Community Action initiative from Elgg, getting the best deal for users and developers

Brett has asked and started up a great initiative at Elgg recently

“How can the Elgg developers enhance their interactions with Elgg users? Comments, questions, and discussions encouraged!!”

There are two fantastic threads already one on ideas how developers can talk to users and one on how to feel included – a user’s point of view.

I have a huge amount of respect for developers who spend countless hours creating and developing applications and release a lot of them as open-source and free. If it wasn’t for them so many of us would not be able to do the many things with the web that we now do – they are wonderful people. So I mean absolutely no disrespect at all in what I am about to say.

I remember a few years ago when I installed an open source wiki on my website. At the time I knew a tiny amount of php and some other server-side coding (long forgotten now unfortunately) but was not what I would call a web developer. I remember having a couple of problems once I had started the initial installation (wikis are basically web content management systems in a way) and it was throwing some small errors. I spent a lot of hours trying to find my way around support documentation which was linked and directed me to many different pages but unfortunately – you could find one bit of code and suggestion which took you near but then if it didn’t work – trying to find your way to the next bit was very difficult. This was mostly due to my lack of server-coding and sometimes how the programming / development processes really worked – although having started to learn python last year has helped so if I did it again I would probably find it easier now.

I’ve raised issues on Elgg before – saying things like – I’ve tried doing this and this happened or didn’t happen. I’ve been lucky too – I have occasionally bugged Jane Hart (Amazing social media, learning + Elgg guru) who always comes up with really sensible suggestions too. Sometimes I haven’t found an answer on Elgg, sometimes I’ve raised it as an issue, done something and discovered that I made an error and have since fixed it, but having to remember to go back and post on Elgg to say – don’t worry – I may not remember to do that at first – so in the meantime I have potentially wasted some developer’s thinking time with a non-issue (although they will get some understanding of how another person is trying to use).

I think what Elgg are doing is a really helpful idea because there are some people who would like to use Elgg but with no web coding experience at all, some like me and the developers get bombarded by questions and queries from all sides. This can result in both developers and users becoming frustrated with both not able to use their time as they would like. Some of the commenters are suggesting an improved search, finding a different or better structure to discussion and also the idea of an elibrarian (with aspects of wiki gardening & community management thrown in I think too) who could help provide useful linking to relevant content.

I especially liked the topic on how to feel included – a lot of the ideas so far encourage users to take ownership:

“Once your site reaches a certain point it becomes basically owned by it’s users. The admin of the site cannot hope to squeeze it into his/her/their structure. When you have activity happening on a site every one, 2 3 minutes it becomes impossible and the community becomes an entity of it’s own. kind of like kids. When they are young you can direct them in the direction you want but eventually you will lose control and have to let them fly in their own direction. This site has approximately 18000 users .My guess is that their are less than 10 people trying to control the community probably less, that is 1800 people per person. They can and should only concentrate on the areas that concern themselves, elgg, and things they are interested in. Every thing else is out of their control unless they build software to automate some kind of control.”

Elgg and developers don’t necessarily know what users need and in some cases other than fixes to their specific Elgg projects – users won’t know exactly what they need either. But they want something and they have the potential to help many other users by providing their feedback to developers. This could help for many other opensource projects – developers do not have the time to survey their users, observe their behaviour (as in how, what they are searching, keywords & questions etc) in communities, so if the users want a better experience – they are the key to providing it. Its not to say that they have all the answers now – but starting this initiative will hopefully bring in other users and ideas will develop and spread. Everyone is short of time and have their own interests but just as developers often provide many hours of their time for free, so can users, if each Elgg user went away and came back with one comment or idea. I’m going to go away and think and then go  back and contribute too.

Janet Clarey has put a great post today including looking at online community. I haven’t looked at the presentation yet but was struck by:

“I tried something different and shared Wordle so we could make a word cloud for two issues: what things make a bad  classroom training session and what an ideal online community would look like. I gathered up text from the chat box.”

There are many interesting ideas in the Wordle – this would also be great –  off the top of my head but imagine if it was a f2f session and you recorded the audio – converted it back to text  (you could possibly do both with a more recent smartphone and record up to an hour or so of audio) then Wordle it. Some of the words from the text chat – fun, easy, discover, shared, open, reach I would like to find all of this in a community too.

And an interesting article about online photo-sharing communities with a fascinating look at interpersonal dynamics but this is particularly interesting because it is focused around acting and reacting with images and text, why people choose to use the types of comments that they do and an overall look at interpersonal relationships. – do they develop in these kinds of communities.