Are there online communities?

Like Peas in a Pod. Photo (cc) Phil Price.
Putting things in one place does not always make a community, as these members of the pea community demonstrate. Photo (cc) Phil Price.

There’s thoughtful post up at Civil War Memory by Kevin Levin, Can You Afford Not To Use Social Media? Some of his thoughts are similar to discussions we had about what would be possible with AoB Blog. Some less so.

Firstly Kevin Levin is very upfront about the importance of communication through social media. The interesting thing about the brief from the Annals of Botany company is that they have never specified that we have a blog. The target has been to give the journal a social media presence. Alan Cann and I agreed that a blog would be a useful engine to drive updates to Facebook and Twitter, but the blog drives the social media elsewhere, rather than using social media with the intent to pull people to the blog. It terms of the set-up of the software it makes no difference, but it means that the Annals of Botany is taking the approach of wanting the best tools for the job, rather than deciding from the start what the answer is. It means that if a ‘Facebook for Scientists’ does emerge we could well decide that that becomes the primary hub for our activities. It’s a flexible approach and it matters for the next more provocative point.

There are no Online communities; in fact, it demeans the very concept of community.

Another feature is that I don’t think we ever discussed setting up an AoB Community. I did briefly think we could host AoB Blogs. The exact thought process went:
“WordPress 3.0 now has multiple blogging built in. That means we could host other people’s blogs, and everything that goes wrong with them will be my fault.”

Given yesterday’s mess with the back ups I think avoiding hosting was a good idea. Another reason is that we’re working in an almost anti-community way. There was never a chance of there being an AoB Ning because we’re keenly aware we need to go where the researchers are. That means giving up ideas of building an ‘AoB Community’ because the kind of people we need to engage with are people who read many journals across many fields. So if an Online Community is one site then I agree with Kevin Levin.

On the other hand I think we’re participating in something. Is there such a thing as the Botanical community? Probably, but I’d bet that every botanist has a different idea about what that is. Alan Cann has talked about building personal networks. I think it’s a realistic goal to participate in something like that and, because I hope that AoB appeals to more than one reader, there should be overlaps in connections. Whether you want to call that a network, community or audience might depend on how you see your connections interacting. Everyone in the office works to make Annals of Botany an essential journal for plant sciences, but that means making sure papers in AoB get the attention they deserve. In our case we want people to interact away from our site. If that’s the goal then you have to give people the tools to do that, hence the links on the journal Mendeley and CiteULike.

That loss of control makes measuring success difficult, so I can see why the idea of owning a community is attractive for a commercial enterprise. Effectively you have a free workforce pushing your branding and an easy way to measure if it’s working. But that’s not the way science works. Very few people publish exclusively in one journal. Even if it were possible, I don’t think dominating a niche would be healthy for a journal. Still, I think the idea of a blog participating in a community works. I think the key point is you can’t have a community of one.

So while the American Civil War might not seem immediately relevant to Botany, it’s had an influence on how I think about what i do. As well as the original post, there’s useful discussion in the comments.

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About Alun Salt

When he's not the web developer for AoB Blog, Alun Salt researches something that could be mistaken for the archaeology of science. His current research is about whether there's such a thing as scientific heritage and if there is how would you recognise it?