In the past, if you wanted an online community for your organization, you had to choose.
Option 1: A topic-focused, highly reputable conversation platform, which is a complete time-suck, requiring you to sacrifice other work or stay up late moderating content to guarantee everything remains civil.
Option 2: A maintenance-free, lively discussion place that protects the anonymity of your members, which nobody wants to visit because the useful conversation is degraded by poorly moderated inflammatory comments.
The idea persists that online networks are either functional and time consuming or low-maintenance and low-quality. Unfortunately many nonprofit organizations, without the budget to manage the conversation and unwilling to invite unmoderated conversation, avoid having a strong online presence for exactly this reason.
Good news: now online communities can be hassle- and flame-free. Well-designed communities hand off most of the moderation work to someone else–your users.
Users will do more than contribute to your content: they will control it as well. Allowing users to recommend content they like builds a sense of ownership: imagine your pride when a post that you recommended makes it to the top of a highest-rated list, or one of your updates appears in the site’s featured content section.
Also, if you’re not allowing users to flag abusive or inflammatory content, you’ve skipped one of the easiest things you can do to make your community function smoothly.
The stigma against anonymous posting exists for a good reason. If you have an axe to grind but fear public retribution, there’s no better place to do it than one of the internet’s many message boards. For this reason many communities do not allow anonymous users to post content. On the other hand, requiring users to contribute personal information treads upon personal security. There is a comfort in anonymity knowing that if your post is ill-received, nobody can track you down and attack you personally.
There is a way to walk the line, though, and it’s called reputation building. Required registration with minimal demands for information is ideal: a valid email address is enough to build accountability while protecting your user’s identity. Ultimately, this connects all of your user’s content with his username, so that instead of drifting off into space, his posts now form a record from which we can gauge his reputation. Having a lot of posts–or a high level of participation–would look really good on your reputation. Creating content that gets highly recommended by other users can’t hurt either.
People who want to protect their reputations will only publish content they are proud of, and want to have associated with their identity. As for the others, don’t worry–if they go through the trouble of signing up in the first place, they’ll get flagged down by responsible users after an update or two.
Will Work For Modules
Superusers are integral to the long-term health of your community. When a few users emerge from the conversation as the most engaged, dedicated, and invested, you may elevate them to the status of superuser. Call them moderators, administrators, or super bad-ass 12ers, they will work for free and keep your conversation focused for the pleasure of participating. Of course, it helps if you give them some shiny badges: check out the Superman insiginia used by DontStayIn.
How much power you give to your superusers is up to you, but whatever perks or badges you offer in return, take good care of them.
Regardless of the platform you choose to build in, there are lots of options available for creating user responsibility. The magical formula is creating enough ambiguity to let anonymous-leaning users feel safe while encouraging them to create online identity and reputations. Off-the-cuff journalism site Mother Jones allows users to display badges beneath their avatars that track things like print subscriptions, or donor status. Features like this encourage a user to express herself and build her reputation while keeping her identity safe.
If you need more guidance, harness the wisdom of the crowd. Finding out what features users prefer is as simple as checking out a list of popular modules, or putting a poll on your website. Creating a great online community that only takes a few minutes of work per day is possible. Just remember: it’s your conversation too, so respond to what’s being said.