How to build community: Start with the individual

Social expert: You'll never get social lift-off until you provide individual utility.

I'm here at the SNAP Summit in San Francisco. Most of the people in the overflow crowd are trying to figure out how to make their sites more social--how to tap into the viral effect that's busted companies such as RockYou and Slide into the big leagues.

Joshua Porter, who runs Bokardo Design, launched the day by offering up five principles for effective social design. The undercurrent of his talk: Serve your users and they'll keep coming back. That's a simple thing to say, of course. Here are Porter's five tips to making it real:

Personal value precludes network value: Paradoxically, to make a strong social site, you've got to start by making a good personal site. If the features you offer don't serve a solo user, it's unlikely your users will stick around long enough to become social. Examples: YouTube and Flickr both work as utility sites for individuals, even without the social component. Most users on Deli.cio.us start by using the service as a bookmark saver. The social angle comes later.

Joshua Porter Rafe Needleman / CNET

Tie behavior to identity: In other words, what you do on the site should describe you more than what you say about yourself in your profile. Amazon and eBay aren't Web 2.0-era social sites, but users' identity on these sites is very strong, based on feedback they leave on products and sales.

Give recognition: Digg leveraged its users' competitiveness to get on the front page of the site. Its top users eventually formed cliques to get and hold these positions. It was a good strategy to get the community going, but eventually Digg turned off the recognition feature since it was reinforcing the influence of the grandfathers of its network, and making it too hard for new people to rise up in the rankings. The challenge with recognition programs, Porter implies, is that you have to make them meaningful and desirable, but also temporary. Once a user is recognized as a top contributor, let them fall off the map if they don't stay active.

Show causation: If you're going to ask people to participate, make it clear what participating does for them. Netflix, for example, gives users better recommendations when they rate DVDs.

Leverage reciprocity: This is Porter's fancy way of saying that you want to appeal to people's narcissism. People contribute to social sites in large part because they want to see what other people say about their contributions. Make it easy for people to interact on that level--by leaving feedback, compliments, awards, and so for each other.

 

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