Online Communities:
Designing Usability, Supporting Sociability

Jenny Preece, University of Maryland Baltimore County.

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University October 13, 2000

Like twentieth-century architects and town planners, online community developers shape digital landscapes, but successful online communities also need a purpose, people and policies.

In millions of online communities people meet to debate baseball scores, compare child-birth experiences, get information about stocks, and ask for consumer advice. People create communities by their presence or absence, their behavior and personalities, and so do moderators and others with special roles. Developers can't control what people do but they can influence them by defining purposes and policies. Designing software that is consistent, predictable, easy to learn and supports how people want to interact has an impact too. Supporting social interaction (i.e., sociability) and human-computer interaction (i.e., usability) can produce thriving online communities instead of electronic ghost towns.

Many developers design software, thinking they are designing communities. Meanwhile, keen-eyed, reflective sociologists describe the emergence of communities. But communities are neither designed nor do they just emerge. Like physical communities they evolve and change over time.

In this talk I discuss how developers can create sociability and usability for different kinds of communities. Compelling examples from research on empathy, hostility and lurking illustrate key points. I also suggest how online communities may enhance or destroy growth of social capital in our society.

Jenny Preece researches and teaches human-computer interaction and online communities. Current projects include characterizing lurking behavior, supporting online moderators, and identifying models of community. she is also experienced in distance education having worked at the British Open University for fifteen years. She is a co-author of a leading HCI text and of a new text, Interaction Design, that will be available in fall 2001.

Jenny Preece's new book, Online Communities: Designing Usability, Supporting Sociability, is published by John Wiley & Sons, Fall 2000

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