Virtual Community Building Blocks
As we have seen, a successful virtual community can be formed around a single message board (i.e., a newsgroup). However, robust virtual communities typically make use of a range of technologies that support person-to-person and person-to-group communications. The primary enabling technologies are described below.
Most virtual communities provide for both "synchronous" (real-time) communications (through text chat and instant messaging) and "asynchronous" (non-real time) communications (through message boards, maillists, member and community web pages, and surveys). As a generalization, real time communication is usually social in nature, while non-real time communication tends to be more cognitive and topic-focused.
In addition to these key building blocks, virtual communities also depend on a member database and may also include technologies to support registration, electronic commerce, directories (of products, services, suppliers, etc.) and searches (for searching member profiles, community documentation, reports, articles, transcripts, archives, etc.).
Text chat is the exchange of written statements and responses among a group of people who are "present" together online, "in a chat room together.." A chat room can be available 24 hours a day or may be available only at scheduled times when a moderator is present or when a guest is "speaking" on a specific topic. Chat rooms can be public (open to everyone) or private (open only to invited guests.)
Text chat was invented by CompuServe in the late 1970s and has been a critical element in the popularity of America Online. Approximately one-fifth to one-third of online users enjoy the real-time social interaction offered by text chat.
Chat room regulars contribute strongly to creating a sense of "community" on a site. Chatters often have a strong sense of belonging and occasional visitors to an active community know that they can almost always find a group of regular chatters online with whom to socialize.
Instant messaging allows a user who is online to find out if a friend or acquaintance is also logged in at the moment. ("Buddy lists" automatically display the names of friends who are online at the same time a user is online.) Friends can use instant messaging to engage in a private one-on-one text chat with one other. This exchange is displayed in a dedicated window and can take place at the same time that members are engaged with other aspects of the community (e.g., reading web pages, posting on message boards, participating in a chat room, etc.).
Community managers can use instant messaging to keep members informed of current events (e.g., when a scheduled guest is about to begin a presentation, an instant message can be sent that says, "tonights speaker will be on in five minutes. . .if you are interested in participating, click here").
Message boards (also referred to as newsgroups or discussion forums) support ongoing discussions, generally of a single topic, over a period of months or years. An individual posts a message on a board that can be read at a later time by others who then post their responses (unlike chat, participants in a board need not be online at the same time). Since past messages remain available, a transcript is created over time that provides a record of the discussion.
Some message boards are open to all; others require permission from a moderator to join. Messages on simple boards are organized sequentially; more sophisticated boards allow for "threads" in which messages on sub-topics are linked to one another.
Maillists allows a user to send an e-mail to one e-mail address where the maillist server automatically forwards the message to everyone who has subscribed to the list. This type of communication supports the creation of sub-groups within the community based on specific topics.
As with message boards, there are open lists to which anyone can subscribe and closed lists that require permission for subscription. A community manager can create and administer a maillist or it can be administered by a member of the community based on a topic of interest to him/her.
Member Web Pages and Profiles
Many communities provide members with the opportunity to create and maintain their own web pages and/or personal profiles. Sites such as GeoCities, Xoom and AngelFire are primarily based on individually-developed Web pages organized into "neighborhoods" of people who presumably share common interests. Member profiles will become an important feature of communities over time; their precise format will vary based on the theme of the community e.g., in a golf community participants will be interested in other members handicaps, courses played, etc. while in an investment community participants will be interested in other members stock picks, asset diversification strategies, and other investor characteristics. These profiles could be tied in to the developers member database which will also include the members demographic information and possibly their responses to survey questions. (Privacy terms will become critically important.)
Surveys and Other Features
The ability to ask questions of a communitys members and tabulate responses can be extremely helpful in delivering services desired by the community. Information about who members are, what they want, what they like, etc., is also valuable for attracting advertisers and sponsors and for justifying a communitys advertising rates.
Other emerging features that add additional capabilities to virtual communities include the ability to form and manage sub-groups within the community, group calendars, that allow people to coordinate their schedules, and virtual worlds, that add graphic and other dimensions to real time textual (and soon, voice) communication.