Online Communities Talk
speaker notes for Philip Greenspun; revised June 2003
Site Home : Teaching : Short Talks : One Element
- online communities are at the heart of most successful applications of
the Internet: amazon.com, AOL, eBay
- Internet not the killer app unless people are separated in space
and time (otherwise a conference room or a telephone would work better)
- Time is too short to consider all the different kinds of online
communities so we'll focus on education.
Education -- Why does it matter?
- a 1938 comment by Karl Taylor Compton, one-time president of MIT:
"In recent times, modern science has developed to give mankind, for
the first time, in the history of the human race, a way of securing a
more abundant life which does not simply consist in taking away from
- economic growth comes from tech innovation
- can't apply science and engineering without education
- better-educated populations make better armies: Germany versus the
Soviet Union 1941-1942; the unsuccessful Arab war against Israel 1948
Education -> Better Technology; Better Tech -> Better Education?
- The basic idea has always been to amplify the efforts of our
greatest current teachers, usually by canning and shipping them to new
students. The canning mechanism is almost always a video camera. In
the 1960s we shipped the resulting cans via closed-circuit
television. In the 1970s the Chinese planned to ship their best
educational cans all over their nine million square kilometer land via
satellite television. In the 1980s we shipped the cans on VHS video
tapes. In the 1990s we shipped the cans via streaming Internet media.
- It really started in the 1950s with people talking about how
television was going to bring Harvard lectures to the masses. Things
didn't exactly turned out as planned, eh?
- Turn it around and use the Internet to increase the number of
teachers rather than increasing the number of students.
- If it is 3:00 am and you want to learn about quantum mechanics,
you need only pull a book from your shelf and turn on the reading
light. But what if you want to teach at 3:00 am? Your friends may not
appreciate being called up at 0300 and told "Hey, I just learned that
the Franck-Hertz Experiment in 1914 confirmed the theory that
electrons occupy only discrete, quantized energy states".
- To be a useful teacher/coach you don't need to be the world's
leading expert, just know more than the person who asks the question.
Ergo out of 6 billion people on the planet there are 5.99999 billion
potential teachers in every domain.
Six Required Elements of Sustainable Online Community
- lessons from personal involvement with about 200 and looking at
the first large-scale online communities: USENET discussion forums
- USENET, which was started in 1979, maybe more familiar to young
people as Google Groups
- magnet content: long posting from recognized expert
- means of collaboration in the USENET group is the ability for any
member to start a new thread or reply to a message
- browsing and searching were reasonably good for recent messages
but terrible or non-existent for learning from older exchanges (until
mid-1990s when DejaNews, now Google Groups came out)
- near-crippling weakness in 4th required element, means of
delegation of moderation.
- fallen tragically short is Element 5: "Means of excluding
burdensome people." Most USENET clients include "bozo filters" that
enable an individual user to filter out messages from a persistently
troublesome poster. But there is no collectively way for a group to
exclude a person who consistent starts irrelevant threads, spams the
group, abuses others, or otherwise becomes unwelcome.
- As far as Element 6, software extension by community members
themselves, USENET has done remarkably well. USENET servers and
clients tend to be monolithic C programs where small modifications can
have catastrophic consequences. On the other hand the average user of
the early Internet was a skilled software developer. So if not every
USENET user was a programmer of USENET tools it was at least safe to
say that every programmer of USENET tools was a user of USENET.
obvious improvements to USENET when doing Web-based communities
More dramatic improvements can be obtained with attention to Element
5: "Means of excluding burdensome people." Your software can do the
SQL query "show me users who've submitted questions that were deleted
by a moderator as redundant" and then automatically welcome those
users back to the forum with an interstitial page explaining how to
search and browse archived threads. If the online community is short
on moderator time it will make a lot of sense to query for those users
whose postings have resulted in moderator intervention. If it turns
out that 0.1 percent of the users consume 50 percent of the
moderators' time, perhaps it is better to ban those handful of users
and thereby double the community's available moderation resources.
- an optional "mail me when a response is posted" field
- e-mail summaries or instant alerts
- up-to-the-second full text indexing (assuming your RDBMS supports it)
- secure transmission of data to and from the bboard via SSL
- collaborative moderation via admin pages to delete stale/ugly/whatever
- older postings browsable by category
scaling from 100 participants to 100,000: adapting ideas from the
sociology of physical communities
- identified, authenticated, and accountable; can't fake your sex or
expunge your history in the face-to-face world
- audience reaction is natural face-to-face; online do it with
breakout chat room (did not work on photo.net to use AIM chat because
people had different screen names) or sending message to 1% of users for a
- real world has delay for emotionally charged or politically
important decisions; maybe introduce some artificial delay in
political discussion forums
- geospatialization of the questions (Scorecard examples) or of the
users (let them meet on weekends)
- would you want to see every photo from every person in Boston?
Every posting from everyone in Israel? reverse bozo filter;
"interesting people system" Six months after the feature was added
5,000 users had established 25,000 "I think that other user is
- 1980s: USENET, distributed
- 1990s: Web-based communities, central database
- 2000s: one server per author, links and connections among them via
inter-computer protocols such as SOAP and XML-RPC?
- all the innovation in open-source toolkits for building online
communities is in the Weblog area
A little inspiration
- Information technology can solve all of the world's problems
- People invest in computing when there are new applications.
- New applications are built on new infrastructure.
- ubiquitous wireless Internet: car can send you a message when it
is being broken into, when you left your kid or dog inside and it is
getting too hot; the city can send a message to your car about a
traffic accident, your wife can ask you to pick up milk; you can ask
your car if anyone nearby needs a ride to where you're going; your car
can tell your house to turn on the air conditioning
- voice recognition, conversational speech interfaces: an airplane
is full of little buttons; much better just to talk to it
Text and photos (if any) Copyright 2003 Philip