Posts Tagged ‘diversity’

Building a community: Does a community have to be diverse to be successful?

Tuesday, May 11th, 2010

Last year, Wikipedia made headlines when a survey commissioned by the Wikimedia Foundation discovered only 13% of Wikipedia’s writers and editors are women.  Among people who read but don’t write or edit for Wikipedia, 69% are men and 31% are women.  The same survey found that Wikipedians were much more highly educated than the rest of the population, with 19% saying they have a Master’s degree and 4.4% saying they have a Ph.D.

Facebook and MySpace have similarly gotten press for news that the demographics of the social networks’ members vary across race, class, and education.

It shouldn’t surprise us that these sites, or any other sites, would be more popular among certain demographic groups.

All communities, online or off, tend to reflect their founders and the worlds they come from.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook

Facebook was founded by Mark Zuckerberg while he was at Harvard.  Facebook ended up more popular with Ivy League students.  Wikipedia was founded using wiki technology and principles from the open source software movement.  Wikipedians, not surprisingly, are “mostly male computer geeks,” as described by founder Jimmy Wales.  Yelp started in San Francisco, and the irreverent, young tone echoes the tone of many Silicon Valley start-ups, attracting irreverent, young people.  It’s not just that the sites’ founders attract people who are like them.  They set the tone, based on values they hold, that tend to be shared by people similar to them.

Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia

Even as sites grow and expand beyond the first adopters, communities can develop cultures that are more attractive to certain groups than others.

Women are allegedly more active than men on Facebook, whereas the opposite is true on Twitter. 

Although both sites involve sharing information, the mechanisms are quite different.

I’m not going to hazard a guess as to why women are more drawn to Facebook or why men are more drawn to Twitter.  I do think it’s funny when writers forget their personal preferences might not be universal.  This writer, this writer, and this writer, who agree Twitter is much better than Facebook — all men.

Martha Stewart

Here’s one prominent exception, Martha Stewart, who says,

First of all, you don’t have to spend any time on it, and, second of all, you reach a lot more people. And I don’t have to ‘befriend’ and do all that other dippy stuff that they do on Facebook.

Which sounds like a stereotypically male sort of thing to say.

But it is worth noting that certain ways of interacting are more appealing to some groups than others, even when sites are not being marketed specifically to one group or another.

Why does it matter?  A successful community is not necessarily a diverse one.

A forum for breast cancer patients won’t measure the health of its community by the number of men on it.

One of the most attractive things about the Internet is its ability to concentrate people with esoteric interests.

However, for communities with more universal goals, diversity is an important issue.

It makes sense that Wikipedia has publicly been working on making its community of writers and editors more diverse.  If Wikipedia’s goal is to create “a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge,” it has to include the knowledge and perspective of people other than male computer geeks.  (I can’t say for sure, but I would bet there were a couple of male computer geeks involved in the writing of this rather literal exposition of the “sanitary napkin.”)

As part of that plan, Wikipedia is rolling out a redesign, which they hope will encourage more people to contribute their knowledge.

Whether or not the redesign drastically affects Wikipedia’s numbers, the plan will likely involve a delicate balancing act.

Wikipedia needs to attract new members without alienating the original members of its community.

If the old interface was intimidating to some people, it was probably equally attractive to others.  Those who didn’t find it intimidating could identify as part of a hard-core, committed group, an identity that can be crucial for energizing early members of a community.

It’s the problem of any community that wants to grow – how do you grow without destroying the sense of community that helped it start in the first place?

Large organizations have traditionally tried to maintain a sense of community with local chapters.

The Sierra Club and Habitat for Humanity International are both built on a network of local affiliates that have a certain amount of autonomy.  The Catholic Church and other religious organizations operate using a similar organizational structure, though with varying degrees of centralized control.

Online, the examples are fewer.

In fact, the only example of a community in our study that’s grown obviously beyond the boundaries of the original group is Facebook, and as I’ve discussed earlier, it’s an outlier.

It contains communities but is not actually a community in and of itself.  Despite the demographic differences between Facebook and MySpace, Facebook has arguably grown so big, those differences have become negligible.  It almost doesn’t matter if Facebook is somewhat more popular among certain groups when it has 400 million active users.  At the same time, though, each Facebook user’s experience of Facebook is filtered through is or her friends.  Even though the dilemma of whether to accept a friend request from a parent has become a common joke, most people on Facebook haven’t directly experienced how quickly Facebook has expanded.

This may be why Facebook has managed to transcend its origins so quickly as an online social network for Harvard students.  The feeling of intimacy and connection hasn’t changed for the average user.  It’s questionable whether Facebook can maintain that sense of localized community with the various changes it’s made to how user information is shared, but Facebook is gambling that it can.


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