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  Technology and the Virtual Community?
What questions do I need to ask myself from a technology standpoint in order to set up a virtual community?

Thank you for your help...


Many thanks for your question. This issue is absolutely crucial when you are embarking on a virtual community, especially if you are planning to deliver your community tools to your users on your own server platform. If you are, however, considering using a remotely hosted suite of community tools there are still some areas to consider from your users' point of view.

The technicalities of coding a community (or "do I want to get into the code?")

The most basic question relating to technology is the most obvious but often overlooked one. Do you want to get your hands dirty with it? Often it's possible to launch communities with little or no technical knowledge but undoubtedly it's very useful to have some familiarity with the techniques which your community is to be based on.

If you have technical contacts or an in-house technical team behind you then obviously a lot of that experience and familiarity will come from them. Their abilities and preferences will most likely dictate to what extent you need to actually be concerned with the code.

If you are opting for a Hosted or ASP model then you most likely will not see an ounce of code. Usually such community components are delivered more or less as complete packages. Often these packages are not customizable, or alternatively, customization is achieved via an interface which does not require any scripting knowledge.

Test drive a few tools and see how they handle the issue of being usable without requiring advanced knowledge. Compare their interfaces. Which is going to suit your level and needs?

Platforms, Operating Systems and scripting (or "what language am I most comfortable with?")

Whether your community is large scale or small, it's imperative that you are comfortable with the server and scripting platform you are hosting it on. This means understanding to some degree, or having good access to those who do, the language and methods used to make your community tools work. Knowing how, for example, a script interacts with a database of forum messages is a great advantage, both when you are setting up your community initially and beyond.

Whether you have to "dig into" the code for customisation or maintenance or not, a basic familiarity with scripting issues will make your life easier. For example, a basic understanding on your development team's part of how a script works and what an error message might mean will help you to quickly and effectively troubleshoot any problems or enable you to develop tools fully.

Administration (or "will I be able to actually control, change or report on my community?")

Another key aspect of technology is the role it plays in being able to administer your community site. This can be as basic as being able to add a topic to a message board or as complex as being able to retrieve activity reports for your community usage.

You should ensure that the level of administration you require is matched by the tools you use. An extreme example would be if six months down the line you realise that your community tool does not allow you to remove all the posts of a selected member who has just flooded your forum with spam messages. Worse still you can't get to the database to do it manually because you don't know how or don't have access.

Make a list of the administration requirements you have, starting with the most basic (e.g. ability to edit/delete posts on a forum, make participants into moderators, change the order of the forums, add registered users to a chat room, or create new rooms) and work up to things that you would like in an ideal world, such as being able to report in-depth on community usage patterns and profiles.

To sum up, make you sure you can actually administer your community. It's no use if you find yourself unable to manage the tasks you inevitably are going to face in almost any community. Again, test drive the tools before you commit!

Expansion (or "is this going to work for me in a few months time?")

Your technology should be able to expand with you as your site grows. What might be perfectly adequate for you now may not be so good in just a few months time. Think of your technology as something your community will "grow into", not simply as something which will be launched and then is static. Things to look out for include the capacity for databases to be scaled upwards, the capacity for chat tools to handle expanding concurrent users, and of course, the ability of your server to cope with the traffic you might get. All of these areas and a few others are crucial. Make sure you are covered!

If you are not sure, try to find sites which match where you think you might be in six or twelve months time. If the sites seem to be coping well with the traffic then see what tools they are using. Use www.netcraft.com to find out what hosting platform they are based on and find out what scripting platforms and community software they are running.

Your Community Users (or "Are they going to be able to see this?")

Do some homework on your potential community users - this would be broadly in common with any site launching, of course. Ask yourself what demographics and geographical factors might be an issue for your site. Such things include their operating system, the propensity for them to have the latest browser versions and plugins, any language or character display problems which might occur, and also any other browser issues such as security settings (cookies especially), firewall usage (common if your participants are likely to be office-based), and sensitively to features like JavaScript.

If you think that there may be specific issues which might affect your community tools (for example, some chat software does not cope well with access from behind a firewall) then these are worth knowing from the outset. They should form a part of your strategy, either (a) as something to work around or avoid or (b) as something to educate and encourage your users to avoid.

Another element to consider is the technological capability of your users. Many people will not react well, for example, to a browser pop-up asking them to install a Java applet on their system - they will simply cancel it, and move on. So, be sure to know those issues ahead of time, and if necessary provide instructions on your site regarding what various technology issues your users might encounter by participating.

Conclusion.

Make a list of the technologies you are comfortable with. Be sure to know both your own and your server's limits.
Make a list of what you need for your community tools.
Research those needs.
Test Drive!
Make a list of your users' needs and issues.
Research them fully.
Match them to community tools.
Then make your decisions (with an eye towards the future too).


- Jon Nix and Pam Thomas
http://communityanswers.com
http://cornerways.com
http://cwlive.com
 
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