One way to think of a virtual community is to compare it to a living growing organism. Like all growing organic life, a virtual community needs to be nurtured and supported. It should be given direction, but not controlled. It should be allowed autonomy to go its own course, for just as life is unpredictable so too are virtual communities.

9.1 Advice To The Designer

For the system designer, a virtual community is best nurtured by taking a hands off approach and letting the community decide its own course. A designer should build a basic structure for the community and give users the tools they need to be self sufficient. The designer should then step back and let the community organically evolve, stepping in to make adjustments and improvement whenever necessary. Like a parent is to its child, a designer should raise the community with a good base to stand on and let the community grown and mature. As the community grows, its members should be allowed to explore and define themselves. They should be given authority, through feedback to the designer, to help shape the community they are apart of.

9.2 The Habitat

One example of a virtual community which relied on user feedback to help drive the course of the community is Lucasfilm's Habitat. In fact, as Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer, the creators of The Habitat, discovered, the members of a virtual community will determine their own route no matter what the designer may have intended. "Detailed central planning is impossible; don't even try" (Morningstar and Farmer, 1991).

"Again and again we found that activities based on often unconscious assumptions about player behavior had completely unexpected outcomes (when they were not simply outright failures) It was clear that we were not in control. The more people we involved in something, the less in control we were. We could influence things, we could set up interesting situations, we could provide opportunities for things to happen, but we could not dictate the outcome.... Propelled by these experiences, we shifted into a style of operations in which we let the players themselves drive the direction of the design. This proved far more effective. Instead of trying to push the community in the direction we thought it should go, an exercise rather like herding mice, we tried to observe what people were doing and aid them in it. We became facilitators as much as we were designers and implementors. This often meant adding new features and new regions to the system at a frantic pace, but almost all of what we added was used and appreciated since it was well matched to people's needs and desires." (Morningstar and Farmer, 1991)

9.3 The Evolution of Community at bianca

Like The Habitat, bianca's users essentially drive the direction of the site. Users determine their allotted freedom. Users decided the theme, background, and icon for each chat area. Users can request the addition of new room items or areas. User comments help decide the features of the next software upgrade. In a reaction to user action and feedback, the bianca site is a continually evolving organism.

Though bianca is currently a thriving virtual community, the site did not begin as one. Initially the bianca site was a means for its designers to spread the word of the power of love and the beauty of living life with a positive almost carefree mental attitude. The site was more of a vanity site for users to voyeuristically watch the loving life of bianca and her worshipping Trolls. However, upon the initial release of forms in HTML+, the site was opened to user feedback and thus planted the seeds for a virtual community.

As the bianca community evolved, so too did the site. As designers, we watched the progress of the community and continually adapted the design, interface and underlying software to best meet the needs of the growing community.

Starting with a simple guest book located on bianca's Altar, user feedback and interaction have become the main attraction of the site. The guest book is an area where users can post a message that appears within its pages. All users who flip through the pages of bianca's guest book, can see what other users have written. Within weeks of creating the guest book, the user response was so positive that feedback areas were created for every room in the site. Feedback areas for everything from duct tape to ramen noodles and recipes to dreams were created. Quickly bianca became known around the Net not only for the original content and layout of the site, but for the feedback the users were leaving.

Based on the use of some of the feedback areas, sanctioned discussion forums in bianca were created. At first users simply responded to bianca's request for user response on the particular issue at hand. Eventually though, users started not only responding to bianca's request for feedback, but to other user's comments. The response to other user's feedback was so overwhelming that a new type of feedback software had to be created: a discussion forum where responses to other user posts were encouraged and could be easily made.

When the feedback areas first opened up, 5 to 10 posts were made a day. Within months however, the forums were collecting 20 to 30 posts a day, with mere hours between posts. However, as more and more users signed on and left their feedback, the point came where it wasn't hours between posts, but minutes. Users realized that they were not alone, as other users were also in the room posting their feedback at the same time. Realizing this, the users began to post back and forth to each other as fast as the software made it possible. The chat came so fast that the software broke down: it had not been designed to handle the rapid fire posting that was taking place. It was at this moment that Web Chat on bianca was born. New software was designed to support this type of Web chatting, and bianca's bathroom was remolded to give users a separate area in which to chat. Thus was born bianca's Communal Stall.

As the Communal Stall became more popular and found 30 to 40 users trying to communicate at once, it became clear that the site would have to expand again. It was decided to add a chat space to every room. In keeping with the lessons learned to date, the chat areas were initially opened with no guide lines to dictate their content. With no cues to provided direction, the chat areas were left to evolve as the users saw fit.

Eventually the chat areas began to take on a character of their own. For instance, the altar attracted more woman than the other rooms and eventually asked to be designated the women's only room. The closet become the men's only room, the hallway and pantry attracted more light hearted type of conversation, and the bedroom and bathroom attracted there own unique clientele. All of these designations were chosen by the users, the community, of the rooms themselves. As designers, we maintained a hands off approach and simply let the users determine their our route.

As the communities in each room have further developed and defined themselves, some rooms have even requested their own personalized background colors, wallpaper, and representative icons. Again like a parent to a child, we have tried to support the requests of the users as best we can and have suggested alternative approaches were appropriate, though never disregarding user requests.

My dear bianca, First of all, thank you for being you.....*sucking up a little* Seriously the shack is a wonderful place! I am one of the self-styled *regulars* of the Parlor Chat room -- There are many, many of us, we're even having a convention! We are all quite fun, flirty, witty people (to blow our own horns a little). I know you all are in complete charge, but in the spirit of love I must point out that the regulars in this room often refer to it as *The Happiest Place on Earth* This is a tagline created by a couple of the regulars -- even though the folks at Disney wouldn't like it! I was thinking maybe this would be a good thing for you.. Is there anyway you could change the tag line on the chat? And as always thanks for allowing us (the faithful user) the chance to supply input and to use your computers for entertainment... Love and Thanks

Though most of the site's design and software evolution was due to reaction to the community's needs and user feedback, the introduction of the Sign-Up Boards was a rare anticipation of the community's needs. As described earlier, the Sign-Up Boards are bulletin board message areas where users can leave messages for other users. With a clear definition of their purpose, users quickly took to the Sign-Up Boards which are now an integral part of a typical user's daily routine.

One of the more fascinating aspects seen in some rooms is the extent to which users have carried the concept of community. Displaying the ultimate in trust, human spirit, and togetherness some rooms have taken it upon themselves to congregate outside the realm of the computer and hold group gatherings in the real world. These real life encounters are called bianca Bashes, and have been held in places such as Austin Texas, London England, Washington DC, Las Vegas Nevada, Ontario Canada, and Cincinnati Ohio. To encourage participation in these events, an area was created for users to post notices of bianca Bashes happening around the world.

By supporting the communities needs and desires, and reacting to and adjusting to user feedback, bianca has been able to maintain itself even in the face of massive growth and unforeseen events. The community has made it know, by returning again and again, that a supportive nurturing approach is certainly one way to successfully run a virtual community.

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