March 22, 2013

Design for Community

Derek Powazek hosts {fray}, the famously beautiful personal storytelling site. Each Fray story ends with a direct question, such as "Who have you almost forgiven?" Readers respond with their own stories, often hauntingly frank and disarmingly candid. The main Fray stories appeal through their polish and care, while the impact of the reader stories stems from their authenticity, their sharp edges and raw candor. At its best, it's a lively mix.

In Design for Community, Powazek explores how designers can use discussion groups, email lists, and weblogs to nurture cohesive communities of dozens or hundreds of readers and writers. Some communities are larger -- slashdot, for example, is huge though hardly cohesive -- and some very large groups (amazon users, for example) have aspects of communities, but Powazek's experience suggests that, once you grow beyond a a few thousand participants, electronic communities tend to explode or collapse.

A large part of the book records interviews with community leaders -- people like Slashdot creator Rob Malda, Metafilter's Matt Haughey, Burns and Parr from jGuru. The interviews give a picture of the human side of community maintenance, the day-to-day role of hosts and moderators. Knowing how to survive a flame war without being emotionally drained, and how to nurse a community through a flame war without seeing it collapsing in ashes, is valuable. Had this book been written four years earlier, we might still have TechnoCulture.

Powazek is a designer, not a decorator, and he understands that usability can be the enemy of utility, that making something harder can sometimes make it better. He's not very interested in ethnography, and so looks more at capabilities than at usage patterns; I wish we knew more about how communities typically work, to supplement the book's success stories and anecdotes.

Design for Communities had the bad luck to appear just after then end of the dot-com era. Had he written this book three years earlier, Powazek would have sold a lot of copies to managers, investors, and frequent flyers. This useful book will be light and pleasant reading for its core audience, though right now the people who are dedicated enough to read the book would probably welcome more detail, while the suits who would be scared off by the details have moved on.