its “native” context. Examples: Ning, Facebook, Twitter.
  • Centralized authentication—Websites increasingly allow user authentication and login via Web-wide authentication services. The advantage of offering such a feature is that it eases a barrier to joining the community—the prospective member does not need to create yet another account they have to remember. Access to this feature is limited by the platform provider, in general, though the option is becoming more common. Available open standards are OpenID or OAuth, as well as extended authentication from the major sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Examples: Google/OpenSocial, Yahoo!, and OpenID, as supported by extensions to many platforms.
  • Metrics tools—Web applications increasingly offer their own set of Web metrics tailored to their specific activity. They are useful for understanding the way that tools are being used and by whom they are being used. These can be supplemented by generalized Web metrics services. Examples: Built-in tools for each service; Google Analytics, Omniture.

Next: Community Architecture

6 Responses to Community Tool Functionality

  1. Useful info. Fortunate me I found your web site by chance, and I am surprised why this accident didn’t happened in advance! I bookmarked it.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  2. Tony Reeves says:

    Thank you for this detailed list, it’s easily the most comprehensive breakdown of e-Learning tools I’ve come across.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  3. Nour_eddine says:

    Thanks so much . The information are so interesting. I start to see the headlines of my topic.
    Regards
    nour

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  4. Mary Rearick says:

    Nicely organized listing, evaluation, then classification

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  5. Lorenzo says:

    Exploring reddit.com I noticed your website book-marked as: Community Tool Functionality | Connected Educators.
    I am assuming you bookmarked it yourself and wanted to ask if
    social bookmarking gets you a large amount of targeted visitors?
    I’ve been thinking of doing some bookmarking for a few of my websites but wasn’t certain
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    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  6. Courtney says:

    Hello! I know this is kinda off topic but I was wondering
    if you knew where I could get a captcha plugin for my comment form?

    I’m using the same blog platform as yours and I’m having difficulty finding one?

    Thanks a lot!

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

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