I just finished today Clay Shirky's awesome book Here Comes Everybody, a cogent description of the sea-change in social organization that we are witnessing due to the advent of online social networking tools.
Shirky's book has me thinking about what lessons I can take away from it for Yehoodi, the swing dance community site I help run.
Shirky describes three basic ingredients to successful online communities:
- The Promise: What are you asking people to do?
- The Tool: How are you enabling them to do it?
- The Bargain: What do they get out of doing it?
The healthiest, most robust communities answer these questions well, through shared agreement and understanding. The social experiments that fail are not able to answer these questions sufficiently.
I think Yehoodi as it currently stands only moderately well answers these three questions.
Let's look at how Wikipedia fills in the three ingredients:
- The Promise: Let's create an encyclopedia together
- The Tool: A wiki
- The Bargain: You can edit anything, and so can everyone else
Super simple, incredibly successful.
Or the free operating system LINUX:
- The Promise: Want to build a simple OS with me?
- The Tool: GPL licensed software
- The Bargain: You contribute, everyone makes it better
Again, a clear ask and a clear process for participating that provides satisfaction and important skills for coders.
Yehoodi is an interesting and unique online social experiment. It's built upon a set of loose connections among perhaps tens of thousands of lindy hoppers around the United States , and increasingly around the world, who all love lindy hop and want to interact with others who share that passion.
So how does Yehoodi answer these questions?
- The Promise: Be a part of the lindy hop community
- The Tool: Discussion boards, events calendar, news page
- The Bargain: Contribute to the site, others will see it
I think these are all pretty poor offerings, the more that I think about it. And that if we are ever to grow Yehoodi into a more broad-based, long-term community, we'll have to answer these questions better.
Our intial "ask" is pretty vague and unmotivating. Our tagline on our banner is "the Website for the Hardcore Hepcat Swinger." Why would someone be interested in Yehoodi who just started dancing? What is it that would push them to join and participate in yet another online social networking tool?
I think the promise should be something like: "Let's keep lindy hop alive and growing for the next generation of dancers." Anyone who gets the lindy hop bug wants other people to be interested in lindy hop, because by it's nature it is best enjoyed by groups of people dancing together the same dance. The last thing they want is for it to become something that is only danced by octegenarians in the old folks home, or a curiousity only performed by an elite few.
On the other hand, that's a rather lofty and high-minded ask. Maybe it might also include something lighter and more fun, like "Tell us what's new with you."
Yehoodi as it currently stands is a very kludged together piece of web software. People's ability to contribute to the site is almost exclusively reserved to our very-dated discussion boards. Users can not easily contribute news, events, links or other media. And their view of what others have contributed is very limited.
I think where we need to go toward is a more clearly architected site, that more easily allows our users to contribute a variety of content, comment on it, rate it, and view it in various ways that make sense to them.
One of the most obvious examples are dances. Lindy hoppers are interested in going to dance events that other lindy hoppers are at, particularly their friends as well as well-known performers and teachers that they care about. Lindy hop event organizers have an interest in getting people to their events. Yehoodi is in a great position to make it easier for organizers to get the word out about their events and for users to signal to each other their interest in attending particular events.
Right now, our existing system does not solve this coordination problem in a smooth or easy manner. But we could be.
The same goes for discussions, media like videos and photos, and news from the lindy hop and swing jazz world.
What are we promising our users? I think what we want to be promising them is this: contribute to the site, and we'll deliver to you the content that you care about, contributed by other users and by us.
We are very lucky at Yehoodi that we have hundreds of passionate users of our site, and thousands who visit it only occasionally. The question is, what would it take to expand toward a site with several thousand contributors, and tens of thousands of active visitors? I believe we have the potential to get to that, if we create the right promise and the right tools that make it inviting and easy for people to be a part of Yehoodi.
At the end of the day, our task is simply to let the community in, in ways that make sense for supporting lindy hop, and help them to connect with each other and share stuff with each other.
Because lindy hop just sells itself. As a very wise lindy hopper once said: "A one, a two, you know what to do..."