Building Online Community

John Coate, The CompuMentor Project

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University March 31, 1993


Computer-based telecommunication services, both public and private, already number in the hundreds of of thousands. From the largest corporations, to professional knowledge workers, to enthusiasts in every city and town, new gatherings of people occur not in actual space, but in "cyberspace." These electronic meeting places come in many forms such as Usenet, Prodigy, the WELL, Fidonets and local BBS'. They are proliferating everywhere and are just beginning to have an impact on society at large. Within the decade, they will attain fuller integration into the pantheon of communication services now in widespread use that includes the telephone, post office and fax machine. Increasingly, public networks serve as meeting places where assumptions and customs are often as varied as the individuals who participate. Any gathering of people, even in electronic cyberspace, is a living organism. The environment may be electronic and "virtual," but these services are meeting places for individual human beings. Some online services have developed sufficient "atmosphere" that they have, for the participants, a true sense of place. Personal and professional interactions overlap, creating a new kind of community. But this has often happened in spite of the design of the systems, rather than because of it. Computer communication systems have traditionally been designed for well-trained professionals and highly motivated hobbyists. In short, for most people they are still too hard to use. The coming convergence of digital media may change all of this. With phone companies, cable tv, and the entire computer industry working furiously to create marketable products, that use a mix of text, sound and visual media, there is a huge growth opportunity for popular online communications. But more widespread use of these communication tools (and hence, the formation of more communities) will occur only when the designs foster, rather than inhibit, this growth.


For the past seven years, John Coate has developed a growing reputation as a builder of online community. His prior experience was in community rather than academia or computers. he has lived and worked in several urban and rural intentional communities where the focus was on cooperative living and outreach to the local community. His experience, combined with his ability to communicate with a wide variety of people placed him at the center of the action at the WELL, where he was instrumental in developing it into an online meeting place known for its community atmosphere. He currently works as a network development specialist for the CompuMentor Project, a nonprofit organization.


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