virtual communities as a business network

by Crucible Multimedia

The powerful communications facilities offered by the Internet have changed the way many people access information and make contacts. Over Internet the exploitation of the industry grapevine or "word of mouth" sources is not limited by time or geography - by becoming a member of a virtual community you can share ideas with, and ask questions of, others in a way that would seldom happen using "hard data" resources.

There are two fundamentally different approaches to communication over the Internet, synchronous and asynchronous. An ordinary telephone conversation is an example of synchronous communication - dialogue responses are immediate. Examples over the Internet include chat rooms, where a dialogue is conducted in a screen window using a keyboard, and videoconferencing. Synchronous communication is superficially attractive, but has the disadvantage of requiring all parties to be available at the same time, a considerable disadvantage in an international dialogue. It is also only really practical with a small number of participants.

Asynchronous communication is more suited to virtual communities. Here responses are not immediate. The delay in response may range from a few seconds to days, but this need not hinder the flow of ideas and in practice can lead to better quality contributions. It allows for wider participation, as not all parties need to be present at the same time, and a permanent record of discussions can be created that can be used as a resource in the future by others, reducing the need to raise issues that may have already been covered. Over the Internet the most common examples are mailing lists, discussion forums and newsgroups.

Mailing lists

A mailing list may be used simply to distribute information to a group of users, or take the form of a discussion group conducted using e-mail. E-mail can be used very successfully to create a virtual community, as all contributions are delivered direct to the mailbox and can be read and responded to at your convenience.

A discussion group can be open, with interested parties subscribing to the list by e-mail, or they can be closed with restricted membership. For heavy traffic lists, members can often elect only to see a summary or digest of messages, with all messages archived on a website for permanent reference. The process of running a mailing list can be largely automated using a program called a list server, or alternatively there are websites such as Yahoo Groups and Topica which host scores of mailing lists and take all the hard work out of the process.

Discussion forums and newsgroups

Discussion forums are conference areas on the Web. Anyone can submit a message that can be read by all subscribers, and a question can prompt an answer from anywhere in the world, with people often surprisingly willing to share their expertise. However, as users need to make a visit to a website to participate, discussion forums can require a lot of work to maintain a critical mass of changing content. They are most likely to succeed when the subject under discussion is fairly specialised, and a moderator ensures the discussions do not veer "off topic".

Many websites host discussion forums, but some of the most popular operate under the banner of Usenet, which is accessed using a newsreader program that usually comes with your Web browser. The quality of discussion in many Usenet newsgroups is variable, but you may still be able to access the latest information on product releases, events and industry developments (or rumours) that you would otherwise struggle to locate.

Creating a successful community

There are no limits to the range of special interests that can be served by a virtual community, but they work at their best when fairly specialised.  If you want to set up a community of your own, there are many resources to help you, but a word of warning. Many virtual communities are set up in a rush of initial enthusiasm, but quickly fall into disuse. To succeed a community must have a sufficiently focused domain of interest, with a critical mass of change within that domain. But success can be achieved across a huge spectrum of membership size, volume of change and type of content.

Virtual communities can benefit from the appointment of a moderator or leader. In unmediated communities, such as newsgroups, there is no control over the content. This can lead to a reduction in quality that quickly escalates, as serious contributors abandon the forum, resulting in all usefulness and commercial value being lost. In a moderated community all content is screened for quality by an individual or panel. Such forums will be more authoritative, but there is also a heavy workload involved in moderation, making it impractical for large communities or fast moving discussions.

Finding telecoms and other communities                    

Reviewed January 2011

last updated : 21/01/2011

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