I was recently tasked with setting up a community site for the JISC Greening ICT programme. Setting aside for now the rather tricky issue of ‘if you build it, they will come’, this post looks at the requirements for this site and the practicalities of using BuddyPress to provide it.

First a bit of background. JISC projects don’t exist in a vacuum. Rather, they are part of programmes of related projects whose outputs and lessons learned taken together add up to more than the sum of their parts. They are expected to work together for this greater good, which might make it sound like an order from JISC, but in the support work I’ve done, projects often state that they wished they’d known more about what other projects were doing and could have worked with them more. So can a community site help with that?

In discussions with the programme manager, the purpose of the site was described as being a space to broker and enable conversations between the projects and with others outside the programme who may treading the same path. Specific features requested included a site blog for news/announcements, user profiles, networking, asynchronous discussions, chat, user upload of documents/media, user blogs (in system or syndicated from elsewhere), alerts, feeds & syndication, as well as a means of controlling levels of access/permissions.

That’s a pretty rich feature set. I evaluated a range of systems that might offer this (such as Ning, Elgg, Moodle, Google Sites, Wetpaint, PBwiki, Facebook…), as well as the alternative approaches of using a loosely-coupled set of more lightweight tools and engaging with people in their networks. In the end though, we choose BuddyPress – a free, open source system that adds a layer of social networking features to a WordPress installation. An excellent implementation of this system is that of the CUNY academic commons. The reasons for choosing this for our more modest application are outlined below.

Simplicity: For a system offering so many features, BuddyPress is relatively easy to setup, customise and maintain – as well as being pretty straightforward to use.

Powerful blogging platform: WordPress now ships with the multiuser (WPMU) platform built in as standard in the form of Sites. This means that each project can, should they choose to, run their own fully functional WordPress blog under the main greenict.org domain (e.g. project.greenict.org). This offers such blogs flexibility, support and a form of shared identity within the programme.

Interoperability: External blogs (which many of the projects already had) can easily be syndicated to the community site using the FeedWordPress plugin. This regularly polls blogs for new posts, imports them and matches the author to registered site members, meaning that the posts can be linked to their other activities around the community site.

Extended Profiles – Profile fields allow users to describe themselves as they see fit within and beyond the community. Using the BuddyPress xProfiles ACL plugin, different fields can be specified for different user types, allowing profiles to be tailored to roles and enabling finer control over user privacy.

Connections – allow site members to make (friend) connections with others within the community to make it easier to track their activity and to communicate with them.

Discussion Forums – bbPress forums are built directly into BuddyPress and so are integrated across the site.

Groups – Public, private or hidden groups can be created by members to allow breakout discussions.

Activity Streams – Global, personal and group activity streams with threaded commenting, RSS feed and email notification.

Hosting – Setup of the BuddyPress install at a custom domain was complete within 30 mins of submitting the order form (to TMD hosting, who offer unlimited storage & bandwidth for a very reasonable $40/year). So far, the site performance has been good and customer service excellent.

Platform ≠ Community

“Communities of practice must involve shared activity and practice. Successful communities generally have a defined concrete purpose and fulfil real needs. Building personal relationships and trust among members is vital. A strict concentration on project outputs and aversion to taking risks are generally detrimental…”
Developing Innovation Networks and Communities of Practice

I’m very aware that an online platform does not by itself make for a community of practice and of the difficulties in attempting to ‘build a community’ around a site. There are of course other more established programme activities going on that can help with this, such as face to face and online events and meetings and other shared activities and purpose.

So far however, the site is serving mainly as a place to aggregate content and activities from elsewhere. While that in itself can serve a purpose, time will tell if it will develop into something more as its still early days for the site, even if the sun is setting on the phase 1 projects. With the imminent start of phase 2 projects though, I’m hoping we will be able to offer them something useful right at the start of their projects as they consider their approaches to project communications and how their own networks and tools might integrate with those of other projects and the programme. I’m also hoping some open and practical discussions might help shape the systems and support we offer to better help the projects feel part of the programme.

What I also think we need to do nurture participation in the community site is to be more active from the programme end, with ongoing tracking of project activities within and beyond the site itself, commenting on project posts, reflecting on their findings, synthesising them and (re)posting them in the wider context of the programme aims. As one of the cofounders of Flickr has been quoted as saying, before a community is established and self-sustaining  “you have to greet the first ten thousand users personally.”

Related posts: