Building Communities

by Simon St. Laurent

Related link:

Wayne Miller, of the now-closed Badger Pond forum, explains how an experimental bulletin board grew into a community.

Fine Woodworking magazine isn't a typical stop in techie bookmark lists, but today there's an interview that explores the process of building communities online. Badger Pond started out as an experiment, remained controversial to some extent throughout its existence, and finally shut down when its moderator moved on, but during that time it managed to build a genuine community of woodworkers.

Probably the most interesting, though most difficult, aspect of Badger Pond was its intensive moderation:

"My belief was that a community could only evolve if the traditional subjects that tend to polarize communities (and countries for that matter) were not allowed to be discussed. It seems to me that you can bring a community (or country) together in one of two ways: create a common enemy to hate, or stress a shared interest. I chose the latter. One of the kindest characterizations of my role as moderator was that I was a benign dictator. I agree with that assessment. That was my function."

For me, Badger Pond was both a place to learn and a place to enjoy. Personal attacks weren't permitted and (despite after-the-fact moderation) rarely happened. Wayne kept politics and religion off the radar, though both were plainly and largely politely in evidence at the "Ponder Picnics" I attended.

The latest picnic, a few weeks ago in Anderson, IN, brought together about 75 people from all over the country. I drove 13 hours with two other people from upstate NY, while others drove from as far as Oklahoma and Arkansas. A couple of people even flew in, from Washington state and Florida.

Not a bad result for an experiment in community building, especially one that's now over.

Can benign dictators help communities grow?


2003-04-29 10:42:08
Wonderfully stated
As a benign dictator myself (, I couldn't agree more with Mr. Miller. My experiences have been that strongly moderated topical venues, even those moderated after the fact, are always more useful, vibrant, and desirable. When you have a venue for discussing a specific thing, then you should keep the conversation on that thing. If you don't, people abandon the community.

I was particularly appreciative his comment, "My belief was that a community could only evolve if the traditional subjects that tend to polarize communities... were not allowed to be discussed." I share that belief wholeheartedly, and it's a cornerstone of my moderation of css-discuss. So far, my own experiment in community-building seems to be working fairly well, and apparently for the same reasons Mr. Miller's experiment was a success. It's great to get a perspective from someone who's already been there-- thanks for the link!

2003-04-30 14:01:30
Question the conclusion
I question Mr. Miller's conclusion that it was the strict moderation that was largely responsible for the popularity of the site. While I agree that the presence of moderation is useful to sustaining the viability of a forum, I find that narrow-interest forums focused on helping and sharing information typically tend to be very civil and, as Mr. St. Laurent notes, the moderation was seldom needed. I think that the success of such sites is much more dependent on the willingness of participants to take the time to share their knowledge and being able to sustain and replenish a core group willing to do much of the heavy lifting.

I also question whether or not Mr. Miller built a "community". It's more akin to having a popular water-holing that no matter how vibrant a group of regulars remains the property of the owner, not the group. Something that might be considered a "community", to my mind, is much more organic and much less dependent on one person. That Mr. Miller appears not to have cultivated, or perhaps trusted anyone but himself, to share his time-consuming duties and that he continued to the end to feel that it was _his_ "experiment" and "not transferable" belies the creation of a "community" or even a viable, self-sustaining entity, a greater challenge online than it is even in "real life".