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Supporting an Online Community for Kids

November 28th, 2011 by andresmh

Recently we, the Scratch Team at MIT, were asked to come up with a list of activities we have done to support the development of the Scratch Online Community. The question was framed in the context of what needs to be done beyond the creation the technological infrastructure, i.e. a website. Here is a list of some of the things that came up in the discussion and that I think have helped engage more than half a million young people a month. Of course, each community is different, but I hope some of these ideas are useful in other similar scenarios.

Active Community Involvement
From the beginning we spent a decent amount of time browsing the projects uploaded to the website and giving feedback to people’s work. Nowadays we obviously cannot do that due to the large number of projects uploaded every day (close to 1,500 per day!), but I would like to think that it helped a lot at first and that it set the tone for the type of participation expected in the community. However, this is an ongoing challenge as any community scales up, attention becomes scarce and some people might leave if they feel ignored while others might resort to destructive seeking-behavior.

In general, I think it is useful for community members to notice that there is a group of people behind the website. A group that is actively participating. An online community is very much like a social gathering: a party that needs hosts.

Discussion Forums
Having open ended discussion forums has been very useful in building community. The forums are heavily used by a few thousand people a month (less than 2,000) but I think they have always been the most vocal and active members of the community, so it’s been a useful way for them to connect among each other and with the Scratch Team. I used to make sure that every single thread was answered. The forums have also been a source of tension. Some people in the team have felt that discussions should focus on Scratch, while I have always felt that these forums are like a “water cooler” for the community, where almost any discussion should be allowed as they help build bonds.

Constant Iteration
A social website is never really finished. People will use and abuse it in unexpected ways, so you’ll have to keep iterating to fine tune it. I would say that more than half of the technical work behind the website has been focused on developing mechanisms to reduce abuse, empower moderators and deal with performance issues, all of which were hard to predict at the beginning.

Conflict Resolution
Something that consumes a large amount of time is dealing with moderation problems. The challenge is not so much the clearly inappropriate content (which can be quickly deleted), the main challenges are: 1) dealing with content that could be appropriate in some contexts and inappropriate in others, 2) dealing with high status members of the community that participate in both constructive and destructive ways, 3) solving interpresonal conflicts. None of these issues can be automated, but tools can be developed to help moderators deal with them in a timely fashion.

At the same time, I would argue that a little bit of drama is healthy for any online community. Commercial online communities for kids often pride themselves for having an extremely sanitized environment, but I think sometimes they go overboard and lose their authenticity.

Part of the role of a community host is to highlight the work that community members have contributed as well as introducing themes or topics for discussion or to spark creativity. We have always considered it important to highlight not only sophisticated projects but also promising work by beginners. It is important to engage in this process of curation continuously, and in some cases decentralize it by empowering members to become curators themselves. In the Scratch community, the Scratch Team selects members of the community as curators for a few weeks (with parental permission), while others help organizing recurrent online events.

Social Media
Like many others, Scratch has an active presence on Twitter and Facebook. We try to reply to @mentions and retweet relevant content. We have also set up a Google Alert to monitor blog posts and other websites to join discussion, amplify messages or simply know what people are saying to influence future designs.

Face to Face: Workshops and more
We bootstraped the online community by running an 11-week workshop with a non-profit called Citizen Schools. This helped us test the website with real people and have a few hundred projects before it was publicly announced. I think organizing face to face events is a good way to maintain a steady stream of activity for the community, which is very important to solve the “chicken and egg” problem of how to start having activity on the site. Additionally, my colleagues have also organized large bi-annual events that bring together educators and kids in a conference setting; and a decentralized set of “Scratch Day” events around the world every May.

Sharing to Other Websites
Scratch has never been very successful at this but I think being able to post your work on other websites, especially Youtube, is increasingly important to gain external visibility and attract new members. We have a somewhat hidden button that lets people share their projects onto websites like Twitter/Facebook, but the reality is that it rarely happens. Partly is a technical problem because websites like Facebook do not let embed Java applets (or any applets for that matter). It is also partly social, there is not much as much incentive for tweens to post links to their videos on Facebook/Twitter since many of them are not legally allowed to use these systems or Scratch creation might be too geeky for them to gain cultural capital from it. If I were to do this again in 2011, I would strongly suggest to be able to post to YouTube very easily. Part of why Minecraft became so popular is that people were posting awesome constructions/game sessions into YouTube, which has become the place for young people to share anything “creative”.

Have you ran an online community? What were the kind of things you did to support it?

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