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dfc: community tools

After a considered conversation with my editor, we've decided to add a chapter to the book on community tools. And while I have a lot of experience with community software, I haven't played with them all. So I'm turning to you, beloved readers, for help.

Have you ever run a site with community functionality? Did you use a commercial product, freeware, or roll your own backend? How has it worked out for you? Lemme know! And thanks!


Note: I'm not looking for product reviews. I'd just like to hear about the site you ran, what powered the backend, and how you felt about it. And thanks for your input!

{ 3:04pm }



» i like greymatter. i use it for my family log where members of my family and close friends' families keep each other updated on random day to day life things. most of these family members don't know very much about computers and the internet, but the interface is easy enough for them to use on a regular basis.

sarah  { 6.16.01 @ 10:42pm }

» From 1997-2000 (or thereabouts...time gets fuzzy as I get older), I ran, which was really just an early collaborative blog about Streaming Media and,in particular, RNWK. All PHP and MySQL on the back end. No Blogger or Greymatter back then. Heh.

My goal was to expand it to something much larger: Open-source journalism.

With open source journalism, everyone contributes and discusses. No longer would the old-media journalists be the dictators of meaning and significance. No longer would they be the filters for events in our society. I even registered the domain name

Of course, many other things happened in the meantime, Metafilter is almost doing exactly same thing I envisioned for openwire (except more "web centric"), and now my blog and another community tool I'm developing reside on openwire.

Funny how things change.

Jay Allen  { 6.17.01 @ 3:18am }

» I run a home-brew Cold Fusion (soon to be PHP) based site ( With everything in my own database, it's great to be able to output RSS headlines with very little extra work.

This setup also allows for other customization in other ways, such as multiple authors with profiles, search, etc. I'm sure lots of these feature are also available with greymatter or some of the other tools, but I haven't work with them myself.

Steven Garrity  { 6.17.01 @ 9:29am }

» Derek, I've used a bunch of stuff for various online communities over the last 5 years or so.

For email-based communities, newsgroups and listserves are perhaps the most common (including their web-based "mirrors", such as Yahoo groups, etc.). One challenge I have recently faced is the natural evolution of the members of a listserve, who grow and want to discuss new things but have to leave or create a new listserve because they are getting too "off topic" for the listserve manager (who is tasked with keeping things on-topic, especially for the benefit of the newbies).

For asynchronous browser-based discussion I like the BBS-type products from InfoPop (UBB and OpenTopic) and some of their competition. The ability for a visitor (esp. a newbie) to find a topic, read, reply-to.. I have found this type of tool to work well, at least until the databases overwhelm the server and response times become unbearable.

What inevitably happens, though, is users want to leave the 'divergent' group dynamics and 'get convergent', i.e., focus on areas of agreement, come to consensus, make decisions and act upon them.

There are lots of inexpensive ways to facilitate the convergent process. One easy way to highlight areas of agreement is with cgi or PHP polling activities. Not glamorous, but versatile. Zaplets is a nifty tool which makes the 'voting' fun and is especially useful in that it 'pushes' the activity to the participants' email Inboxes (rather than requiring them to go to a URL on the web).

Perhaps the finest (albeit most expensive) option for online brainstorming, discussion, prioritization, knowledge management, document sharing (and more) is something called GroupSystems Online. It is a spin-off of research on group dynamics, collaboration, and decision-making from the University of Arizona. The current online solution (versus LAN) suffers from the requirement of Citrix thin-client for the tool to run inside of a browser. It is simple enough to install but I found it to be a tiny barrier or hurdle for some participants.

As you are aware, there are many challenges in online communities. For me, one of the most interesting aspects is the WIFM factor (what's in it for me?). Each member of the community is after...something. The results of this 'something' might be calculated in a formula I have modified from Carl di Pietro's work. The formula is R=QPTE, where R=results (and the value thereof), Q=the question or topic (vague or specific?), P=participants (too many or too few?), T=time (not enough time for everyone to participate, or too much time and things degraded?), and E=energy (also known as buy-in, how motivated are the community members to work towards the desired group results?)

I could go on...I look forward to your book!!! :-)

Mike Simons  { 6.17.01 @ 9:33am }

» I've built a couple community sites. They were mostly built from scratch on top of AOLserver ( The only reason I built them myself was because I wanted to know how it all worked and what I liked. The system I used as a blueprint was the ACS ( Out of the box, it provides a lot of collaborative tools that would take months to develop correctly. It's definitely highly recommended if you're not in the "build it from scratch" camp.

Kevin Lawver  { 6.18.01 @ 6:12am }

» Any areas on my site ( that ask for visitor input use home-hacked PHP, which has worked out fine so far. It really isn't that hard to do, and I find it easier to program my own than download someone else's and try to get it to look that way I want.

Previous incarnations of the site were written in PERL, but I switched to PHP this time because of the SSI-like functionality, even though it lacks a lot of the power PERL scripters take for granted.

Also, I had briefly (very briefly) considered writing my own message board until I found Phorum (, which is an open source PHP message board. The nice part is that it stores the messages in a database rather than writing each one to a static HTML file, making my fickle interface whims not nearly as costly. Good luck.

Scott  { 6.18.01 @ 11:20am }

» Derek, I'm creating one of the Citystories sites, and what I have to say might be useful to those designers (like me) who have pretty much zero programming knowledge, or very little anyhow, and no access to a CGI-bin or MySQL.

I was trying to figure out how to use some of the free online services to create the real-time posting function of without displaying ads on the page. Like finding a needle in a haystack, right?

A link on Blogger pointed me toward Dot Comments, whose free PHP-based reader-feedback program -- tweakable with some patience, persistence and basic HTML know-how -- pretty much more than saved the site. It was originally created to work with Blogger, but I'm using it independently of same. Launching sometime this summer.

The only catch is that the host server has to run PHP. Anyone with questions can email me. Good luck!

Indigo  { 6.18.01 @ 3:45pm }

» Derek, didn't know if you were looking for technical details or sharing a philosophy of how a community website should be run, so I included both. grew out of the desire for an international, non-commercial web
development community. A group of people got together and created a mailing list called which rapidly swelled with web developers of high caliber. Representing places all around the globe, they choose to participate because thelist's reputation for high quality, informative, community driven discussions about the issues and problems facing web developers today.

As thelist grew a second project was developed -- a place for members to
share commentary, news, and in-depth articles with the web development public at large. This became

The problems of managing content and user interaction on were solved with a home-built content management system based on Cold Fusion which has been in use for over two years now. More than just a tool to display and manage the content that appears on our website, it enables the membership to write articles, comment on articles and rate them on quality. We feel that this system really facilitates the 'peers teaching peers' type environment which incubates a true feeling of community.

Together, we actively maintain and develop the website code, site structure,
and website features based on the feedback, suggestions, and ideas of members. The structure of the code has proven flexible enough that
adding features or entirely new sections has been relatively painless. This
flexibility allows for us to serve the interests of the community in whatever
fashion they see fit.

This flexibility is evident in tools that bridge thelist and the website like
the 'Tip Harvester'. It extracts handy tips people include in off-topic postings to thelist and publishes them to our website for the public to view, enjoy, and learn from. Another is a tool which publishes daily headlines from the website to thelist.

Items we are currently in the process of developing include detailed member biographies, rewards for participation (a biggie, we know!) and some quirky spin-offs (can't reveal all just yet) - all of which use the code and structure as their foundation.

Daniel J. Cody  { 6.19.01 @ 9:37am }

» Hey David - Evolt is already in the book, of course! Still, thanks for the info.

What I'm mostly looking for here is suggestions of backend community tools I may not know about and first-person stories of "I used this tool to power my community site and here's what I liked and disliked about it."

Any more stories out there? Let's hear 'em! (And thanks.)

Derek M. Powazek  { 6.19.01 @ 10:19am }

» Of course, Derek! The forthcoming Chicago Stories is going to employ a PHP CMS entirely created by yours truly.

The system's functionality is probably basic. At this point, it doesn't interact with databases (but is ready to do so) and doesn't require authentication (but may do so before launch.) It not only encourages editors to read all submissions, but discuss them as well - kind of encouraging a little community within the bigger one.

I'm considering open sourcing the thing once it's done. Do I like the tool? I hope so; I wrote it, man.

Paul  { 6.19.01 @ 11:28am }

» Heya Derren ;)

Nothing says community like mailing lists. One of the best mailing list managers(MLMs) out there is Mailman, Easy to set up, fast, reliable - its biggest advantage though is the use of a web based frontend for the end users.

The big advantage of mailing lists over a web based system like UBB is that the content gets pushed to you rather than you having to go to the web to get it. I do realize there are many good 'community' sites out there that rely on nothing but web based systems, and that works well for them. However, a mailing list format is IMO easier to follow and 'digest' if one chooses, while providing more accountability and 'get to know your neighbor' type interactions.

Anywho, didn't know evolt was already in the book? What are you using it for?

Daniel J. Cody  { 6.19.01 @ 11:35am }

» Daniel - (Heh. Sorry, DANIEL. Arg.)

What, have you read the chapter on email already? Stop giving away my endings! ;-)

Evolt is discussed as an example of a site that blends web and email quite nicely – especially the tip harvester! Get in touch with me privately if you'd like to discuss this more.

Derek M. Powazek  { 6.19.01 @ 11:49am }

» I'll agree with Indigo about Dotcomments, after a bit of tweaking, I've been very very happy with it.

Since Scott mentioned Phorum, I thought I would mention that we're building an open source Metafilter clone (with Matt's blessing and assistance based on PHP and MySQL (although it will work with any database). Volunteers of all types and skillsets welcome! You can find more info here and here.

So, it's not enabling community on any sites yet, but it will be.

Jay Allen  { 6.19.01 @ 8:26pm }

» I'm just the design guy, so I can't give much on the technical specs behind Scoop, but I'm sure Rusty, Inoshiro or Hurst would gladly fill you in on the software that runs Kuro5hin. You can usually find at least one of us on the K5 irc channel...

More Scoop sites are starting to pop up, you could probably hit up the admins of Smokedot (DJ recently went thru a Slash to Scoop conversion), Intune, etc to get the point of view from someone who isn't actually the developer of the software..

Driph  { 6.20.01 @ 7:09pm }

» although i have a bit of experience with commercial sites, i am just a beginner when it comes to creating a community based site.
for marketing myopia, i chose to go the free GNU/GPL model, using PHP Nuke - and it's worked out quite well.
its easy to set up, and with minimal customization, you can create a fairly good site. user management and publishing functionality are a whiz, and nuke add-ons are being published all the time.

however, it would be nice to see the mailing list add-on bundled with nuke...

matt  { 6.22.01 @ 1:18pm }

» Squishdot is a Zope product I'm using for Toronto Stories and several weblogs I run. Out of the box it can look just like Slashdot, but it's quite easy to customise. Installing it is very easy, much easier than any other similar product.

The only problem is that it requires Zope, which might be too much for the average ISP to install and maintain. But there are lots of Zope-based ISPs in the US and Europe.

Zope is a web server that can either run on its own or behind Apache or IIS.

luke  { 6.24.01 @ 5:50am }

» Thanks for all the tips and tricks y'all! The chapter is done, the book is off, and now I should take a vacation. ;-)

Look for Design for Community in stores on and off the web in late August!

Derek M. Powazek  { 7.24.01 @ 2:08pm }


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