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What is an online community?

Where am I?

In Tribe you can ask and answer questions and share your experience with others!

Eli Najafi , Community Manager at Tribe

There is not a single definition that will apply to all online communities. It varies based on the general theme and why that community exists. online communities can occur anywhere around a general theme or topic.

The whole idea of a community is to help people in need, and we do that as an online community. An online community is a very powerful force. If you can cultivate it, you can make your customers experience of your products much much better.

An online community is an environment where all our social skills and abilities are gone, and we don't need them anymore. All we need is to be able to type and express our knowledge to the people all around the world.

The target of an online community is way bigger than an offline community. So, now what you need more than anything else is a level of trust and relationship. How does one get that relationship to work? How does one get the commitment working between the person who has got the answer and the person who needs the answer? In an online community, this is the hardest thing to do. However, the key is experts and active members of the community, who make up the core and the culture of the environment.

The experts and people who are always active in the community, answer to the questions, and have a very high score in the community are like a heartbeat for the community. These are the people who keep the community alive.

The most important part of any online community is the shared value. By answering a question, you have got to be able to share that answer, and you are going to be able to share the knowledge. That whole sharing experience and that whole shared value are probably the most important thing because that gives you an answer at the end of the day. It is not just a technically correct answer, but it is the answer that gives you a solution, and that is going to make a difference.

In an online community, these are the members of that community who empower the community, individuals looking after their own best interest. Besides, a community needs to be taken care of by community managers and community moderators.

A community manager defines the terms of use, or better to say defines the values of the community. In an online community, moderators are not the policeman forcing people to obey those policies. Now, the moderators' role is to talk up the community, not talk down to the community. Their role is to update, not to fit up, which is really important for the health of the community. Moderators are the ones who enforce or reinforce the values of a community so that everybody will be able to benefit and share the knowledge. This is the goal to get to that shared experience.

Furthermore, the trust is vital for an online community, which really comes down to common courtesy and respect. All the experts probably started out as being an asker at some point. Now they have got a problem, and they need a solution, and they ask questions. So they know what it looks like on the other side of the fence, but this is not the issue. The real issue is that most of the people asking a question are approaching a deadline. Or maybe they have been promoted to a position that they have no idea what it is. So the questions they ask is the real reason they are in the community. The reason is they don't really know the answer, and everyone may look for an answer at some point. However it is up to the experts, it is up to this shared experience and knowledge, to be able to extract and underlie a real problem, and then come up with a real solution.

Finding a solution means helping people in need, which is the primary goal of an online community. To get to that point, members of a community must communicate with each other. It is not enough just to be able to post a question and get the right answer.

Moreover, one of the challenges of being online is that you don't really know the person you are dealing with. You have got a username, and you need to figure out how to get that vital level of participation.

This is up to the community manager to create that environment, where it is safe for people to be, where they can open up, where they can be their real identities, to find out what the real answer is to a real problem, and to get to that sharing experience.

Community management team are there to encourage the community members to interact, to participate, to actually commit to the community values, which is vital for any community.

By having a high level of participation and commitment, you have a real community that can grow, but that won't happen by itself. The community management team needs to motivate that level of participation. They need the people to feel as if they need to belong to that community. How they do it? They empower the asker; they empower the person who needs help, just to be able to decide if that help was sufficient or not.

You see lots of websites that tell you here is the technically correct answer, and then 52 people come up and say "No, it's not", and they vote it down. You get that 8 times and you are out of the site now. That is not instilling the sense of a community at all.

In a community, you don't just have the technically correct answer, but you have whatever answer that helps a person to solve the problem, and that will make the difference. It could be a totally wrong answer, but it is "Oh, look at that, now I know". Here, that valuable shared experience and knowledge brought together a real solution.

Now, the experts get something very tangible; they get points. Their points accumulate to certification, and certification gives them some kind of credibility and authority. A community is building up these sort of certification which is very important for an online community. Why?  Because you can use it not just within the site, but externally as well.

In an online community, you give credibility to a future employer, knowing that this person has helped real people with real problems in real life. It is not something just learned. You know the study guide, and now there are viable solutions if it is a viable credibility. But more importantly, what you do is to use those sorts of environment motivations to hear what the community has got to say, to respond to what the community needs and what they are asking for.

For example, one expert has a particular problem, and all the other community members relied together on and raised several thousands of dollars to get them out of trouble. Another example is building wells in Africa so people that don't have clean water can have a drink.

By the help of an online community, we are going to do a lot more of these things; leveraging off the real power of the community to make a difference in people's lives, that otherwise wouldn't happen unless they knew a little bit of experts’ exchange as a community. That is the real power of an online community. it is not necessarily what is in it for you, as much as what you can do for so many more.  

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