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From 'Craig's List' to virtual community

By CNN Interactive Writer Elizabeth Knefel

March 25, 1998
Web posted at: 11:59 AM EST (1159 GMT)

Imagine taking your electric address book and turning it into a large online community. That's what happened to Craig Newmark.

"I was just e-mailing a few friends about events that were useful or fun and now my friends of 20 or more have become a mailing list of 7,500 people and a virtual community of at least 10,000 people," says Newmark.

That was just the beginning of "Craig's List." It now reaches 37,000 people every day and it is still growing. It's a real neighborhood where people help each other get jobs, find apartments and share information. Craig's List provides information about rentals, events, jobs and things to buy. In the past, he did all the work. Today he has help from corporate sponsors and volunteers that he calls "listizens." He recently reorganized as a foundation. The Web site, now called List Foundation , has been used by members for free but last month, it started charging $25 for job postings.

Craig has big plans for the future. He has earmarked Seattle, Chicago, Boston and especially Los Angeles and New York City for future expansion. He doesn't just want to increase the number of citizens in his virtual community, he wants to expand in other ways.

"We want to offer job training and mentoring and build the site with more robust, reliable and flexible technology," says Newmark.

Computers in cyberspace connect this community, but members also meet face-to-face at block parties in real space. The block parties serve two purposes. They provide funding for growing communities and give the opportunity for members to meet in person. Some online communities don't offer that opportunity and that physical limitation can eventually affect their growth.

"Successful online communities have social activities or get-togethers, says Peter Kollock, professor of sociology. "It's a powerful thing getting people together. There's more accountability when there's a face there."

Kollock teaches about online communities at UCLA. His studies have shown accountability is a critical element for building successful online communities. He says it is important for members to find ways to identify each other and feel confident that their interactions will be appropriate.

The Well, one of the oldest and most successful of all virtual communities, was established in 1985. Its members meet monthly and socialize at annual picnics. This physical contact creates accountability where a user is more responsible for behavior. As members actively participate in building the community, such contact prevents anti-social or impolite behavior online like "flaming."

One of the reasons an online community evolves into a larger group is because they exchange e-mail. Email, perhaps the most prized feature of the Internet, creates many contacts with others, helping them to grow together and develop personal, electronic relationships. These groups are growing tremendously and as more and more people get on the Internet, they will continue to grow. These online communities reflect the spectrum of the population.

Many of the most successful online communities are very specialized. One of the best examples is how people meet online to deal with particular diseases and medical conditions. Online support groups are built around coping with a parent's Alzheimer's disease, HIV, cancer, parenting, etc. It's a crucial part of our emerging wired society.

Kollock thinks there will be much more growth in the future. "People are getting important information, sound support and camaraderie and the trend will be many specialized communities," he says.

Virtual communities can be found just about anywhere and are not just for techies. In New York City, the World Wide Web Artists Consortium has 2,800 members. It is free, self-policed and unmoderated. A "list mom" talks to members if they get out of hand and if that doesn't work, members can be unsubscribed from the list.

"The community's common denominator is to create stuff online," states Kyle Shannon, the founder and president of WWWAC. "What's it is about, is sharing of ideas, opinions and it's a generous group."

World Wide Web Artists Consortium holds monthly meetings and also has SIGs (special interest groups) which focus on particular subjects, i.e., advertising, business, interface & design, Internet law, Webcasting, technology, E-commerce, database integration.

With the development of an online community, there are always interesting results. Each community has a common bond that varies from one another.

"At CNN Interactive the focus is on news," says Lynn Clater, community manager. "We get enormous spikes on human interest stories."

But within that event or news story, sometimes the people in the community become the news. During the UPS strike last year, the strikers and management of UPS chatted and shared information and opinions about the strike but also posted the most recent developments of the strike on CNN Interactive. Also, volunteers who police the message boards and chat rooms on CNN Interactive are becoming a family to themselves. They share personal news about their lives and families.

Clater also sees that online communities are becoming more and more segmented too. "CNN Interactive plans to develop more segments or areas for politics, medical concerns, literature and legal issues."

Virtual communities have been around from the beginning of the interactive age. They do not create themselves, nor are they easy to create. Some have succeeded, many have failed.

"Online communities will flourish, if they continue to provide top notch value. A community will grow and adapt or grow and break," says Shannon. "The major benefit of an online community is that you can be anywhere and get value out of the community."

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