Interview – Derek Powazek on Design For Community

As more people gain access to the Internet, online communities are becoming increasingly popular. They provide a place for like-minded individuals to come together, regardless of their location, to share their ideas, dreams, anxieties and problems. Derek Powazek is a Web designer and consultant who placed interactive features on his own sites and watched them develop into successful global communities. In this interview, he talks about his book, "Design For Community", what the Internet means to him, and how it’s enriched his own life.

SP: Why did you decide to write "Design For Community"?

I think the Web has given us all a tremendous gift. It’s a little subversive — after fifty years of authoritarian, top-down media (tv, radio, newspaper) that don’t care what you have to say, Websites with community features give us all the ability to speak our minds to a global audience. That’s power, and like any power, it can be used for good or evil. I wanted to pass along some of the lessons I’ve learned the hard way, to help people build positive community interactions, and encourage them to do so…

…That, and the life-long desire to see "Powazek" on the spine of a book!

SP: The book’s built around your own success and mistakes. Would you care to share your biggest ‘blooper’ with us right now, and tell us what lesson is to be learned by it?

Well, one of the stories I tell in the book is about a learning experience I had when designing Kvetch!. The site presents user posts randomly in a central frame. What I didn’t realize was that some users would mistake this for chat. So, instead of posting a complaint, people posted: "Hello! Who’s here? Why won’t anyone talk to me!?"

The solution was a general site redesign, better signage and instructional text, and the addition of a (much-dreaded) text-based chat room. That way I could say, "This is not chat. If you want chat, go here."

SP: And did they?

Yeah! After I made those changes, the chat-like posts in the randomizer stopped almost completely. The chat room isn’t terribly high traffic now, but it’s there for people if they want it.

Chat is difficult. In the book, I recommend against having a general chat room with no guidance or moderation, which is exactly what I’m doing at the moment. Instead, chat is good for places where there will be always be someone to moderate, or for scheduled events at specific times.

For example, I used to do scheduled Kvetch! chat events — we once did a Christmas Eve holiday chat that was really fun (I’ve lapsed in planning these events due to lack of time). This is not just a control issue, it’s also about entertainment value. Being the only person in a chat room is not especially interesting.

SP: In the book’s introduction, you say that when you discovered the Web, it was like being infected with a virus. What was it exactly that drew you in?

I’ve always been a strongly visual person, with a deep need to communicate with others, but I’m also kinda shy. So the Web gave me this amazing gift — it had a visual interface, I could communicate with people all over the world, and it was entirely safe.

SP: You’re obviously very passionate about virtual communities. How has your involvement with them affected your life personally?

I think the Web has turned many people like me from social introverts to digital extroverts. The pleasant side-effect is that, once you come out of your shell online, it becomes easier to do it in real life.

SP: And is this what you’ve done?

Absolutely. I’ve always loved storytelling, but was terribly shy about it. In college, I worked at several newspapers as a photographer, but really wanted to be a journalist. I started {fray} as a place to tell stories, but it took years for me to feel comfortable telling my own stories there. The Web has given me a lot of confidence, as I think it has for a lot of Web writers.

SP: You’ve created three sites of your own which have community features: {fray}, Kvetch!, and San Francisco Stories. The oldest, {fray}, has been around for five years and has now evolved into offline communities around the world –the {fray} organization. Did you ever expect it to expand to this extent? To what do you attribute its success?

I never expected this at all. When I first started {fray}, it was all about the stories and the design for me. But the posting areas are what gave the site life, and have kept it going all this time. Of course, I attribute its success to the community that formed around it — the people who come here to tell their stories and connect with one another. They’re the ones that have made the site what it is.

And I’m not just talking figuratively here. Fray Day 5 came to ten cities worldwide. I organized the event here in San Francisco. The other nine were organized by volunteers from the community, all of whom I’ve never met. In one weekend, over a thousand people came out from behind their monitors to participate in a very real community gathering. In that moment, a virtual community became real.

SP: That must have been an amazing experience. At the end of the day, these people came together because of you. How does that make you feel?

Well, they came together because of {fray}, because of the stories they had all contributed to the site. I just created the playground — it’s nothing without the players.

But how does it make me feel? Immensely proud of the community. And it gives me a lot of hope for people in general. I’ve always believed that personal stories are the connective tissue that unites us all. When we, as one race of human beings, realize that everyone has that broken heart story, that tale of adventure, that family drama — I think that brings us all closer together. It reminds us that we have more uniting us than dividing us. It means no one is as alone as they think they are. And I find that idea extremely comforting.

SP: Finally, out of curiosity… The Web is a big part of your life now. What would you do if it was suddenly taken away?!

I’m sure that I’d be working in media somewhere. Before the Web, I always imagined myself running a small independent weekly paper somewhere. If the Web was taken away, it’d be back to Plan A. And, some days, I’m not sure I’d mind too much.

"Design For Community" is published by New Riders, and is priced at $30.00 USA, $44.95 CAN and £23.50 UK.

You can preview the book and take the experience even further by visiting
http://www.designforcommunity.com.

Or buy it at Amazon.com.

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