“Map of Online Communities” Originally Uploaded on Flickr by dullhunk

Identity & Member Roles in Online Communities

Social Design in Community Spaces

Derek E. Baird
3 min readFeb 8, 2016


In their book, Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge (Harvard Business Press, 2009), Wenger, McDermott and Snyder outline the key strategies required to build a functioning, vibrant and healthy online community:

  • Design Your Community to Evolve: You can’t dictate strict design constraints, but must leave it open so new members can shape and contribute to the culture.
  • Include Insiders and Welcome Outsiders: You need insiders who know the purpose for the community and how it works. Yet at the same time, you need new members and their ideas to keep the community vital.
  • Plan for Different Levels of Participation: I’ll dig deeper on this point later in this post, but the key takeaway is to remember that only a small ‘core group’ (10%-15%) will be actively involved in the day-to-day functions of the group.
  • Plan for Private and Public Community Spaces: Creating “private” spaces for one-on-one focused interactions or private meetings should be a key element of your social design. Public spaces are equally important as they give members to engage, share knowledge and draw new members to join the community.
  • Create Value: Online communities and groups must generate value for their participants. Solicit feedback from members and find out what you can to improve it.
  • Combine the Old and the New: Communities need membership continuity to foster their shared identies and preserve their knowledge.
  • Community Rhythm: There will be periods of greater and lesser activity — this is normal and desirable. Groups will naturally formulate their own culture and patterns of interaction.

Member Roles in Online Communities/Social Networks

Each group member will bring a unique set of experiences, sources of information and level of participation in the community.

For example, there will be some members who naturally become the group organizers because of their ability to keep track of details. Those who have artistic abilities will find their personal identity as they offer creative input.

“The basic idea of the Web is that an information space through which people can communicate, but communicate in a special way: communicate by sharing their knowledge in a pool.

The idea was not just that it should be a big browsing medium. The idea was that everybody would be putting their ideas in, as well as taking them out.” ~Tim Berners-Lee

Pedagogical Mashup: Gen Y, Social Media, and Digital Learning Styles” by Derek E Baird & Mercedes Fisher in “Handbook of Research on New Media Literacy at the K-12 Level: Issues and Challenges” (IGI Global)

The exchange of knowledge and experience transforms a group of people into a community as members begin to appreciate the expertise and perspective of each member. As members interact, they develop relationships, shared values and interests.

Online Communities + Identity

When designing for an online community, groups must be given time to build an identity. Each community is unique because of the individuality of its members.

Because of this distinctiveness members within a group must have an opportunity to discover what their contribution will be and which role they will play by interacting socially with one another. Allowing a community to create a sense of identity is critical.

Finally, it’s important to remember that a community built around a shared practice is a living entity that is always evolving. In other words, a well-designed social space should provide users with the tools and leave it to them to construct their own meaning and level of interaction within the community.

Online Communities As Social Systems

Anthropologist Lori Kendall, who spent almost two years researching the dynamics of online social identity and community, concluded that members of virtual environments have “intact social systems, and highly charged social relations.”

However, unlike the electronic window of television, Kendall found that members of an online community feel that when they connect to an online forum, they enter a social, if not physical space (Kendall, 1999).

In short, in this still new digital age, we need to redefine our concept of what constitutes a legitimate “social system” or “social interaction.”



Derek E. Baird

Chief Youth Officer | Kids & Teen Culture, Content & Community | Kids Privacy | Author “Gen Z Frequency” | Kid/Teen Mental Health + Digital Wellbeing |