Excursus: The history of online communities
Today, an online community is something completely normal, especially for so-called “digital natives”. There are countless platforms and technologies that enable users to create an online community from scratch. But that was not always the case. But at some point, the first online community must have existed. We have looked into the digital history books for you.
The network “The Well”, also “The Whole Earth Lectronic Link”, is often cited as one of the first online communities. The Well was founded in 1985 by Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant in Sausalito, California.
Stewart Brand is an American writer, best known as the editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, a counterculture magazine and tool catalogue for aspiring returners to nature, which he founded in 1968. Larry Brilliant is an American physician, epidemiologist, technologist and author who served as Executive Director of Google.org, the philanthropic arm of Google. He is known for his work in the fight against smallpox, among other things.
The aim of the online community “The Well” was to create an online space where people from different backgrounds and disciplines could come together to discuss different areas of interest. The Well was one of the first online forums of its kind and was intended to be a place where people could learn from each other, share knowledge and build relationships. The community initially focused on technology and counterculture, but has expanded over time to include a wide variety of diverse topics.
→ “The Well” on wikipedia
However, one can also look back even further into history. For example, many consider the first online community to be the network “The Source”, which was launched in 1979 by a group of developers around the entrepreneur and inventor Bill von Meister. This community used an early modem network and enabled users to access a shared computer and exchange messages via a telephone connection. “The Source” aimed to create a platform where people could communicate with each other, exchange information and share common interests.
“The Source eventually went the commercial route. To access the online community, members had to make their payments by cheque or invoice. It was also possible to make payments by postal order or credit card. Members of the community were then given a user name and password to log in. The Community had a large user base in the early 1980s and was one of the first companies to offer subscription access to online services, including news, weather information, games such as Chess and Go, and stock quotes. In 1989, “The Source” was eventually bought by CompuServe, a major provider of online services at the time.
Today, “The Source” would certainly no longer be called a typical online community, but rather an online service.
→ “The Source” on wikipedia
An online community connects people with each other, no matter where they are in this world. Online communities can be run privately or for business and can include any topic that people want to talk about. That is the real benefit of an online community!
Use cases: Who are online communities used by and for what purpose?
Online communities are used by different people who are interested in a certain topic or a common interest. These can be people of all ages and from different parts of the world. Online communities can also be used by companies or organisations to keep in touch with their customers or members and provide them with a place to share and communicate. There are many different types of online communities related to different topics, such as technology, gaming, fashion, art, science, politics and many more. Users of online communities share their thoughts, ideas and experiences with each other and can support and advise each other. Below we have summarised the most important types of online communities.
Individuals use online communities to connect with other people, make friends, network, seek information and support, or just to socialise and spend time. Online communities come in many different forms, such as forums, social networks, blogs, discussion groups and chat rooms. They can be about anything from interests, hobbies and careers to political or social issues. They offer users the opportunity to interact with other people who share the same interests and a platform to share their opinions and ideas. For private individuals, there are many advantages to participating in online communities. Here we have summarised a few examples:
- Social interaction: online communities offer the opportunity to get in touch with other people and make friends even if you cannot meet in person or live in different parts of the world.
- Exchange of information and ideas: Online communities allow users to ask questions, share tips and advice and talk about different topics. They offer the possibility to learn from others and to educate oneself.
- Support and solidarity: Online communities can be a valuable source of support and solidarity for people who find themselves in difficult life situations. They offer the opportunity to share with others who have had similar experiences and to encourage and support each other.
- Self-expression and creativity: Online communities offer the possibility to present oneself and to live out one’s creativity. Users can write blogs, share photos and videos, and talk to others about their interests and passions.
- Access to resources and opportunities: Online communities can provide users with access to resources and opportunities that they might not otherwise have. These include, for example, job opportunities, training opportunities and volunteering.
An online community connects people from all over the world. No matter what age, gender, nationality or skin colour.
Business (Brand & Customer Community)
Many companies use online communities to serve and engage their customers and users. Online communities provide a platform where users can interact and share information about products, services and other topics. Companies often use online communities as a customer support channel to answer questions and solve problems, and they can also be used as a marketing and advertising channel to inform about new products and offers and to generate interest. Online communities can also serve as a source of information by allowing users to learn about and learn from the experiences and opinions of other users. An online community offers many benefits to businesses, including:
- Customer loyalty: an online community can help build customer loyalty by providing a platform for customers to interact and ask questions.
- Market research: Companies can use the online community to gather feedback from customers to improve customer satisfaction.
- Branding: An online community can help strengthen a company’s brand and promote customer loyalty.
- Customer service: Companies can use the online community to respond quickly and effectively to customer queries and complaints.
- New customer acquisition: An online community can help attract new customers by serving as a platform for disseminating information and marketing activities.
- Employee retention: Companies can also use the online community to strengthen employee retention and give employees the opportunity to share and network.
→ Customer Insights Community
→ Brand Community
→ Customer Community
A support community is a group of people who help and support each other to solve problems or challenges with a particular product or service. This type of community usually exists online and is often run by a company that makes or sells the product, or by a group of volunteers. Members of the community can ask questions, report problems, share solutions, and support each other. A product support community can also be a platform where users can suggest new features or updates.
- Cost savings: A support community can help reduce customer support costs by reducing the number of requests to the official support department.
- User feedback: A support community provides a platform where users can give feedback and make suggestions regarding the development and improvement of products or services.
- Increased customer satisfaction: By solving problems faster, customer satisfaction can be increased.
Societies & Associations
Online communities are often used by associations to inform, organise and mobilise their members. These online communities can exist in different forms, such as social networks, discussion forums, chat groups or on specific platforms run by the associations themselves. Online communities can be used, for example, for planning events, organising projects or collecting donations. Online communities are also a valuable tool for public relations work, as they make it possible to reach a broad target group and to present oneself. An online community offers associations many advantages, such as:
- Improved communication: an online community allows members of an association to communicate and exchange ideas with each other even if they cannot meet in person. This can be particularly useful in times of COVID-19 or during a pandemic.
- Increased transparency: An online community can help ensure that all members of an association are informed about the association’s activities and decisions. This can contribute to increased transparency and trust within the community.
- Increased participation: An online community allows members of an association to actively participate in discussions and decision-making processes. This can help members feel more connected to the association and more engaged.
- Improved collaboration: An online community can help members of an association to coordinate and collaborate better. This can be particularly useful when organising events and projects. Increased visibility: An online community can help an association reach a wider public and thus also attract new members.
Medicine and health
There are many online medical and health communities that people use to find information and support on various health and medical topics. These communities can take different forms, such as forums, social networks or specific websites that focus on health and medicine information. In these communities, people can ask questions, share experiences and interact with others who have similar health concerns. However, it is important to note that the information provided in an online medical and health community may not always be accurate or up to date with the latest scientific knowledge. Therefore, people seeking medical help or advice should always consult their doctor or other medical professional as well. The main benefits of an online medical and health community are as follows:
- Information and support: members of an online community can offer each other information and support, for example by answering questions or giving advice. This can be particularly helpful when deciding on a particular treatment or lifestyle, or when living with a chronic illness or limitation.
- Sharing and connecting: Online communities offer people the opportunity to connect with others who have similar experiences or interests. This can help people feel less lonely and isolated, and help them feel supported and understood by others.
- Access to expert knowledge: An online community can include professionals or experts who have extensive knowledge in a particular area. This can be a good opportunity for community members to benefit from this knowledge and ask questions.
- Opportunity for self-organisation: Online communities can also help people to organise themselves and work together towards certain goals, for example to bring attention to a particular disease or cause.
It is important to note that online communities are not a substitute for professional medical care and that people should always consult with a doctor or other health professional before making any treatment or lifestyle changes.
NGOs and NPOs
NGOs and NPOs use online communities, for example, to disseminate their goals and projects, to collect donations and to gain support for their work. They can use online communities in different ways, for example to start online petitions and gather supporters for specific causes. In addition, online fundraising campaigns can be conducted to collect donations and organise online events and to exchange ideas and experiences. An online community can offer a variety of benefits for NGOs and NPOs, including:
- Increasing visibility and reach: an online community can help increase the visibility and reach of an NGO or NPO by enabling it to network and interact with a wider audience.
- Strengthening community: An online community can help build a community of supporters and funders who are committed to the work of the NGO or NPO and support each other.
- Fundraising: An online community can provide a platform through which donations can be collected to support the work of the NGO or NPO.
- Encouraging engagement and participation: An online community can help promote engagement and participation among the NGO or NPO’s supporters and funders by providing them with opportunities to participate and contribute.
- Improving communication and collaboration: An online community can help improve communication and collaboration within an NGO or NPO by providing a platform where staff, volunteers and other stakeholders can communicate and collaborate.
Members of an NPO or NGO online community can easily exchange information online, make appointments, start campaigns and petitions or plan events together.
Public authorities and administrations use online communities as a way to communicate with the public and provide them with information and services. This can take the form of official social media accounts, forums or discussion platforms on the internet. By using online communities, public authorities and administrations can quickly and effectively get in touch with the public and respond to citizens’ questions and concerns. In addition, online communities also offer the possibility to involve citizens in decision-making processes and to collect their opinions and ideas. An online community can offer a number of benefits for public administration and authorities, including:
- Improved communication and interaction with the public: an online community allows public authorities and public bodies to engage directly with citizens and other stakeholders and hear their opinions and concerns. This can help build public trust in public administration and increase transparency and accountability.
- Facilitating access to information and services: An online community can serve as a platform where public authorities and public institutions provide information and services that are of interest to the public. This can help to facilitate access to this information and services and improve the efficiency of public administration.
- Increased public participation in decision-making processes: An online community can also serve as a platform where the public can participate in discussions and decision-making processes that affect public administration and authorities. This can help increase the legitimacy and representativeness of decisions and improve public satisfaction with public administration.
- Improved cooperation and coordination: An online community can also serve as a platform where different public institutions and authorities can join forces and coordinate to achieve common goals and make better use of resources.
- Increased visibility and outreach: An online community can also help to increase the visibility and outreach of public authorities and public agencies by serving as a platform where they can showcase their work and inform the public about their activities.
Online communities offer a wide range of opportunities for market research as they bring together large numbers of people from different demographics and areas of interest. Market research organisations can use online communities to find out users’ opinions and attitudes on specific topics, to gather feedback on products and services or to promote the brand. They can also conduct surveys or discussions in online communities to get more detailed information. It is important to note that market research organisations must respect the privacy of users in online communities and ensure that the data they collect is kept secure and confidential. An online community offers a number of advantages for market research:
- Rapid collection of data: An online community makes it possible to collect feedback from a large number of people quickly and easily. This makes it possible to react quickly to changes in the market situation.
- High participation: Online communities offer high participation as participants can take part in market research from anywhere.
- Lower cost: Collecting data through an online community is usually less expensive than conducting traditional market research methods such as telephone interviews or group discussions.
- Wide range of data: Online communities offer the opportunity to collect not only quantitative but also qualitative data. By using forums and discussion groups, deeper insights into the opinions and experiences of the participants can be gained.
- Longer-term observation: An online community can be observed over a longer period of time, which makes it possible to better understand changes in participants’ opinions and behaviour.
Online communities in the field of tourism are frequently used. These communities can take various forms, such as forums, social media platforms or dedicated travel blogs. They serve as a platform for travellers to exchange information about different destinations and travel experiences and to receive tips and recommendations from other travellers. They can also play an important role in planning and booking trips by providing information on accommodation, transport options and places of interest. Online tourism communities are therefore a valuable resource for travellers and can help ensure that trips are successful and enjoyable. An online community in tourism can be used for different destinations and accordingly has different advantages. Here are some possible benefits of an online community in tourism:
- Customer loyalty: an online community can help customers stay loyal to a business or destination for longer by providing a platform where customers can connect and interact with other customers and the business or destination.
- Marketing: An online community can be used as a marketing platform by sharing information about offers, events or news, thus generating interest in the destination.
- Customer feedback: An online community offers the possibility to collect direct feedback from customers and thereby improve the offer and services.
- Community building: An online community can help to build a loyal customer base and thus strengthen the brand in the long term.
- Customer service: An online community can also be used as a customer service platform by answering customer questions and solving problems.
An online community for tourism brings people together to share their experiences. People can mention special places and give tips for certain destinations.
A HE community is a group of people who belong together at a particular college or university. This includes students, faculty members, staff, alumni and others who are connected to the university in some way. A HE community can exist both offline and online and serves to strengthen connections between members, share common interests and goals, and support the HEI and its mission. HE community helps to create a positive and inclusive culture at the HEI where everyone is welcome and feels comfortable.
- Community goals: Members work together to achieve community goals and projects that support the university and its members.
- Academic support: students and faculty members can support and help each other by sharing academic issues and challenges and finding solutions together.
- Promoting research and innovation: Members of a HE community can work together to develop and promote research-based projects and innovations that advance the HE and society.
- Organising events and activities: Members can work together to organise events and activities that enrich and connect the university community.
An alumni online community is a group of former pupils, students or graduates of schools, colleges and universities who have come together to socialise, share experiences and pursue common interests. Alumni communities can exist both online and offline and are quite often supported financially or infrastructurally by schools or universities. An alumni community can also be an excellent network for career opportunities, mentoring and mutual support.
- Keeping in touch: Members of an alumni community can easily find and connect with their old friends and contacts.
- Career opportunities: Members can benefit from the experience and network of other members and find out about career opportunities and job offers.
- Mentoring: Experienced members can give advice and support to younger members and help them achieve their career and personal goals.
- Sharing experiences: Members can share their experiences and knowledge and learn from the experiences of others.
- Links with the school: Members can maintain their links with the school and actively participate in events and activities.
- Access to resources: Members of an alumni community have access to a variety of resources, such as events, libraries, information materials, etc.
- Maintaining identity: Members can maintain their identity as graduates of their school or college and identify with other members who have had the same experience.
- Continuing education: Members can continue their education and participate in continuing education programmes and events offered by the school or college.
An online community for artists is a virtual group of artists who have come together on a particular platform or website to share their work, communicate with each other and collaborate. It can be a community for all kinds of artists, from painters and sculptors to photographers and musicians. An online community for artists offers members the opportunity to share their work with a wider audience, receive feedback from other artists, and learn about current trends, techniques and materials. Some of these communities are open to the public, others are closed and require membership.
- Exchange of ideas and feedback: artists can share their work and receive feedback and criticism from other artists, which can help them to further improve their skills and their work.
- Opportunities to collaborate: artists can join together within the community to start joint projects or work together to expand their creative skills.
- Access to resources: artists have access to a variety of resources such as materials, techniques, events and exhibitions that can help them to further improve their work.
- Marketing and sales platform: Some online communities for artists offer artists the opportunity to sell their work and thus earn additional income.
Online communities are used frequently and with pleasure by gamers. There are many online platforms, forums and social media aimed at gamers where they can exchange ideas and network with each other. Special gaming forums and portals are also a popular platform for gamers to communicate and exchange ideas with each other. In these online communities, gamers can talk about their favourite games, share tips and tricks, ask questions and network with other gamers. They also serve as a platform for organising multiplayer games and arranging to play together. An online community for gamers offers a variety of benefits, including:
- Exchange tips and tricks: In an gaming community, gamers can share their knowledge and experience and learn from others.
- Social interaction: An online community provides gamers with the opportunity to connect with others and form friendships that extend beyond the game.
- Support and help: In an online community, gamers can get help and support from others when they are stuck in a game or having problems.
- Improve skills: In an online community, gamers can learn from others and improve their skills by competing with or learning from more experienced players.
- Participate in events and tournaments: Many gaming communities offer regular events and tournaments where gamers can compete against each other and win prizes.
- Discover new games: In an online community, gamers can discover new games and get them recommended by others.
A fan community is a group of people who feel connected through their shared passion for, for example, a particular sports club, TV show, artist or music group. These communities usually take place online and allow fans to come together to discuss their favourite topics, share content and collaborate. Fan communities can be found on social media, forums or dedicated websites and serve to strengthen relationships among fans and promote popularity and interest in certain topics. These communities often create and share fan fiction, fan art and other content, as well as organise events and hold meetings.
- Sense of belonging: Members of a fan community can feel connected and experience a sense of belonging through their shared passion for a particular topic.
- Networking: Members have the opportunity to meet and network with other fans, which can help them make new friends and surround themselves with like-minded people, attend events together, and organise fan events….
- Insider tips and knowledge sharing: Members of a fan community can share their latest knowledge with members and receive insider tips
A crowdsourcing community is a group of people who work together to achieve a specific goal. These goals can be very diverse and range from solving problems to creating content or conducting research. In a crowdsourcing community, members are invited to contribute their talents, skills and ideas to work together on a common task. Members of a crowdsourcing community can participate in a variety of ways, such as providing information, creating content or testing prototypes.
What are the benefits of a crowdsourcing online community?
- More ideas: A crowdsourcing online community can provide many different ideas and perspectives that a company or organisation might not otherwise consider. This can help to open up new markets or develop innovative solutions to challenges.
- Faster decisions: By including many different opinions and ideas in a crowdsourcing process, companies can make decisions faster because they can draw on a broader base of information and perspectives.
- Cost savings: Crowdsourcing can help companies reduce costs by sharing resources and relying on external expertise rather than internal staff.
- Improved customer engagement: By involving customers in the decision-making process, companies can strengthen their customer loyalty and build a deeper connection with their customers.
- Increased visibility: A crowdsourcing community can also help increase the visibility of a company or organisation by bringing new ideas and perspectives to the public.
→ Crowdsourcing Community
In a crowdsourcing community, everyone who has something to contribute to a topic is welcome. It is great fun to be a member of a crowdsourcing community, and sometimes you are rewarded for your commitment in the form of vouchers or money.
Indeed, online communities can be particularly useful for people with physical disabilities as they allow them to participate and socialise from home without relying on physical travel. There are many different online communities aimed at people with physical disabilities, and many of them offer specific tools and resources designed to facilitate participation. For example, there are online communities that provide special chat features for people with hearing impairments or that have accessible website designs for people with visual impairments. It is important that people with physical disabilities make sure they find an online community that meets their needs and helps them feel comfortable and included. Some things to look out for could be:
- Look for online communities that cater specifically to people with physical disabilities. There are many such communities online that specialise in particular limitations such as wheelchair use or hearing impairments.
- Look for online communities that are accessible. There are many online communities that are specifically designed to be user-friendly for people with disabilities. For example, they offer accessible website designs, alternative access options for people with visual impairments and special chat functions for people with hearing impairments.
- Look for online communities that use inclusive language. Some online communities use inclusive language to ensure that all members feel welcome and included. For example, these communities use non-ablative language and avoid terms that might discriminate against people with disabilities.
An online community offers many benefits to people with physical disabilities, including:
- Access: an online community is easily accessible for people with physical disabilities as it can be accessed from anywhere on a computer, smartphone or tablet. They do not necessarily have to leave the house or rely on public transport to participate.
- Support: An online community offers people with physical disabilities the opportunity to support each other and learn from others who have had similar experiences. They can be exchanged and give each other advice.
- Inclusion: An online community enables people with physical disabilities to participate in activities they might not be able to attend in the real world. They can participate in discussions, attend events and connect with other people without having to worry about whether the place is suitable for their needs.
- Advice and information: An online community often provides access to information and advice from professionals or other experienced members. This can be particularly helpful for people with physical disabilities, as they may have difficulty accessing this information in other ways.
Overall, an online community offers people with physical disabilities a way to network, find support and participate in activities that may not otherwise be available to them.
An online community should offer a variety of functions that allow users to interact and share with each other. Here are some functions that are important for operators of an online community:
- Discussion forums: a place where users can discuss specific topics and share their opinions. Private messaging: A way for users to communicate directly with each other without the messages being public.
- User profile pages: A place where users can share their interests, hobbies and other information. Search function: A way for users to search for specific topics or users.
- Notifications: A way for users to keep up to date with new activities in the community.
- Moderation: A system to ensure that community rules are followed and content is appropriate. Integration with social networks: A way to link the community with other social networks to increase reach.
- Communication features: An online community needs a way for members to communicate with each other, for example through forums, chat rooms or direct messaging.
- User profile functions: Each member of the community should have a profile where information such as name, age, interests and contact details can be provided.
- Access control functions: It should be possible to restrict or limit access to certain areas of the community, for example by requiring membership or a special invitation.
There are many reasons why it can be challenging to create an online community. First of all, it takes time and effort to build and maintain a community. You have to make sure that there is enough content to interest people and that the community stays active enough to develop and grow. Another challenge is that you have to take care of moderating and protecting the community to make sure that all members feel safe and respected. This can be especially difficult when you have a large and diverse community where there are many different opinions.
Attracting and recruiting new members can also be a big challenge, because an online community without members makes little sense. There are many online communities and it can be difficult to stand out from the crowd and get people’s attention to recruit new members.
There are some challenges that operators of an online community may face. Some of these challenges are:
- Moderation: it is important that online community operators ensure that the community remains free from spam, harassment and other inappropriate content. This can be a time-consuming task and may require the hiring of moderators.
- Fraud and abuse: Online communities are often targets of fraud and abuse, especially when they facilitate payments or other financial transactions. Operators need to take measures to ensure that their community is safe and prevent such activities.
- Data protection: It is important that operators of an online community protect the privacy of their users and ensure that their data is secure. This may require compliance with data protection laws and regulations.
- Technical challenges: Operators of an online community need to ensure that their website works well and loads quickly, and may need to carry out regular maintenance.
- Security: Online community operators need to ensure that the website is secure and that users’ data is protected. This includes, for example, setting up strong passwords and providing two-factor authentication options.
- Competition: There may be many other online communities offering similar content, which can make it difficult to attract and retain users. Operators may therefore need to differentiate themselves from other communities and offer unique content and features.
- Monetisation: Online community operators may need to find ways to earn money to support and develop their community. This may be through advertising, subscriptions or other monetisation strategies.
An online community is a place where people meet to exchange information about common interests or topics. Personal data such as name, age, email address, place of residence or interests are often provided. These data are very important for many users and should therefore be well protected. There are also many members of an online community who want to remain absolutely anonymous and do not want the content they post to be associated with their name. And this does not have to do solely with not wanting to be recognised as the sender of hate speech. Some communities deal with very sensitive topics where people prefer to be anonymous.
As the operator of an online community, you have a responsibility to ensure that users’ data is kept safe and does not fall into the wrong hands. If you take this responsibility seriously, you will help users feel safe and protected in your community. This can help users feel comfortable in the online community and stay longer, which in turn can help increase user retention and thus user satisfaction.
When it comes to data protection in an online community, there are some important aspects to pay attention to:
- Consent: Make sure that the members of your online community have given their consent to the processing of their data. This should be made clear in a privacy statement.
- Data protection requirements: Make sure that you comply with applicable data protection laws and regulations, such as the EU Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
- Data security: Ensure that the data of your online community is securely stored and protected, for example by regularly performing backups and controlling access rights to the data.
- Data protection-compliant use: Use the data of your online community only for the purposes for which it was provided by the members and inform them about how their data is used.
Data protection and compliance are a very important topic for operators of online communities und should have highest priority.
Conclusion: Online communities make sense if you know what you want to use them for in essence!
It makes sense to think about what you want to use the community for and what your goals are before setting up an online community. A clear focus of the community can help to keep it attractive to users and to achieve the desired results. However, this does not mean that you have to know all the uses and possibilities of the community in advance. It is also possible that in the course of time new areas of use and possibilities for the community will arise that one had not initially considered. So it can be useful to keep some flexibility and also be open to new ideas and developments.
Running an online community can be a valuable way for companies and organisations to strengthen their brand and increase customer loyalty. By building a community, users can interact and share with each other, which can help them feel more connected to the brand. An online community can also serve as a platform where users can provide feedback and ideas, which in turn can help the company or organisation to better respond to users’ needs and wants. In addition, an online community can also be used as a marketing tool by serving as a platform for sharing information and news that is relevant to the target group. All in all, an online community thus offers the possibility to strengthen the brand, to increase customer loyalty and to use it as a marketing tool to increase the visibility and awareness of the brand.
An online community can also be used, for example, as a platform for user support. Through the exchange in the community, users can find answers to frequently asked questions or support each other with problems and questions. This can possibly succeed in reducing the support effort for the company or organisation. Another opportunity that an online community offers is the possibility to engage and motivate users. Through the exchange in the community, users can, for example, also participate in actions and campaigns, which can contribute to a higher level of engagement and thus also to a stronger bond with the company or the organisation.