I am a longtime volunteer with E-Democracy. They do an amazing job of building online community space at a very local level – down to neighborhood email lists. Recently there was a discussion of E-Democracy volunteers on how to build and sustain online discussion – I spotted a great post from Danna MacKenzie in Cook County and asked if we could use it to share some advice here. Danna wears a lot of hats – here she is talking about her experience as cofounder of Boreal Access
How have you developed online discussion in your community?
In Grand Marais, we have been working on an online distributed input model since 1995, and I think we have learned quite a bit along the way. The standout lessons that might be useful to those trying to do something similar include: the value of a sponsoring organization, moderation/curation skills, diversity of tools, time/longevity, and branding/ownership.
Sponsoring organization – We have found that sponsorship by a locally trusted organization accomplishes many things. It is easiest if the organization is perceived as politically neutral as possible. We have found that this type of sponsorship allows community members to feel a higher level of comfort in posting and participating in the online layer of their community. One of the benefits of having neutral organizational sponsorship has been that representatives from our on-line community have been invited to the planning table for emergency communications, community events, and other activities that produce information streams that are of high interest value to our participants and readers. In our case, the organization is a member-owned community cooperative. This gives users a say in the rules regarding moderation and curation of the content, which gets to my next point.
Moderation/curation skills – It has taken 15 years to train ourselves as a community to live by a shared set of rules, which allows everyone to get more out of the system. We have developed the rules together; things like “no business ads on the community news list”, “no personal dialog on any of the information lists”, and “no political advocacy posts”. We have other places for each of those types of posts. These rules have developed over time as we continue to experiment to find the right ecosystem of lists and other tools to serve our community’s needs and wants. Our sponsoring organization, Boreal Access, works behind the scenes, with decorum, to help those who don’t understand the rules and to get their messages posted in the right spot.
Diversity of tools – This gets to the diversity of tools item on my list. We have found that one single method of access or posting does not work for everyone; just as all content is not of interest to everyone. We have developed a set of email lists, each with different rules about what can be posted, that community members can choose to participate in individually. One example of the lists is simply firstname.lastname@example.org, which is anything that would be considered generally newsworthy for the entire community. We see things like meeting notices, band concert announcements, funeral notices, fund-raising events, etc. We also see wacky things like the recent query: “Does anyone know what kind of critter just wrecked the trees in my yard by scratching all the bark off? I can send pictures.” An hour later we get another post that says “Thanks Boreal for all of the helpful answers!” We have lists for personal for-sale items and business ads, as well as specialty lists, like the one for the residents of the Gunflint Trail. This list was originally created to help distribute urgent information about the 1999 Blowdown event and has since been used by residents to share important information during subsequent forest fires.
We mimic many of these tools on the website for those who do not want to receive all of the emails. We also aggregate community blogs and twitter feeds for those who prefer to use that method to communicate. We pull together videos by and about our community. We have buy-in from the local media organizations who contribute headline articles each week. We host a community calendar and work with institutions and individuals to learn how to post their own events. We let the community members put the pressure on these organizations to get their news on-line, because this is where they are checking for what is happening on a daily basis. You would not know it to look at the web page, because it is not very fancy (It was designed to work for dial-up users); but for a community of just 5000 people, our website gets 60,000 page-views a week.
Time/longevity – Just a quick mention on time and longevity because I have already referred to it a few times. We have been at this for 15 years. It did not happen over-night. Providing a consistent, dependable, high-quality experience over the long-haul is what will bring more people into the on-line portion of your community.
Branding/ownership – This dovetails into my final item on the list of components of our success, and that is branding and community ownership. We have spent these many years building up the trusted brand of “Boreal”. It is a household word around here. It is also understood that “Boreal is Us” We are all part of the community that makes Boreal a shared success.
How have you financed the online community?
Boreal has benefited from some start-up funds that have come from federal and regional grants at different periods during its growth, but it is financially sustained through fees that are charged for services such as internet connectivity, web-hosting, technical support, and custom web app development. The online Boreal community grew out of an initial effort on the part of the cooperative to serve its membership’s communication needs. It has since become a valuable information source for everyone in the community, regardless of their coop membership status.