Some Thoughts on The Online Community-A New Paradigm and Listservs

Some Thoughts on The Online Community-A New Paradigm and Listservs

The other day, I watched this great TedTalk video called The Online Community-A New Paradigm by Mark Willis (who runs Expert’s Exchange), and I have some thoughts on it. You should definitely watch the video. But in case you don’t have the fifteen minutes to watch it, I’ve put a quick summary underneath it.

Summary of The Online Community-A New Paradigm

According to Mark, going online changes how communities work. Put a community online and you globalize it. Anyone can talk to anyone without revealing their gender or ethnicity or age. But it also means that you lose some parts of communication and introduce certain challenges. Mark emphasizes the loss of hand gestures for instance.

Mark runs a question and answer community for technology problems. This brings with it some unique problems. Programmers (the answerers) aren’t known for their social skills. The questioners, on the other hand, are often under pressure because this question could mean their job.

Mark addresses four main parts of maintaining an online community:

  1. Longevity – Build a long-time core community of experts.
  2. Shared Value – Everyone in the community needs to get value from participating.
  3. Community Management – The members of the community run the community based on (hopefully) shared community values with the help of new-style mods that “talk-up” the community instead of policing.
  4. Trust – Encourage common courtesy and respect, communication and understanding.

Mark then points out some challenges. Especially the biggest challenge of getting people to open up and belong. People don’t really know who other people are, which leads to distrust. But participation is vital so you need to get people to open up. (See our blog on how to create a positive community culture to foster participation.) Community management helps, especially with instilling and committing to community values.

People need to feel like they belong though. One way that Experts Exchange does this is by giving the asker power over their question. They can say whether the help was useful. Then the answerer gets praise, and more importantly, points which leads to certification on the site, which can give credibility for future employers.

Once you build this community, there are additional benefits. The community members will band together to help other members. And you can leverage the community to help with charitable projects, like building wells.

So there’s your summary of The Online Community video, now for some thoughts.


I had lots of great light bulbs while watching The Online Community-A New Paradigm, but I’d like to focus on how it can apply to email discussion lists in particular. Mark uses the example of his specific online community, but I think his experience can apply to anyone, even those of you that run email discussion lists. After all, most email lists are all about professionals answering and asking questions, just like Expert’s Exchange.

Just like Mark, I think it’s important to build and reward a core community of experts. Obviously, in a mailing list, it’s harder to maintain a point system. But you could have community spotlights for especially useful members or compile lists of great answers.

Of course, you need to make sure question-askers feel like they belong too. A great way to do this would be to run your list serv using a modified question and answer summary method. Give your members the task of summarizing some answers, but encourage them to spotlight the answer to their question that helped them the most.

I love the last part of this video, where he talks about the good that communities can do. Once you’ve built a great email community, you should definitely start directing it as a force for good. Think about what your community cares about the most and then organize them. Are they nurses? Start a funding campaign for a medical issue. Are they writers? Think about education.

I think a great example of this is the community (not an email list community, but still a community) that has gathered around the photography blog of Humans of New York. These community members all care about people, about their problems. And every so often the photographer focuses his community’s attention on an important cause. Recently, he did a series on rare children’s cancers and together his community raised over 3.4 million dollars. Nothing is more powerful than a cohesive community!

How can you apply the ideas from The Online Community-A New Paradigm to your community? Post your thoughts in the comments below.