inkwell.vue.80 : Amy Jo Kim - Community Building on the Web
permalink #0 of 52: Linda Castellani (castle) Tue 11 Jul 00 15:23
Amy Jo Kim has been designing innovative online environments for over 15
years. Her career in Behavioral Neuroscience was permanently derailed by a
fascination with building systems that people use. She's now a leading
specialist in Web community design, with a deep and diverse background in
client-server engineering, multimedia interface design, and online gaming

As the Founder and Creative Director of NAIMA, a design studio
specializing in cutting-edge Web communities, Kim has designed online
environments for clients including America Online, Adobe Systems, eBay,
Electronic Arts, iVillage, MTV, Nickelodeon, Paramount, Sony, and Yahoo.
She also teaches online community design at Stanford University, and has
spoken and written extensively about Web communities. "Community-Building
on the Web" is her long-awaited first book.

Kim will be interviewed by Ari Davidow. A long-time community activist,
Davidow has been fascinated by online community since his first BBS
experiences in the mid-'80s, and has called the WELL "home" since joining
in 1986. He is especially fascinated by the way that online community
strongly parallels our more familiar face-to-face communities, and the
myriad ways that we use online communication to enhance more familiar ways
of relating. Davidow currently works at where his duties
include overseeing technology for

"Community-Building on the Web" is a short book. It is also the best
introduction so far to that complex, very exciting art of building online
community. Before you slap that threaded discussion module onto your
latest e-commerce website, consult this book. Or, if you just want to
understand a medium that ranges from help desks, to avatar-based chat
rooms, to the familiar web-based text boards, here is both a lively
introduction, and a valuable "how-to".
The companion website for Kim's book is at

Please join me in welcoming Amy Jo and Ari to inkwell.vue!
inkwell.vue.80 : Amy Jo Kim - Community Building on the Web
permalink #1 of 52: Ari Davidow (ari) Fri 14 Jul 00 10:11
Amy, I am really, really enjoying reading "Community Building on the
Web." There's a very nice conversational tone to the book that succeeds in
conveying the, "yup, this is what you want to consider first, and when you
do that, you'll probably want to look after these widget things over there,
and here's a couple of examples of what I'm talking about...." that makes
the subject very real and very approachable. 

It's also, despite my reference to widgets, not about "things" at all, but
rather about the fuzzier issues--what is community? how is an online
community different, on not so different, from the more familiar
face-to-face communities that we already know? how do you put an online
community together? what do you need to think out?

So, I guess the first question I want to ask as an interviewer is, "how did
you come to write this book? why did you write this book this way? is this
the book you meant to write? what are you hoping to accomplish? and even
now, just a few months after the book's release, what would you already
write differently?"

Which, I guess, is a few questions, so maybe we should start off with the
first one or two?
inkwell.vue.80 : Amy Jo Kim - Community Building on the Web
permalink #2 of 52: Amy Jo Kim (amyjo) Fri 14 Jul 00 11:09
Sounds great, Ari -- glad you're enjoying the book!

This book was "user-driven" - that is, I wrote it in response to
requests from clients and colleagues. I've been designing and building
online social environments for 10 years professionally, and I found
that the same issues were coming up again and again -- issues like
implementing persistant identity, incentivizing volunteers, nurturing
rituals, managing events, and facilitating member-created subgroups. So
I developed a set of growth-oriented design guidelines and "best
practices" to use in my consulting practice -- to help me be a more
effective designer, and to help my clients avoid some common mistakes. 

When I shared this framework for online community-building with new
clients, they invariably asked me for more and deeper information --
which also happened when I presented these guidelines at industry
conferences and university speaking engagements. So I decided to write
down (and elaborate on) this framework I'd developed, in order to
provide a useful tool for other community-builders. 

It took many drafts (and much painful editing ;-) to produce the book
you're reading today. Much of the more advanced and "provocative"
material ended up on the cutting-room floor, because Peachpit (my
publisher) wanted a introductory, accessible handbook. Although the
process was painful, in the end I believe they were right to push me
towards the basics - because that's really the place to start, and
understanding these basic issues is critical for folks who are new to
the field.

The introduction to my book goes into much more detail about my
background and the writing process. It's available online at
inkwell.vue.80 : Amy Jo Kim - Community Building on the Web
permalink #3 of 52: naruhodo (michael-martin) Fri 14 Jul 00 11:14
So, Amy, what do you think of THE WELL as an on-line community
(assuming you are familiar with it...)? I know that is a broad
question, but any observations would interest me as a member.
inkwell.vue.80 : Amy Jo Kim - Community Building on the Web
permalink #4 of 52: Ari Davidow (ari) Fri 14 Jul 00 11:33
Thanks, Amy. I also wanted to ask why it took so long--I think I
pre-ordered it about two years ago and Peachpit was listing it as
due that spring.

And, to amplify <michael-martin>'s question, besides hearing your
thoughts about the WELL, itself, what are the sorts of things you
look for in a good online community? What are some current examples
that illustrate different types of great online communities?
inkwell.vue.80 : Amy Jo Kim - Community Building on the Web
permalink #5 of 52: Amy Jo Kim (amyjo) Fri 14 Jul 00 12:48
>> what do you think of THE WELL as an on-line community

Because it's been in existence since 1985, the WELL is a rare example
of a mature online community that's evolved through a series of
challenges and transformations. I think the WELL does certain things
very well, like providing a robust infrastructure for hosting (as is
reflected within my book, through examples). 

I also think the WELL can be difficult for newbies to get involved
with, and can be insular and in-groupy. Also, the WELL lacks a set of
integrated auxiliary features (e.g. shared photos, group mailing list,
visible member list) that are becoming increasingly common, and would
really help to foster tight groups.

Most of all, though, the WELL is a collection of highly diverse
sub-communities, each with it's own distinct culture. Some of the
conferences I frequent feel like highschool cliques - while others feel
like a late-night college dorm conversation, or an industry conference
party, or a secret confessional space. That variety of cultures is a
real testament to the WELL's community-building power.
inkwell.vue.80 : Amy Jo Kim - Community Building on the Web
permalink #6 of 52: Ari Davidow (ari) Sat 15 Jul 00 07:53
You know, that's one of the things I wanted to ask you about.
When I took a look at AncientSites a couple of years ago, I was
astonished to see a whole string of things one could do to 
customize a virtual personal space, into which, if I remember
correctly, one could even invite friends.

By contrast, I have trouble updating my .plan here on the WELL, 
and have most of anything about "me" that I want to say up on
my webpages, whereever they are hosted that week.

But most people don't have their own domains. And lots of people
get excited by the ease of putting up a page on GeoCities. And I
keep thinking about the idea of having a community space without
personal space--it's one of the things that seems very lacking
in many online communities--a place to show off who you are to
members of your community. I mean, in WELL.engaged, you can't
even send an instant message to people who are currently logged
in--not only don't you know who is online via Engaged, there is
no chat tool. And that's just conversing with the neighbors
independently of a formal discussion--doesn't even begin to 
customize personal space.

In truth, I think that I did spend more time keeping my .plan
updated when the WELL was new to me, and it was really my
focus, rather than a comfortable pub I stop in at periodically.
Then keeping my webpage updated was fun. Today, I've gone to
the other side, entirely. When I log in to a new service, I often
don't even fill in my homepage URL. I don't want people to know
me until I've decided whether or not there are people there I 
want to know me, if that makes sense?

Is any of this typical? This seems like a long-winded way of
asking how important this personal customization, and how important
being able to get of sense of "who is here" is? What do people using
systems that allow lots of personalization say? In what ways does
this customization change from place to place?
inkwell.vue.80 : Amy Jo Kim - Community Building on the Web
permalink #7 of 52: Amy Jo Kim (amyjo) Sat 15 Jul 00 14:06
Ari, the short answer to your question is: yes, the web-based version
of the WELL (being a stand-alone message board with simple profiles) is
pretty darn "old-school" in light of today's Internet communities.
These days, you see more and more communities integrating all kinds of
rich communications and personalization features into their platform.
It's actually pretty rare to see a stand-alone message board or chat
room - more often, you'll see it embedded in a larger framework of

As for how important these features all -- well, it basically comes
down to what you need, who your audience is, and what your budget is.
An integrated, feature-rich communications platform is great -- if your
application can benefit from it, and you can afford the cost and
upkeep. For some people, simpler tools meet their needs OK -- and
they're a lot cheaper to develop and maintain. 

I think that the WELL would certainly benefit from having more
community-building features -- but the business model really isn't
there to support it.

What about you? What communications and personalization features would
you love to see integrated into the WELL's platform?
inkwell.vue.80 : Amy Jo Kim - Community Building on the Web
permalink #8 of 52: Ari Davidow (ari) Sun 16 Jul 00 05:04
Well, the obvious one is some form of chat--it's the first obvious
thing I miss from the picospan version. It also seems weird to me
that there is no community-centric place to store files. By that
I mean that, if I am using an Engaged account, I can't put up
pictures or webpages or sounds that can only be viewed by my
community--I can only link in from outside.

But I'm a WELL person. I really can't say that I've thought a lot
about other stuff that might be out there and how it might matter.
Can you give an example of the types of things that people most
seem to like in terms of add-ons or customizations? Maybe talk
about a community that started from a feature-set similar to
Engaged and why/how they migrated? (Since I'm presuming that
most communities don't change much after they go live, that
might be a discussion of the planning process and how what
got weighted in.)

In the book, you mention several sites a lot--GeoCities, for
instance, for instant web pages, AncientSites seems like the
most immersive that I've read about so far. You also talk about
iVillages and the WELL and eBay--how would any of these 
exemplify this issue?

(For that matter, conference participants from the WELL who can
chime in with your own theories/experiences, please do!)
inkwell.vue.80 : Amy Jo Kim - Community Building on the Web
permalink #9 of 52: Linda Castellani (castle) Sun 16 Jul 00 17:45

The one point I'd want to make about what makes any interface to the WELL
unique, and is part of what makes the WELL unique: it has a history, 15
years at this point, that must remain not only accessible but also
searchable from any new interface.  This is an issue that most Web-based
communities, I would guess, do not face.
inkwell.vue.80 : Amy Jo Kim - Community Building on the Web
permalink #10 of 52: Chris Abraham (cja) Mon 17 Jul 00 13:25
I too love the book.  I wish I were just entering the world of
building my own Virtual Community (VC) (called right
now because all the mistakes that I made along the way I could have
saved myself from.  

Amy Jo, is this a common response to your book?
inkwell.vue.80 : Amy Jo Kim - Community Building on the Web
permalink #11 of 52: Ari Davidow (ari) Tue 18 Jul 00 07:43
<castle>, you bring up an interesting point, perhaps amplified by
<cja>'s comments following. 

The WELL also has special problem in that ongoing development isn't
really happening any more. During the first years, I remember a wide
array of new gadgets and gizmos--the bozo filter, for instance, to
save your eyes from the postings of those who annoy you, or "extract,"
a tool I use almost daily to search the contents of the WELL or parts
of the WELL. Conference management tools also grew, and menuing 
systems changed. I don't think that is happening any more, and I 
think that has forced people to go elsewhere to experiment. In an
environment such as the WELL, I would argue that one of the member
qualities that matters =is= experimentation.

Just using the issues Amy Jo raises in her book about member profiling
and other customizing tools, there isn't much of anything that =couldn't=
be added to picospan and/or Engaged--some things do get added on to more
recent versions of WELL.engaged.

<cja>, I have to admit that I am having a different reaction to the
book than you. I am getting a lot of exciting ideas that I want to
incorporate into new and ongoing online communities, (and I think 
you meant this) but I don't regret starting things back then and 
learning and growing as we did over time. It's just tremendously
exciting to see a lot of things that we learned painfully over
time expressed lucidly here.

Waht are some of the things you've done in the past that you would
do differently now? How did they come out? If the commmunity/ies
still exist, how do your plans for moving forward change?
inkwell.vue.80 : Amy Jo Kim - Community Building on the Web
permalink #12 of 52: Ari Davidow (ari) Tue 18 Jul 00 07:50
One of the areas that has fascinated me recently is the issue of
"reputation management." When I first came online on the WELL, I assumed
that everyone but me was an experienced, well-respected member of the
community, and I was the clueless newbie. It was a bit like stepping into a
party where you don't know anyone and you aren't sure how you got invited
in the first place (or why you came).

Now I'm watching my partner's son as he discovers the WELL and makes
decisions about people and what is safe and what isn't, and get to view the
process once again. Surprisingly, it hasn't gotten any better. If anything,
it is now worse. Back then, I could at least count on everyone having a
.plan file (a publicly-viewable profile) that was updated
regularly. Nowadays, I can't even count on people being on-system--and I
may be able to get no information about them other than when they first

Systems described in the book range from being able to rate people on
Motley Fool, and being able to see a person's most recent posts on several

For people who are active on systems that have such features, be they the
posting ratings on Slashdot and similar systems, to the more personal
"favorites" button on The Motley Fool, or the more literal reputation
management tools on eBay--what works? what doesn't work? How do they affect
how you participate in the community, both in terms of learning who to
trust, or of potential friends, to guiding your own behavior (for better or
for worse) on the system?

Amy, are there best or worst-cases that you've seen where reputation
management plays a critical part?
inkwell.vue.80 : Amy Jo Kim - Community Building on the Web
permalink #13 of 52: Amy Jo Kim (amyjo) Tue 18 Jul 00 09:14
>> all the mistakes that I made along the way I could have
saved myself from. Amy Jo, is this a common response to your book?

Yes, Chris -- I get a lot of email from people who wish they'd had
this book when they were first starting out as community-builders. And
as Ari mentions, I also get email from people who are applying these
ideas to new community ventures.

I need to get some work done now -- but I'll check in later today to
address Ari's questions about reputation management, which is an
increasingly important part of Web communities. 
inkwell.vue.80 : Amy Jo Kim - Community Building on the Web
permalink #14 of 52: Amy Jo Kim (amyjo) Tue 18 Jul 00 22:43
So  -- regarding reputation management: there's no single "right way"
to measure and display each member's reputation. It all depends on the
focus and capabilities of the particular community - and I discuss this
topic at some length in my book. 

That said, I'm seeing more and more Web communities include some form
of rating system or "trust metric" -- or both. One of the most
interesting examples of this I've seen lately is Epinions
(, an "open source ratings" site where everyday people
post their opinions about products and services. Epinions allows
readers to rate each other's specific opinions, which are then labelled
as "highly recommended", "recommended", "somewhat recommended" or "not
recommended" accordingly. Epinions also gives an indication of who's
doing the rating -- that is, a "highly recommended" opinion might be
given by an Epinions "Advisor" who is a member who has gained a high
level of credibility by posting reviews that have been consistently
been recommended by others. 

Recently, Epinions has also added a feature called the "Web of Trust"
that allows members to keep ever-evolving lists of people whose
opinions they generally trust -- or distrust (somewhat analogous to
buddy lists and bozo filter lists). Epinions then displays this
information in each member's profile, and also uses it to influence the
order in which opinions are shown to each member. So if, for example,
you randomly look at the member profile of an active Epinions member
like, say, Doug Alexander (, you'll
see that he trusts 23 members, he distrusts 2 members (whose names are
hidden), and he is trusted by 133 members.

This ever-evolving reputation system gives an interesting snapshot of
someone's involvement and credibility within the system, and is very
appropriate for a site like Epinions. 

I think that we'll see more and more of these types of metrics in Web
communities -- although I don't think that a place like the WELL would
be able to culturally integrate this feature very effectively, even if
the funds to build and maintain it were available. I think such "trust
ratings" systems will be most effective in communities where the
culture is younger and more flexible, and also where the conversation
is focused around opinions that result in actions - such as buying a
book, seeing a movie, or investing in a stock.

What do you all think about reputation in online communities? Could
you imagine a reputation system that would actually work for a place
like the WELL?
inkwell.vue.80 : Amy Jo Kim - Community Building on the Web
permalink #15 of 52: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 19 Jul 00 05:30
It would be interesting, for sure, to see some kind of formalized
reputation management strategy here. Informally, one thing that comes to
mind is the publication (I think in flame.ind) of the the contents of
world-readable bozofilter lists, so that you can see who's ignoring whom.
inkwell.vue.80 : Amy Jo Kim - Community Building on the Web
permalink #16 of 52: Ari Davidow (ari) Wed 19 Jul 00 07:16
I think you've described both the positive, and where rating people
and their opinions works best, but I have to wonder whether there
are other ways of rating, or of considering opinions here on the WELL.

Is there a way on a given system that you've seen, where participants
can be rated on their participation in a discussion based on, oh, 
cogency, likelihood of flamage, ability to post to the issue at
hand, generally thoughtful--I don't know? How, in fact, given the
variety of things discussed on the WELL which do not provide 
universally accepted "this is right" / "this is wrong" judgement
values, does one rate a WELL participant?

On the other hand, the currency on the WELL isn't being right about
an appliance's value, or being able to write a good book review. It
is more often "provides good entertainment" or "posts are often worth
reading." It's easy to envision some conversation-oriented ratings, 
plus, given that this is the WELL, maybe the ability to customize
ratings, so that someone looking at my opinion of other people might
see things like, "has a clue about typography" or "klezmer fandom" --
ratings that might not be so important to other members of the WELL,
but which tell something about me, and provides some insight into
others (as seen by me).

Then there's the whole idea of rating posts, perhaps using
conference-specific criteria. In "canada" for instance, we might want to
rate posts not only for exquisite literary style but also, "ravings of a
would-be separatist" or "doctrinaire NDP supporter". (How to convert
these criteria to numbers? There's the rub!)

But it does occur to me that reputation management and rating have a
heightened importance in this environment (sorry, the book does cause
one to think about these issues over again, even though it has little
to do with theory and much more to do with, "here's what is needed and
how it has worked in this context or that.") simply because we don't
have other cues--you can't see who hangs out with me, or whether other
people are attentive when I drop my bon mots--but a web of explicit
meta information might be helpful (and knowing that such a web exists
might either encourage me towards WELL norms, or the opposite ;-)).

The biggest question, though, is the idea of a richer environment--the
ability to do stuff other than read posts in topics and respond to same.
WELL users who interact with picospan, also often receive e-mail here,
do instant messaging ("send"s), have access to the usual unix toolbox,
even some programming tools in some instances, can see each others
.plans, and unprotected files, etc. There is a lot of richness to that
environment such that someone might reasonably stay logged in all day
not to endless peruse forums, but because the WELL is being used for
these other purposes (including, I forgot, access to Usenet).

Amy, you discuss some of the issues of a rich environment in your book,
but I'm wondering if you could summarize some of your knowledge of the
degree to which these things matter--maybe not specifics like which
sort of reputation manager a community wants, but specifics like, how
to successful communities create an environment sufficiently rich to
support a complexity of interactions that makes it a community?
inkwell.vue.80 : Amy Jo Kim - Community Building on the Web
permalink #17 of 52: Amy Jo Kim (amyjo) Thu 20 Jul 00 08:58
>> one thing that comes to mind is the publication in flame.ind of 
>> the contents of world-readable bozofilter lists, so that you can 
>> see who's ignoring whom

Yeah -- I've been fascinated by flame.ind for just this reason -- it's
an "emergent" reputation metric of sorts. For those of you who've
never checked it out, "flame.ind" is a conference devoted to posting
and discussing statistics about the contents of people's public
bozolists (AKA .blist). It's a hoot -- and as <jonl> says, the dynamics
of who's filtering who are a crude form of reputation. Some people
even take great pride in being bozo-filtered by others -- and happily
boast about their "first time" appearing on someone's .blist as a rite
of passage. "I'm important enough for someone to actively ignore me!"
inkwell.vue.80 : Amy Jo Kim - Community Building on the Web
permalink #18 of 52: Linda Castellani (castle) Thu 20 Jul 00 13:09

I'm also fascinated by the rating system used on eBay, a community I have
only recently joined.  After a week, I already have four points of glowing
praise, and I really feel motivated to keep that going.

But, I notice a reluctance to want to leave negative feedback, especially
in the midst of a field of thousands of glowing complaints.  I really did
feel slightly mislead by an item I purchased - the photo of it had been
enlarged without saying so - so when I received it, and it was smaller
than I thought, I considered leaving somewhat negative feedback, but I
didn't.  My reason for not leaving it was that first, there was pages and
pages of really positive comments, and second, I really couldn't think of
a way for the seller to make it right.  I still wanted the item, so a
complaint didn't seem productive.  In light of that, it made me wonder
about everyone else's praise.  I did find a few non-committal remarks that
mentioned something positive about the transaction but not the
merchandise, so I followed that lead, since the transaction had been
really excellent AND they were the very first to leave me glowing praise.

So the reputation issue is kind of loaded, I think.  It motivates me at
the same time as it intimidates me.
inkwell.vue.80 : Amy Jo Kim - Community Building on the Web
permalink #19 of 52: Delyn Simons (delyn) Thu 20 Jul 00 16:25
i finished Amy Jo Kim's book last week on a flight back from Portland.
kudos to amyjo on a great book for community builders in the initial
planning stages, and also for those trying to plan for second stage
growth. the screen shots of concrete examples of different approaches
to community added a lot to the content.

the last chapters about sub-communities and allowing for the growth of
affinity groups within community was v. interesting to me.

amyjo, what is your general advice to new community builders who want
to start out with these types of exclusive, private affinity "club"
programs rather than start with message boards, public mailing lists or
some other type of app that is more inclusive?

some new sites want to launch with community (many because their
funding partners told them they have to have it), and they have 2 or 3
distinct audiences they've identified in their business plan. but
rather than open up different public conferences for these groups, they
focus in on launching with private club-type software for these groups
before any propensity for collaboration or many-to-many communication
has been established.

i think nurturing these affinity groups within a larger community is
v. important - but it seems like they exist in a more stable form
within communities that have had time to mature. are there any examples
where launching with the "lots of private groups" approach works
except for the largest of online portal/aggregators like Yahoo or AOL?
inkwell.vue.80 : Amy Jo Kim - Community Building on the Web
permalink #20 of 52: Amy Jo Kim (amyjo) Thu 20 Jul 00 17:56
<castle> -- you've put your finger on a fundamental weakness in eBay's
(otherwise quite effective) reputation system. There is a very strong
incentive against leaving negative feedback - and stories of petty
retaliation are rampant among eBay devotees. eBay corrected this
weakness in their system, they'd definately increase it's

But hey -- they have bigger things to worry about, like Federal
investigations and crashing servers. I hope that when eBay is more
stable and well-established, they take the time to evolve their
reputation system.  
inkwell.vue.80 : Amy Jo Kim - Community Building on the Web
permalink #21 of 52: Linda Castellani (castle) Thu 20 Jul 00 18:08

It seems like, in comparison, the WELL's "reputation system" i.e - the
bozofilter list in flame.ind - is a lot more honest.  If someone has
someone else bozofiltered they truly don't want communication from them,
it's not just a pose.
inkwell.vue.80 : Amy Jo Kim - Community Building on the Web
permalink #22 of 52: Amy Jo Kim (amyjo) Thu 20 Jul 00 18:11
<delyn> - excellent question! The answer lies in the difference
between "building a community", and "becoming a community aggregator"
-- something I describe in my book. 

Basically, a community aggregator is an organization that provides
space, tools and support for individual private (or public) groups, but
doesn't impose any particular topical context. Yahoo, eGroups,
eCircles, Talk City, and AOL are all examples of organizations that
function primarily as community aggregators.

OTOH, when an organization sets out to build a community, there's
usually some overriding purpose, topic or interest that runs through
the community, and is shared by community members (at least at first).
eBay, Ancient Sites, Parent Soup, Slashdot, and the Adobe Tech Support
Forums are examples of organizations that started out to build a
community, rather than to aggregate a disparate collection of

Of course, as communities grow, they must of necessity foster
subgroups, and thus take on more of the features of an aggregator --
which is why, as <delyn> says, it's often a good idea to grow your
subgroup program after the original community has had a chance to jell.

So - here's a question for you all: is the WELL a community, or a
community aggregator? 
inkwell.vue.80 : Amy Jo Kim - Community Building on the Web
permalink #23 of 52: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 20 Jul 00 21:13

inkwell.vue.80 : Amy Jo Kim - Community Building on the Web
permalink #24 of 52: Amy Jo Kim (amyjo) Thu 20 Jul 00 21:55
Funny thing, <jonl> -- I came up with a similar answer ;-)
inkwell.vue.80 : Amy Jo Kim - Community Building on the Web
permalink #25 of 52: Ari Davidow (ari) Fri 21 Jul 00 07:22
I think I got the same answer when I did a paper on the WELL last year ;-).


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