The 7 key features of an online community

They all contribute to the personal experience of the shared space

Here’s something about the user experience of online communities that you’ve probably never considered: everyone in an online community is having a unique, individualized experience, even though they’re all doing it together. Think about that for a second. Your activity feed is not my activity feed, it has different places, people, and pages appearing in it. Some of the posts in your feed may also appear for me, depending on our collective preferences. But most of the time I’ll only see a small portion of the things you see, and then share those with my own subset of friends. It’s like riding the subway. It’s a personal experience in a shared space: a million small interactions that can be meaningful, or totally forgettable.

Yet, somehow online communities hang together. How? They’re focused on a particular theme. In the generic example above, you may have imagined Facebook. The common theme in Facebook is your real-life network of friends. Most others have a more focused theme, like a common taste in music, shared restaurant reviews, or photographs. No matter what people are actually talking about, all online communities, regardless of the theme, are constructed in a similar way.

Book Communities

The online communities we see in the publishing world are no different. This may be surprising, since there are so many kinds of communities related to books and writing. When viewed in aggregate, though, these different communities can be grouped into a few broad categories*:

  • Communities That Read Together Some communities read together, building communities inside and around book content, including Subtext, Copia, BookGlutton, Flooved and Readmill.
  • Communities That Share Reviews Other communities focus on grouping and reviewing books. These include Goodreads, Shelfari, NetGalley, Zola, and LibraryThing.
  • Communities That Write Together A portion of book communities are there for users to write together, like Figment, Red Lemonade, Wattpad and Fictionaut. Writing communities include tools for writing, editing and distributing content. They often have a goal of producing books, or helping agents discover authors, so I’m including them in the online-book-community lineup.
  • Communities That Focus on Content and Context Still other communities have a hard-to-categorize peripheral focus on context and content, like Small Demons, ReadSocial and Quote FM. These offer additional layers of discussion or content both inside and about books.

Of course, there are other ways to carve up the differences between these products. A focus on discussion inside content versus a focus on discussion about content. App-only solutions compared to web-based. Differences in business goals, between content sales, writing improvement, marketing reach, or community-building (as a valuable commodity in itself). The list can expand or contract according to how we slice the pie, but as long as a community fits under the publishing umbrella, we can see the same fundamental components of communities.

The Fundamentals

All book communities strive to seem unique, from branding to features. But they’re all still made of the same community building blocks. There are key concepts and design practices that show up everywhere in digital book communities:

  1. The Activity Feed The activity feed is a real-time, personalized list of information within a network. It’s ground zero for viral activity. The activity feed is the jumping off point for connecting with both content and users. Sometimes this pattern is rolled into user profile pages, other times it appears on a personalized homepage or dashboard, but it’s centrally located. Good community experiences all have a version of the activity feed.
  2. Contributions Online communities are driven by user contributions. To that end, users are encouraged to contribute at every turn. To accomplish this, the steps to contribute must be short and easy; it should be easy to tell who posted what, and when. Users should be able to repost and react accordingly. It should be the easiest thing to do on the site (after registration).
  3. Content Content is a fuzzy concept. It can refer to the integrated content available for discussion when a user signs up, or, more broadly, to posts created by members. For online book communities, the content usually includes writing samples, published works, author information and reviews (much of this information is pulled in via APIs or ONIX feeds). Additional content includes metadata about books, author fan pages, tags, lists, and anything else worthy of discussion. Community designers devote special attention to displaying this content. It’s easy for designs to be crushed under the weight of so much text-based content, so the better communities keep it lightweight, with plenty of images.
  4. Discovery and Browsing Catalogs, collections, and lists, as well as recommendations for related content, are all parts of browsing and discovery. The complexity of the discovery process varies. For developers, recommendation algorithms can be a bottomless pit of never-ending work – after all, a recommendation engine can always be better. Still, even the slightest suggestion based on what a user’s connections have done, or the user’s browsing history, is helpful, as long as the user can tell why it’s relative.
  5. Identity and Social Connections (Profiles and Groups) Expressing a personal identity is central to users in an online community. From profile pictures to recent activity, people join networks to be heard. Displaying an online personality is important, so most online communities will have a profile section. Robust communities usually innovate on group features as well. Groups are a natural progression for discussion, even though they are much more complex to build and maintain.
  6. Involvement with Other Networks and the Larger Web Better online communities share a stream of information with the web. Users expect to push their actions out to Twitter or Facebook, to share what they’re doing with the larger web audience. Users also want the capability to post links back to in the community, from blogs, content sites, and other networks.
  7. Simplicity Simplicity is paramount. Communities are complex, so it’s important that using them seems simple and natural (simplicity should be balanced with user expectations). The Paradox of Choice tells us that people are less likely to interact if there are too many choices, so it’s important not to overwhelm users with every possible option. Communities can continue to be complex, they just shouldn’t feel that way to their members.


Good book communities will always have the seven key features found in all online communities: activity feeds, contributions, content, discovery, identity, web interactivity and simplicity. Granted, these will be tailored to the discussion of long content and defined by book metadata, but the most successful ones will find a way to build on the individual experiences within a community and make them sharable.

*  Full disclosure: I’ve been involved with a few of these, namely BookGlutton, ReadSocial and NetGalley.

TOC NY 2013— The publishing industry will gather at the Tools of Change for Publishing Conference in New York City, February 12-14, to explore the forces and solutions that are transforming publishing.Save 15% on registration with the code COMM15
tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,