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.

Alun Salt. ORCID 0000-0002-1261-4283

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?