The world of online communities has evolved and I'm interested in new ways to consider the widening variety of community interactions and connections that we see on the Web. A concept that I've found useful is to consider the "currency" of the community - the basic unit of exchange between members.
What is currency in online communities? A currency in this context is a quantifiable form of participation that adds value to the community. Without exchanging currency, communities cannot produce value over time.
For years online communities have had a basic unit of exchange: the discussion topic. In exchanging discussion topics over time, communities learned from one other, connected, collaborated and commiserated around topics of interest. Community value was driven thanks to the ability to start and participate in topical discussions, whether on a message board, email list or newsgroup. The discussion topic was (and still is) the basic currency - the unit of exchange.
What we've seen is a growth in the types and forms community currency. Online discussion is still alive and well (and an element of other currencies), but there are a host of other units of exchange to consider.
Let's consider a few...
Social Networking: Sites like MySpace and Facebook often have a number of currencies, but the central units of exchange are personal profiles, "friends" and membership in groups. Participants create value by making explicit links between their profile and specific people and groups. See related.
Blogs: In many ways, blogs are discussion-based. However, I would say that discussion is not the basic unit of exchange - blogs can produce value without discussion. The two major currencies of the blog world are the hyperlink and the blog entry. The blog entry is an obvious unit of exchange, but it is the hyperlink that enables blogs to become a navigable and connected community.
Wikis: A wiki is a little harder to classify, but I suggest that the currencies of the wiki are the new page and page edit. The currency of a wiki is exchanged at the point where a link to a new page is created or an existing page is edited. The "recent changes" that are tracked on a wiki show currency being exchanged.
There are also a number of product-based examples:
Flickr: The currency of Flickr is the photo. Exchanging, commenting on and building groups around photos are how the community interacts. The photo is the basic unit of exchange.
Last.fm: Last.fm uses music playlists as currency, creating groups around people with similar musical tastes.
Upcoming.org uses events as a currency.
Dell's Ideastorm uses the "idea" as the currency of the site.
YouTube's currency is the video.
The central currency of
Instructables is Do-It-Yourself (DIY) project how-tos.
The central currency of 43 Things is the personal goal.
The central currency of Del.icio.us is the bookmark.
The central currency of Jyte is the claim.
...and the list goes on...
My point is that we've seen an evolution in the basic units of exchange between community members. It started with online discussion and has now branched into a variety of currencies, offering near-infinite opportunities. If you're considering a new online community web site, be sure that you consider the basic unit of exchange: the currency of the community. By considering a variety of currencies, you may discover new ways for members to participate and add value to your community.
I'm just getting started with this idea and I'd love to hear your feedback.
Photo credit: Jan Brasna