Functions in community platforms

Having used ELGG intensively for a month now, I’m beginning to see more clearly the nature of the space or spaces it offers, or at least how we have been using them.

Groups

Groups are the manageable units in which we divide up activities. People belong to one of more groups and find an identifiable constellation of activities there. You could also call each one a community. The implication of this role of groups in terms of navigation is that knowing which groups exist is one of the first things newcomers need to know. In a geographical metaphor it would be like being able to identify the towns on the landscape because it is there that people congregate and things happen. Such a prioritization of groups does not exist in ELGG. We had to create a specific page pointing to all the groups and giving minimum details about them and add a link to that page in the menu at the top of each page. Even if the community using ELGG has only one activity, it is better to structure that immediately in a group so that should there ever be another activity, the transition is much easier.

groups

Blogs and discussion threads

Within groups there are a number of tools used for activities. Two of the most important tools for exchange and collaboration are the blogs and the discussion thread (forum). Because of their nature they have different uses. The discussion thread is more adapted to asking a (short) question and having people respond to that question. Any number of threads can be started so there can be multiple questions. In the seminar on L4D, for example, I have used the discussion thread to ask questions about material posted in the seminar. The blog, in comparison, allows publishing of a long statement that can then be reacted on. In the seminar it has been used for people to post the knowledge profiles. In the Key Issues group, the blog has been used to publish a structured statement about an individual key issue. The blog allows people to comments on blog posts and thus create a discussion thread about that particular posting. One of the results of this approach is that the blog them becomes dedicated to one specific activity and if you want to have another activity requiring a blog in a group the only way you can do this is to create a new group because there is only one blog per group. Using several blogs across several groups is a messy business that confuses navigation and muddles up group identity because each new blog requires its users to sign up for a new group.

Friends and notifications

In the terminology used by ELGG what is called a friend is more like someone you follow. Making someone a friend does not require the agreement of the other person as would be the case in Facebook. Instead it is a way of declaring your interest in what the person does and enables you to 1) receives notifications about their activities and 2) send emails to them. In this, it is much more like Twitter. Instead of making notifications automatic, as in Twitter when you follow someone, ELGG gives you the chose to receive notifications from that person or not.

A digest of changes (…)

Pages

ELGG is not a CNS, it is a community platform but all community platforms need a way to create and navigate pages. (…)

Navigation

The current navigation system on ELGG is centered on the tools. Using a drop down menu, you can got to the blogs, the pages, the groups,… This tool-centric logic is not what is needed here. At a top level people need to find the active communities and a limited number of pages that play a special function such as a help page. We have been using the top bar menu programmed by Michal Zacher. This makes it possible to add links in the menu bar at the top of each page. This is an absolutely essential feature that should be integrated into ELGG itself.

Once the user has found the group he or she is interested in, the next hurdle is getting direct access to what is happening there: what has changed since the last time the person was there. ELGG offers such information at the bottom of the group ‘home’ page.  Unfortunately the information provided doesn’t always help. Take the Key Issues group. It uses a blog for people to post key issues. Once the key issue is posted the important work is in the discussion. No collated information is available about the latest comments on the group page. The same goes if you are using discussion threads as in the online seminar. The group home page tells you what threads are active but not what are the most recent posts. The only place you can find such information is in the activities tool, which is really useful. But people shouldn’t need to leave their group to find out what is going on. So in addition to information about active blogs or discussion threads, that group home page should first show the latest comments.

Newsletter

As responsible for a group on ELGG or for the platform as a whole, part of the work of stimulating and channeling participation involves periodically updating participants. As a result, one of the essential tools needed on a platform like ELGG would be the possibility to send a formatted message or newsletter to a group of people. Such a ‘newsletter’ function should be tied in to the list of participants and their membership of groups. (…)

 

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