Virtual Communities - Links & Articles on General Community Topics

Submitted by Ted Takacs on Sun, 12/26/2004 - 16:05.

Facilitating
and Hosting a Virtual Community

Nancy White
Last edited 4/03/04

  • From Webster's: Facilitation \Fa*cil`i*ta"tion\, n. The act of facilitating or making easy.
  • From Wordnet: facilitation n: act of assisting or making easier the progress or improvement of something
  • "to free from difficulties or obstacles"
  • "to make easy or easier"

Why Facilitate Online?

Online group
interactions do not always "happen" spontaneously. They require care
and nurturing: facilitation. The core of facilitation and hosting is to
serve the group and assist it in reaching its goals or purpose. Some
describe this role as a gardener, a conductor, the distributed
leadership of jazz improvisers, a teacher, or an innkeeper. It can be
this and more.
Levitt, Popkin and Hatch, in their article "Building Online Communities for High Profile Internet Sites" wrote, "Communities are organic in nature and site owners can't make them successful or force them
to grow. As site owner can only provide the fertile ground on which a
community may grow, and then provide some gentle guidance to help the
group thrive. Much of the challenge in fostering an online community is
social, rather than technical."
Facilitation is a balance between functions that enhance the
environment and content, create openness and opportunity, and functions
that protect the members from harassment. It involves the sacred
rituals around freedom of individual expression while preserving
something of "the common good." It is juggling, tight-rope walking,
often without a net. The distance to the hard cold ground varies with
the community or group goals. The clearer the purpose,
the easier it is to craft the facilitation approach. Purpose provides
participants and facilitators expectations upon which they can base
their actions.
Facilitators foster member interaction, provide stimulating material
for conversations, keep the space cleaned up and help hold the members
accountable to the stated community guidelines, rules or norms. They
pass on community history and rituals. They "hold the space" for the
members. Perhaps more importantly, hosts often help community members
do these things for themselves. Without someone taking on these
responsibilities, it is easy for an online space to get sidetracked,
disrupted or simply abandoned. For more specifics on online
facilitation, see Some Considerations for Facilitating Online Interaction.


Who is the Facilitator?

The online
facilitator can be the convenor, online community owner, or someone
designated by the community owner. The role may evolve within a group.
Small communities may have just one, while large online spaces with
many spaces and topics may use teams. Facilitators may be unpaid
volunteers in the social communities, where facilitators in online work
groups often draw from the team. Facilitators may be a team leader or
outside contractor.
Online facilitators' most important skills are as a skilled group
facilitator and genuine, authentic communicator. In a text environment,
that means people at ease reading and writing with care and clarity.

What Specifically do Online Facilitators Do?

Facilitators
in offline situations have certain established roles providing
leadership, focus, stimulation for group interaction, support, team
building, refereeing, dealing with problems, timekeeping, responding to
member feedback and group regulation. These may also be needed online,
but there are also differences due to the primarily text-based nature
of the environment. Communication has a few more challenges, plus there
are the advantages and disadvantages of electronic tools.

Facilitator
approaches depend on the nature of the community. Some communities,
such as conversational "salon type" communities, need a very low-key
"host." Some need very clear and rapid responses, or distinct
leadership qualities. Others need facilitators to help raise the
overall skill level of the community to facilitate itself.

In general, there are four frameworks for online facilitation:

  1. Understanding of group facilitation as it occurs face to face and online.
  2. Knowledgeable
    about design. Ideally, they are involved in the conceptualization,
    design and implementation of the online space to ensure that group
    member needs are accounted for. They participate in pre-assessment and
    planning.
  3. Grounded in the group's purpose with full understanding. They can convey it clearly to group members.
  4. Prepared with tools and processes.

Facilitators
use their group facilitation skills to enable the group to meet it's
goals. This involves a group of processes which include:

  1. Entry and engagement processes which help members become active participants
  2. Supporting sociability, relationship and trust building
  3. Constructing, adapting and modeling norms, agreements and accountability
  4. Support discussion and dialog (foster communication)
  5. Support divergent, convergent and task-oriented group processes (help get work done)
  6. Anticipate and work with conflict and abrasion to both allow emergence of new ideas and protect people from harassment
  7. Work with full understanding of diversity in learning style, culture and personal styles
  8. Understand and make visible group participation cycles and "rituals" in the online environment.
  9. Summarize, harvest, weave and support appropriate content and connections
  10. Provide basic help as needed with the tools
  11. Ensure the space is kept "tidy" and navigable.

To get a sense of some of the variety of facilitator roles, you may wish to read first hand from Hosts on Hosting.
As you consider your role compared to theirs, you will probably find
that you are doing a combination job, utilizing skills from all areas.
And it varies over time as a community matures and members start to
take on various roles. People have created many metaphors to describe
the role of online facilitator that help us visualize the roles. Here
are some examples along with links to resources:

The Social Host

The social
host or "host as innkeeper" is the most well-known online facilitation
model originating out of long time discussion communities like The Well, Electric Minds (note, this page seems to be rarely up anymore) and Salon Table Talk.
This is the most familiar role, but is not the ONLY role. As a dinner
host brings together the elements of a successful party, a social host
helps create an environment where the members feel comfortable to
participate. Part conversationalist, part counselor, part role model
and sometimes even part bouncer. They are also usually part of the conversation.

Applications include:

  • social, conversational communities
  • helping entrants feel "at home" and acclimated in work groups and communities of practice
  • customer service

Key skills include:

  • greeter
  • social skills
  • conversation stimulator (content, style, process)
  • sometimes utilizes a persona or a "character."
  • conflict resolution (particularly in open, public online communities)

Links to articles on this style of hosting, as well as some hosts on hosting who play the role with panache.

The Team or Project Manager

In communities
with a strong task, work orientation or subject focus, the team manager
pays attention to adherence to focus, timelines, task lists,
commitments and process. This can be a leadership and/or support role.
This can be aided by the use of static web pages to organize
information, the combined use of linear and threaded conferencing
space, and the regular use of summaries and reviews. Skills include
traditional project management and organizing.

Applications include:

  • Virtual work groups and teams
  • Online events (especially time-delimited)

Key skills include:

  • traditional project management skills
  • writing and summarization skills
  • technical skills such as HTML to create information and summaries with visual impact
  • ability to abstract information and process it for the group

Links to articles

The Community of Practice (CoP)Facilitator (or Coordinator)

CoPs share and
build knowledge around a practice. Part of this process is being a
group - having identity and reputation, being able to have agreements
and some sense of accountability to the group. Facilitating CoPs online
can focus on some of these "sociability" and relationship issues. This
includes helping members get to know each other, articulating and
making visible agreements, and watching/nurturing group dynamics.
Skills include group facilitation and a working knowledge of CoPs.

Applications include:

  • Internal formal and informal CoPs
  • Cross organizational CoPs
  • Formal and informal learning communities.

Key skills include:

  • Group facilitation skills
  • Cybrarianship
  • Passion for community
  • Ability to facilitate facilitatative behaviors within the community

Links to articles

The Cybrarian

 

Cybrarians
represent the gift of knowledge and information. They are "topical"
experts. Cybrarians help members find information internally and
externally of the community. They organize information and make it
accessible. And they stimulate interaction with the introduction of or
pointer to new and relevant information.

Applications include:

    Virtual workgroups and teams
  • Topic-oriented conversation communities
  • Help desks
  • Distance learning settings
  • Key skills include:

    • web-savvy research
    • strong organizational bent
    • love of learning and information

    The Help Desk

    In online
    interaction spaces where there is an ongoing influx of new members,
    there is often repeated need for simple help pointers on using the
    software or understanding the community purpose and guidelines.

    Applications include:

      E-Commerce and service organizations
  • Larger communities where new folks need help with the software
  • Key skills include:

    • technical understanding

    • patience
    • clear communication skills

    The Referee

    Good cop or
    bad cop, this is the role of bringing attention to and/or enforcing
    community norms, rules and procedures. Referees help the community
    regulate, protect members and deal with problems. For example, if a
    community has a policy of no posting of advertising, the host has the
    job of deleting offending posts and asking the poster to refrain from
    posting ads. The clearer the rules, the easier the job. Likewise, where
    there are no clear rules, this job is often perceived as authoritarian
    and arbitrary. Referees are often not "regular members" who are "just
    part of the conversation," but a role apart. These tend to be employees
    of online community sites and have rather small facilitative impact on
    a group.

    Applications include:

    • social, conversational communities
    • topic oriented discussion groups
    • customer service
    • workgroups

    Key skills include:

    • thick skin and a slow fuse
    • Internet experience
    • familiarity with common nettiquette

    Links to articles

    The Janitor

    It can get
    messy in cyberspace, as we leave our words in conferences and topics.
    The Janitor tidies up forgotten topics by freezing and archiving,
    redirects activity if it is in the wrong area, and generally tidies up.

    Applications include:

    • any community with multiple spaces
    • high volume spaces

    Key skills include:

    • familiarity with software
    • attention to detail

    Co-Facilitating

    In some online
    interaction spaces there are co-facilitators. This can be very helpful
    in busy or large spaces where one person cannot cover all the
    territory. It allows the work to be spread out when volunteers are
    used. Co-facilitating can also provide training opportunities, pairing
    an experienced facilitator with a new facilitator.

    Facilitators as Role Models

    Facilitators
    are the most emulated members of a group -- no matter if they are
    modeling positive or negative behaviors. They are often the first
    members to be challenged. Integrity, patience, a good sense of humor
    and a love of other people will be valued in any host. And as virtual
    communitarian Howard Rheingold so aptly wrote, "One point of heart is
    worth ten points of intellect."

    Sometimes the
    facilitator is also a "member" of the group. Keep in mind when playing
    multiple roles in a community that people may not know what role you
    are "playing" at any one time and react in ways you might not
    anticipate. Facilitators might see themselves as also "just members" of
    the community. Members may not. This distinction becomes critical when
    there is cause for intervention or problem solving. No longer will you
    be perceived as "just a member." And in some cases, you will never
    again be considered in that role. You are most often held to a higher
    standard.

    Learning Online Hosting and Facilitation

    Most people
    get their training "on the job." But you can do more to prepare. First,
    assess your facilitator qualities. Check out the list at http://www.fullcirc.com/community/facilitatorqualities.htm
    and consider your self awareness by checking out the article on Facilitator Self-Awareness at http://www.fullcirc.com/community/selfawareness.htm.

    There are web sites and courses to inspire and guide you. Check out Full Circle Associates Online Community Resources.
    Participate in an existing community and seek out experienced
    facilitators to observe. Many are generous with ideas and can be
    mentors. The Electric Minds
    community provides members a chance to co-host, to get support as hosts
    with a topic devoted to hosting, and has established a mentor system
    for new users to the system. This range of support allows the community
    to "grow their own" hosts and provide some backup for existing hosts.
    Non profits are often looking for help with their online communities.
    For more ideas, see "So You Want to Be an Online Facilitator" at http:/www.fullcirc.com/community/beafacilitator.htm.

    You can also participate in forums and listservs like OnlineFacilitation created for online hosts and facilitators. Similar forums exist on other community building systems.

    Links to Facilitation Resources

    The Art of Hosting Good Conversations Online - Howard Rheingold - the quintessential guidance for conversations centered spaces
    Gail William's Online Community Building Concepts - "almost proverbs"
    Hosting Online Conferences Good
    The WELL Hosts' Manual
    Forum One Guide to the Web-based Discussion Forum Sector - excellent site to explore who is doing what with online communities
    The Moderator's HomePage A fine collection of links with an emphasis in online education.
    ( categories: )