Q & A to Build Community

There are no dumb questions, right? But have you ever been slammed for asking a question on a forum or blog? I was so embarrassed on a Web 2.0 techie forum by the responses to my question that I never went back. I really needed an answer but was insulted by one of the so-called tech experts. So I started thinking about building communities online and how new users might feel. Everyone has to feel safe and comfortable to ask or answer any question.

The permanence of written communication makes the online community different from the face-to-face environment. You write a question or answer and it is there for everyone to read, possibly forever. Because of this, new members might feel apprehensive about contributing. What is needed is a real community that grows, supports members, and thus allows guessing, sharing, learning, helping, and openness. Here are some ideas to use questions and answers to build community:

1) Encourage your newer members to answer questions. If you are the facilitator, step back and wait for others to ask and answer questions. Maybe ask "the frequent askers" to step back also and encourage others to ask and even answer the questions.

2) Give tips on how to answer questions. Online communities and courses provide opportunities for all involved to share their points of view. You may not realize that you offended someone or came across as too pushy with your answer. Maybe there is no good answer. Here are some ideas adapted from the University of Florida's "Tips for Answering Questions". A good answer:

  • may answer the question concisely and open the door for more questions.
  • is stated positively and is expressed in layman's terms.
  • keeps the main point "up front."
  • is specific (i.e., specific examples, illustrations, anecdotes).
  • recognizes opportunities in question to state your point of view.
  • doesn't sound antagonistic, evasive or defensive.

3) Let participants know that it is okay to guess as long as they admit that they are guessing. We need to model that every answer or question does not need to be from an expert. We also can encourage people to share experiences to make the answer real.

4) Be nice when you answer someone's question. Be careful not to slam anyone's answer. A lot of technical forums are extremely harsh in this area. This is where the moderator can gently guide the discussions to protect the participants. Be aware that there can be a person who wants to sabotage the community or course. You can provide ground rules and ask participants to agree before the sessions start.

5) Remind everyone how to correct a wrong answer while maintaining the original answerer's dignity. Reiterate about being nice. Remember: all it takes is one jerk to stop someone from ever trying it again.

6) Re-examine your reward/levels strategy for your community.Is there a clear way for new users to move up the ranks? Are there achievable, meaningful "levels"? Is there a way for members to become facilitators and set up their own communities?

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