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The Internet Books Media Book Reviews

Design For Community 56

Cliff Lampe contributed this review. "Derek Powazek is the designer of both and, fairly active web "communities" from which he spun off a consulting career, helping others to design online interactions. Being a consultant, he is consitutionally required to write a book. Powazek's book, "Design for Community: the art of connecting real people in virtual places", is an attempt to advise people on adding community features to their websites. As such, the intended readers of this book are people who are considering taking a static website and adding interactive features to it. That is, making online communities. Powazek recognizes the pitfalls of the word "community" in relation to some of these online interactions, but seems to settle on it as a handy short hand for the series of user-generated, self-organizing, deliberative, effective etc. features that have fallen under the general aegis of "online communities". For Powazek, it's enough to define community as users interacting directly on a site." Read on for the rest of Cliff's review.
Design For Community: The Art of Connecting Real People in Virtual Places
author Derek M. Powazek
pages 307
publisher New Riders
rating 9
reviewer Cliff Lampe
ISBN 0735710759
summary Good stuff, nice to get the developers perspective.

Since this is at heart a 'how to' book Powazek arranges the chapters in a sensible manner leading the potential community-builder through a series of potential decisions. One of the strengths of the book is Powazek's clear-headed take on the need for community elements in a website, and the first chapter counsels the potential designer to seriously consider whether building an online community is really the best use of his resources. Following chapters range from the sublime to the mundane, including design elements, programming tools to consider, interaction policies, moderation and finally when to know the community is dead. That last element is often neglected in books on building online communites, and is handled with unexpected candor and grace here.

Feature building advice given in this book is typified by Powazek's treatment of design as an element of building online community. When building features for interaction into your website, the following principles need to be considered:

  1. Design for your audience
  2. Design for flexibility
  3. Design for your experience
  4. Design for simplicity
  5. Design for readability
  6. Design for beauty

With each exhortation the author offers screen capture and narrative examples of people who have done it well and poorly. Other features like policies and moderation also are broken into these easily digestible, rarely contentious pieces intended to allow the casual user to consider the options for building community without feeling overwhelmed by issues involved. (As a facetious aside, I thought the designs for both kvetch and fray were terrible, but "do as I say, not as I do").

The real strength of each chapter is the interview with a Real Life (tm) community builder who describes an experience that provides support for the chapter. For example, the chapter on moderation includes examples of what is done at Slashdot, and then an email interview with Rob Malda in all of his curmudgeonly glory. Other interviews include, but are not limited to, Steven Johnson (FEED and talking about design, Emma Taylor ( on barriers to entry and Matt Williams (amazon) on commerce communities. Each community-builder gives a little blurb on what they do, and then goes on to some fairly decent reflections on what it means to run an online community. It ain't all rosy "Love Thy Neighbor" crap, and the narratives really help illustrate the real and solid design issues involved.

What's Good?

The narrative, as mentioned above, makes for compelling reading. Powazek seems to have really done some thinking on the issue, and the practical tone is a nice counterbalance to the Rheingoldian tradition of lionizing online communities. All books (well, this type anyway) are very dependent on audience. If you are a person who is just beginning to think about adding interactive elements to a site that you are running, or want to convince your boss to do the same, this is a very well put together book that addresses the major practical issues.

What's Bad?

The counterbalance to the above statement is that if you are already intimately involved with online communities, this treatment will seem rather superficial. 'Yeah but...' will come often to mind. Also, Powazek speaks with the voice of Authority to comfort his intended audience, but in reality the jury is still out on a lot of the benefits of different features in online communities, as well as the value added of user interaction in the first place. Correctly for this style of book, Powazek does not address those issues, but if they are your main interest, you may be driven mad by their absence here.

So What's In It For Me?

If you are thinking of starting an online community, you should get this book. The descriptions of major considerations, with examples from the realities of what's been done before, will be a helpful starting place, though by no means the end of your research. If you are not going to start a community, or are already embroiled in one, this book still has quite a bit to offer. The interviews with various community builders makes for fascinating reading, and could be expanded into a book all its own. Overall, this is not a revolutionary work redefining our concepts of virtual community, nor does it want to be. It is a handy book on designing online interactions, with compelling examples and rich narratives that make for a quick, fun read.

Reviewer notes:

Cliff is a doctoral student at the School of Information, University of Michigan. His research involves self-organizing websites, online deliberation and social captial effects of persistent online interaction. He can be reached at

You can purchase this book at Fatbrain. Want to see your review in this space? Please review our submission guidelines first, then submit through Slashdot's web interface.

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Design For Community

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  • by under_score ( 65824 ) <mishkin&berteig,com> on Tuesday November 27, 2001 @01:55PM (#2619972) Homepage
    I am trying to build a community educational web site. The idea is pretty basic: open up education so that people can participate fully as learners, educators and "accreditors". I've taken inspiration from slashdot as well as other community web sites. Problem is: it's not very "sticky" and this is because its kinda complicated and a tiny bit hard to use. I don't have the resources right now to totally fix that, although I have ideas. Please check it out: Oomind Open Education Community []. I've even got an e-commerce aspect so that once it gets going a bit, people can actually earn money from their contributions. Check out The Philosophy of Oomind [] for some background thoughts as well. This is a blatant plug: I would really love to get lots of people using it, and particularly contributing to it!
  • Where's The Cash? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tomblackwell ( 6196 ) on Tuesday November 27, 2001 @01:57PM (#2619980) Homepage
    Powazek is an extremely well-regarded member of the online community. Unfortunately, I'm not sure about the future of online communities. Banner revenue has been in free-fall for months, and online communities have the unfortunate side effect of encouraging users to hang around, view many (often dynamically created) pages, and ask for more features.

    The online community community ends feeling like the guy who threw a party and a thousand people showed up. It's great to be popular, but who the hell is going to pay for this?

    What I guess I'm trying to say is that a rationalization or consolidation is in order for the online communities of today. I wouldn't get used to the concept of a full-featured online community, (Slashdot included) because I have a feeling that most of them will be collapsing under the weight of their own successes.
    • This book may have attracted some interest a couple of years ago. Not now.

      We're in an economy now where the excesses and waste of the dotcoms has thoroughly soured everyone on any computer-related business or technical innovation. Of the dotcoms, the ones in "online community" were the worst offenders. Remember Peaked at $90. Was last seen trading at about a nickel. Even Slashdot's parent VA is failing (I hope Hemos and Taco got paid in cash, not stock).

      The words "online community development" just say "scam artist" to me, and, more importantly, to those who would be willing to pay real money to use or finance any of those things.
    • by Zoop ( 59907 ) on Tuesday November 27, 2001 @02:21PM (#2620112)
      As someone who works for a company whose speciality is online communities, I can attest that banner ad revenue is falling but that is by no means the end of online communities. Remember, not everyone is out to make money fast like now.

      The best place for them is for non-profits and governmental organizations who want to communicate, educate, or do something related online. If your audience is more targeted, you don't have the Slashdot effect for your community--for example, not just a website for youth involvement, but one for youth leaders [] who are organizing other youth to do things (that's a real-world example).

      Obviously, it's not all we do, and we're moving into other areas, but it's still a part of what we do and it's working for our clients (or we wouldn't be in business--we're self-financed).
    • Collapse? (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Deltan ( 217782 )
      You make it sound as though Communities were like a dot com themselves, no money, no new features, no selling product to the client (community members) and the whole thing will flop.

      No matter what the economy or state of the net is like, people will gather to talk and interact with each other about a common interest. They'll do it wherever they can and will return frequently providing the atmosphere and interaction keeps their interest. It's one of those circle of life things.

      Gimicks and new features are nice, but established communities do not fall because the instant messenger is broken 9 days out of 10, they fall due to a stagnant atmosphere and lack of interesting and stimulating discussion.
    • I can tell you that your statements may be true for some online communities, but those who have their act together will not die off.

      I run, we offer remotely hosted message boards where people can build their own community around their site. Currently the site hosts 32,000 separate message boards, has two servers, and the site is rapidly expanding.

      It has been my experience over the last few years that yes, advertising revenue has decreased, but there are still many active advertisers who are looking for a way to effectively advertise their site to the masses. You may not get the crazy $1 CPM (cost per thousand impressions) you may have seen in 1998 for banner ads, and not the $5 CPM on popups, but you can still make good money. receives about 15 million monthly pageviews on our message boards that we host. From this, I make about 20 cents CPM on banner ads and a dollar CPM on popup ads (I don't put popups on every page). Overall the site makes around $2 - $3k a month right now, and server bills can go over a thousand dollars (especially bandwidth).

      You ask, where is the cash? Well, first off our community based site has turned a profit every month for the last year - the site has not gone negative since going profitable. A smart person would have backup funds in the bank ready for any hard times. I keep a lot of backup money to pay server expenses. If I ever hit hard times (which I have not in that I have not gone negative), I have plenty of money to keep on pushing forward through those times and make it out without a sweat. So where is the cash? In the bank. At least for my service.

      Major sites like EZ Board may have a much harder time through these market conditions because they have a full staff to employ. I don't believe that you can really employ a whole staff just by trying to make money from advertisements -- but this does not mean that community sites will die off. Others out there run sites like my own, and those are the ones that will thrive. It's not the big corporations that make communities, it's the little people who don't have to worry about the big corporation expenses.

      Patrick Clinger
  • I used to work at a company [] that wanted desperately to create an online community. But it's not a simple thing to do and they failed miserably. Why? Because the market just doesn't demand it. Online communities are necessarily small niches, and niches are things that big companies [] just can't seem to handle well. And trying to make a niche community into something bigger usually fails miserably [] and alienates the people who made the site popular in the first place.

    This book is obviously intended to be read by managers who still think they can put up a simple web site and make millions of dollars catering to the needs of individuals on the Internet. (I know because I borrowed and skimmed it.) Well, the reality of the matter is that it's just not possible. Online communities just happen. If you try to intentionally build one, you are wasting your time.

    Just my 2c.

    • Well, the reality of the matter is that it's just not possible. Online communities just happen. If you try to intentionally build one, you are wasting your time.

      Excuse me, but I call bullshit.

      Online communities don't just happen. One or more individuals have to put in the effort to get them off the ground and to keep them running if and when community membership grows beyond current capacity. Period.

      Groups or individuals who start online communities don't grow them by accident. Sure, there might be a few cases where it someone accidentally taps into a sublimated need for membership. But usually, people kick these things off to satisfy a need not found elsewhere. Maybe just for themselves at first, but usally with an eye toward drawing more people in. Else, why would they even let people join their proto-community?

      I think you underestimate the ability to consciously build a community. I see it happen all the time when people of like interests or in similar need reach out for assistance, online and off. In the online world, next thing you know, someone has built a website, started a mailing list, maybe even started an Open Source software project (blatant moderator pap).

      And organizations, whether for profit or not, can get in on this. Look at the sites that sprout up around newly released PC games. Look at how firms behind those releases may or may not wish to get involved in building community interest and providing a community roost -- wallpapers, message boards, members-only material, insider reports. Those all build forms of community.

      And look what happens when they drop the ball -- I'm thinking of Derek Smart and his handling of BC3K types, of Firaxis in the past in handling their message boards (and I think pulling them entirely in the end?), and so on. That's when companies and individuals learn how strong their communities have become. I'm certain others can come up with far better examples of communities nursed or spurred into existence at the hands of business.

      And if you think AOL has failed to build an online community, I don't think you've ever really talked to people who represent their die-hard userbase. That, or you've never heard of AIM. Now *there's* an online community that AOL taps time and time again with banner ads...

      You are right, though, that throwing money at a problem or in support of a perceived business need isn't a solution in and of itself. But to say that community building is somehow anathema to financial concerns or beyond-the-niche support is mistaken.

    • I've been doing it since 1986, and my current community, referenced in my sig, has been around for 11 years.

      (That's, not the Image of the Day.)

      The big difference is that when I started it, I did it for the community; when you did it, you did it for your employer, who did it for their own reasons, none of which had ANYTHING to do with the community.

      I mean COME ON NOW. The community itself cannot be an afterthought.

      On my community, there are no ads. There is no business plan. There isn't even a Paypal/Amazon tip jar. Commerce is not the point - is NEVER the point. The community is not about money, nor is it about me as benevolent dictator. The community is about communication. Nothing else matters.

      What do people want out of a community? They want security - to know their words aren't going away. They want utility - to know they aren't going to have to wade through copious amounts of spam or other crap to get what they want. They want unfettered access to each other. They don't want to sit there and work out who's making money or whether the post they write is going to be deleted or whether the post they're replying to was written by a marketing bot.

      They want reality in droves. They don't fit into a marketing plan. If they do, it's by accident, and next month they won't.

      I built a community because my goal in life is to help people communicate using technology, and I am fascinated by the collision of technology and culture. Excite built communities to make a buck. Our online existence is transparent - the people can tell what we're all about and why. Is it not obvious why mine has lived all these years while Excite is gone?

      As far as Slashdot's mis-steps on the way to growth: I ask, how much of that is due to losing sight of what is critically important - the community and its vitality? If Slashdot fails, is it because there aren't hundreds of thousands of tech people who deperately want to connect with each other and communicate with each other? Or is it because it now serves a different master?
  • if you are already intimately involved with online communities, this treatment will seem rather superficial. 'Yeah but ...' will come often to mind.

    Well, yeah, every How-To book has this problem. "Do we make it comprehensive at 1250 pages, or do we make it usable at 250-400 pages?"

    The Gardener

  • Fatbrain... (Score:2, Informative) not the cheapest place to get this book. Take a look here [] for a price comparison. Examples:

    Fatbrain: $28.48
    Bookpool: $24.92
    Amazon: $24.99
    • Well, you illustrate one of the major pitfalls that come with "community building"... revenue. OSDN is doing everything in their power to keep Slashdot profitable, but it doesn't look good. That's why they have to link to Fatbrain with their referrer ID.
      • Should stay away from Fatbrain. They pulled a fast one on me. They showed one price on the website, same price on the receipt but my credit card was charged $5 more. I called them up and they said that the site miscalculated sales tax! I didn't bitch too much since the company picked up the tab but it was still a pretty nasty was of doing business. If your system f's up then you should pay not me.
  • by under_score ( 65824 ) <mishkin&berteig,com> on Tuesday November 27, 2001 @02:07PM (#2620026) Homepage
    (I just posted a shorter version of this - this provides more info.) I am trying to build a community educational web site. The idea is pretty basic: open up education so that people can participate fully as learners, educators and "accreditors". I've taken inspiration from slashdot as well as other community web sites. Problem is: it's not very "sticky" and this is because its kinda complicated and a tiny bit hard to use. I don't have the resources right now to totally fix that, although I have ideas. Please check it out: Oomind Open Education Community []. I've even got an e-commerce aspect so that once it gets going a bit, people can actually earn money from their contributions. Check out The Philosophy of Oomind [] [] for some background thoughts as well. This is a blatant plug: I would really love to get lots of people using it, and particularly contributing to it!
    Oomind Open Education Community [] So basically it works like this: the units of educational material are called Courselets. Each courselet is like an article writen about a specific subject. There's lots of flexibility here so even a poem can be a courselet. A courselet has ratings in ten different attributes including Beauty, Creativity, Insightfulness, Theoretical, etc. Registered users can moderate these ratings on a courselet. The ratings change based on a weighted average taking into account a user's level of influence. Courselets also have quiz questions. The questions can be written by anyone, not just the author of the courselet. The questions also have a score which is just a weight, and a price (!) which is in "oo-points". Oo-points are Oomind's internal unit of currency. They are purchased and redeemed for cash. When you answer a question and get it correct then the price of the question is taken from you and distributed three ways: 40% to the courselet author, 40% to the question author and 20% to the system. Oh: authors can use multiple aliases. When you answer the question correctly you also get "credit" - the 10 scores of the courselet are modified by the weight of the question and added to your "Portrait". Therefore your academic credit is cumulative rather than percentage based. It is also dynamic: as the scores of the courselets change, so do your learner scores. You also have educator scores which are the sum of the scores of all the courselets you have contributed (also dynamic). Courselet are free to be read by anyone and can be linked too from external sites - "knowledge wants to be free". In progress: group and messaging features. I really hope that people check it out and sign up. Right now there are about 80 registered users. The next 20 get 1000 oo-points free, and after that it is just 100 oo-points free. Also there aren't that many courselets right now (maybe about 100) and not too many questions on courselets. Please contribute! Thanks and please mod this up. I know this is blatant but I think it is of real interest for the Slashdot community.
  • by DaoudaW ( 533025 ) on Tuesday November 27, 2001 @02:18PM (#2620097)
    Check out the book's online community [].

    Excerpts, discussions and more!!
  • Any really up-to-date book or article on Design For Community: The Art of Connecting Real People in Virtual Places ought to mention the artificially intelligent intruders [] likely to be met on-line in either virtual reality or ostensibly real situations.

    For instance, suppose you check into the online virtual-reality Habbo Hotel. [] How will the readers of Derek Powazek's book or of Cliff Lampe's review be able to deal with Turing-Test-complete virtual entities ?.

    Please move over, human society, and make room on-line and in your hearts for our fellow stewards of Earth coming to greet us amid the approach of Technological Singularity! []

  • Links (Score:3, Informative)

    by webword ( 82711 ) on Tuesday November 27, 2001 @02:41PM (#2620227) Homepage
    Karma whore? Sure. I guess. But I'm already at 50, so what do I care? I'm just saving you from doing a Google search on "Powazek []".

    A Conversation with Derek Powazek []

    San Francisco Stories []

    Derek Powazek explains the power of community []

    User to User Support []

    15 Questions for Derek Powazek []

    How did {fray} come about? []

    Picture of Powazek []
  • I've managed an online community for the past couple years, and spun-up a few in the past year for other companies as a consultant. I bought the book with a lot of expectations that ultimately weren't fulfilled.

    My problems with the book is that it takes a superficial look at aspects of an online community and tries to distil them down into antecdotes without really examining the deeper implications of them.

    As well, the writing put me off, as its a bit self-serving. I much prefer Amy Jo Kim's book to this one, as she removes herself from the equation when looking at other communities. Design for Community is just a bit too much ego stroking for me really.

    Thus, the book has been put on the shelf, while Amy Jo Kim's book and Howard Rheingold's books are still on my desk. They are just deeper in content and less gloss.

  • I don't mean to sound curmudgeonly about this, but I've found every virtual community--read "online forums"--to get tiresome quickly. The original, wonderful intent, that people will all contribute and make the site a better place, is quickly replaced with the reality that people endlessly post the same questions, the same virus hoaxes, the same misinformation, and often seem to be filling time during study hall (which is frequently the truth). Slashdot is borderline unbearable as it is, but the moderation saves it just _slightly_. More and more I just post my thoughts when I have a real opinion about a subject, but I don't read other posts, and I don't care about karma. But other forums...ugh. Why even bother? Sites like, which is one of the better community sites out there, are still drowning in college-age smugness and uncontrollable urges to state the obvious.
    • Hmm... I think that communities work really well if there's a common, generally very specific, interest at heart. In that case, people develop into gurus/elders and are able to keep the newbies in line; FAQs develop and even off-topic discussions generally stay on some sort of reasonable track.

      I do think that specificity and a site that grows slowly are key to this, though. You want a community where people really care what other people think about them.

  • Read Greenspun's book [] for free...

    He's actually built successful community sites [], not just written generalizations

  • I own a readers' and writers' community [], and do a lot of reading looking for ways to improve my content and offerings. The book had a number of truly useful bits of information, observations, and suggestions --
    • Integrate live with static content
    • Build in barriers -- they matter
    • Bury the post button
    • Try out some new tools like weblogs
    • Offer user moderation of user-created content
    Due to my community back-end, some of these have been tough to implement, but I managed workarounds, and like my results. For an independent site owner with a targeted and focused community, the book offers some great advice. More commercial or more diverse sites might find it less useful.
  • by LazyDawg ( 519783 ) <lazydawg@h[ ] ['otm' in gap]> on Tuesday November 27, 2001 @04:46PM (#2620927) Homepage
    The wiki started in the mid 90s, and has only managed to expand and proliferate, and to improve in popularity. It makes for a much better interaction platform than, say, a message board, because the importnat and interesting information is always under judgement. People are editing and creating based on other peoples ideas, and not just responding to other peoples' posts, so you don't have to scroll through nearly as many pages.

    Nevertheless, the wiki at is dedicated to Design Patterns, a general enough audience, and after so many years it is still growing. Last time I checked there were about 18000 pages, all made by outsiders, and almost all well written and quite interesting.

    The best way to have your community thrive is to have it as open as possible. IRC is so successful and well-used because anyone can become powerful in their own little corner of the system. While nobody likes the people who go out of their way to stir things up on online communities, their existence does tend to lead to others following after them and tidying their mess up. In the end, there is more traffic, and your site becomes more popular, until there are enough signal producers to make the noise producers ignorable.
  • Being an avid reader I generally have not had any real reason to post before, but this one kinda makes me feel the need to post. The big issues that should really looked at is the type of community as well, and creating good content. Having run a 10 k a day hit page (it was most of the people that played the game) I can tell you the biggest problems were not with adding fancy links, sounds, hell even interactions. The idea was to keep GOOD, SOLID information. The site I had never varied from the static link (mouse up and down javascript buttons ofc) with text on a basic dynamically created news page, and the use of a generic board called ikon board. A community page will bring people together simply by providing good solid content, if you are "competing" with someone, then the large issue comes down to reliability, if you are up all the time, and have news related to the communities interests in mind, with enough staff to stay on it and provide interesting commentary, then you will recieve a substantial amount of hits. One thing many people also fail to realize, and it seems few books cover this, is the fact that you do want personality to the web page, initially you get a few saying that you should not report news with personal opinion interjected, but this is incorrect. They have news sites for that, and news sites, and i mean strictly news sites, do not mean the community is being fostered. When there is a slow time in a community a strictly news site will fail because it has nothing to report, and no creativity to keep itself kicking, a good community oriented site keeps the community together at this time, by providing fun downloads, and screening for quality user created materials, and files, and not just official ones. A person that can keep a site updated with good, well organized content is going to be around much longer than the really cool looking site that is not updated often. Oh well, point is, if you want to create a community get good content. in fact just say this mantra in your head when you are making the site. CONTENT CONTENT CONTENT and you will do well, and if you have a good goal oriented msg board (similar to ikonboard) and keep good content, with good reviews of the news it will do well. (though be prepared to take some flack for your opinions on news, remember if they want news w/o the opinion they can go elsewhere, and thats OK)
  • I remember years ago, where there were these things called BBSes; a place run by a tireless, yet enthusiastic, person, dedicated to a one or more areas of interest (of that individual, usually). People would wait hours to get on on the single line (occasionally a second line was available, but not for the vast majority of 'em) to participate in the "virtual community" created by the sysops for the users, usually for free (or the cost of a toll call).

    All sarcasm aside, the WWW version of the BBS, now called a "community website" still has a long way to go to even come close to the level of interpersonal communications that BBSland provided its users. Of course, now you can have more people online at the same time for little to no cost, but there is not much going on besides a few forums on most "community websites". Occasionally, you have a chatroom or two, rarely any files, and more rarely, games.

    As time goes on, I look at what the BBS that I ran provided to the users and figure that there must be a way to use all of this technology to bring back the "personal" interaction level that I always enjoyed as a Sysop and a user of BBSes.

    Maybe I will get around to finishing that BBS of Doom project that sits occupying a few megabytes of my development drive... someday.

    At any rate, the point I am attempting to make is that there is a lot to the BBS model that can be "borrowed" from in order to add the missing dimensions necessary to make any simple enthusiast web site into a wonderfully interactive and interpersonal (let alone friendly) experience.

    Just my $0.02.

    Former Sysop of Iconian Gateway, WWIVNet Node 4401.

I've noticed several design suggestions in your code.