Williams and Cothrel define online communities as ‘groups of people who engage in many-to-many interactions online’ and form ‘wherever people of common interests are able to interact’ (2000, p.81). It would seem simple enough therefore, to join and form our own. Over the past twelve weeks, we have delved into the world of social media, online communities and explored and developed our own participatory online projects. In developing the online magazine, Home Made Helpings, I have discovered a entirely new way of looking at social media and the way it can be used, especially in the sense of interacting and, even forming, online communities. I learnt a lot about the idea of the community in an online environment, and discovered that what most interested me about the project was how social and participatory strategies can be used to generate engagement and user contribution. By using different social media platforms, mainly through Twitter, I was able to observe how different online communities were formed, and attempted to tap into those communities using several strategies, and with varying degrees of success. It is the formation of online communities and how they operate that has interested me the most throughout this project, and the presence of these communities and spaces is what I intend to reflect upon in the following report.
My own role in this project, aside from contributing content to our Tumblr, was to seek out followers and interact with the food community via our Twitter account, and to post regular updates and tweet regularly, which I would try to do at least a couple of times a week. The tweets were designed to attract followers of a similar interest to our theme, and I would attempt to raise their profile by using trending hash tags, or creating my own. However, using trending hash tags, while having a higher probability of being seen, didn’t necessarily mean that we’d attract our target audience, and I soon stopped using the trending hash tags, and would simply use food related ones. Whenever a new article was posted on the Tumblr, I would link to it on the Twitter feed, and use food related hash tags in order to get people to follow the link. Some of what I did, similar to what was being done on the Facebook page, was to tweet people directly using ‘@’ mentions. I would either ask people if they would like to contribute to our Tumblr, or simply compliment them on their own Twitter account or blog, in an attempt to establish a dialogue with them.
Establishing connections in an already existing community was the hardest aspect of managing the twitter account. Whilst I had found a number of existing food communities with their own twitters accounts, their followers would sometimes number in the thousands. Tweeting them directly would often result in no response or re-tweet. I observed that while there were certain people that these food bloggers would seem to interact with on a regular basis, for the most part they would simply tweet their own content, or links to their own blog. A greater deal of success was reached by following and tweeting people who didn’t have such a large amount of followers. It seemed to me that, quite reasonably, those with a larger amount of followers and a very well established community, didn’t feel as great a need to interact and gain people’s attention, rather than those who, like us, were just starting out and keen to build up their own small community and online ties to different. people.
Frequency of the posts seemed, rather surprisingly to me at first, to have little effect on the number of followers that one could gain on Twitter. I believe it was less the number of the posts that counted, but the content that you linked to, or whether your tweets could be seen as interesting or funny. I know that a number of the accounts I followed would tweet incessantly, and often only links to a site where you could buy cookware or home wares or something along those lines. I originally thought that I had followed enough people to have a nicely diluted and varied twitter feed, but often times I could have many posts in a row from the one twitter user. Not only did I not appreciate this, finding it annoying, in the end I even stopped following certain people because I felt that they were spamming my twitter feed. Moving a conversation or interaction with someone from the physical world to the online world it seems, does not negate the fact that sometimes, people are annoying. I tried to make myself aware of these online ‘manners’ and would tweet only once or twice a day at most. It was for this reason (that of avoiding being a ’spammer’) that we made the decision not to link our Twitter and Facebook accounts, so that any tweet would automatically show up on our Facebook news feed. Having used both Twitter and Facebook for personal use, I feel that Twitter is more easily accessible and, being in a more open, public environment there is a tendency to tweet more than you post to Facebook. I also tried to time my tweets for when the other users would be most active, but seeing as half our followers were from the U.S or different time zones, and others were from Australia, it had the tendency to become slightly confusing.
It is difficult to judge the overall success of our project. The number of followers on both the Facebook and Twitter accounts was almost exactly the same throughout the twelve week run of Home Made Helpings, give or take a few, however user contribution, for the reasons I have outlined above, was rather low and we had much better success on that count on Facebook rather than Twitter (what we consider our biggest success came from an interview with a food blogger who we contacted via Facebook). Considering that this is the first time any of us had used social media in this way before (personal use of Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr aside – and none of us had used Tumblr before as a matter of fact), I feel satisfied with what we were able to accomplish, but I also understand that part of the real purpose of this project was to foster our understanding of how online communities operate and this experience was able to give me a good grounding and some first-hand knowledge of that. Looking back, I don’t think there is a lot we could have done extremely differently. I personally feel that it might have been beneficial for us if I had asked for people to re-tweet us. In identifying things important maintaining a healthy online community, Williams and Corthrel outline that community relations is one of the most important. As they put it, ‘…the main reason people participate in communities – online or otherwise – is to interact with other people. Where there is little or no face-to-face interaction, nurturing and strengthening connections can be a delicate balancing act.’ (2000, p.91). The connections we forged during this project needed constant attention and ’strengthening’, otherwise they would have dropped off and not survived. I quickly learnt that if I wanted people to interact with me on Twitter, then I need to tweet at them again and again – but then the ‘delicate balancing act’ came in. I had to be mindful of what I saw as the line between establishing a connection with someone, and just plain out spamming them.
Overall, I am satisfied with my contribution to our social media experiment, as it were. I feel that it has been a valuable learning experience for me in terms of navigating the world of online communities. Online communities are forever prevalent, as ‘the thirst for making connections, for communication, is insatiable and that is why new communities form every day’ (Preece, p. 350) The most difficult part is determining what your audience, or targeted community members are looking for, but once we had a clearer idea of what we wanted to offer it became easier to interact, and sometimes even fun.
Preece, J 2001, ‘Sociability and usability in online communities: Determining and measuring success’ Behavior and Information Technology Journal, vol.20, no.5, pp. 347-356
Williams, R & Cothrel, J (2000) ‘Four Smart Ways To Run Online Communities’ Sloan Management Review, p.81-91