IT/INTERNET: Online communities

Caspar van Vark

- Get a chatroom just because it sounds funky and modern. It's better to have no chatroom than to have an empty one.

- Be Big Brother about monitoring the boards. They need to develop a life of their own, so just keep an eye out for offensive or libellous remarks.

- Set up 20 different topic categories on a message board if you're still only getting a few postings here and there. It will feel lonely and people may not bother to contribute. Let the board grow organically.

- Put up a disclaimer and just sit back, assuming you're covered for whatever people put on your site. Almost everyone thinks that disclaimers are enough.

CASE STUDY MS SOCIETY DEVELOPS AWARD-WINNING WEB SITE

In 2002, the MS Society won the British Medical Association's Patient Information Web site award. The site, www.mssociety.org.uk, had been relaunched in 2001 and the online community was gradually developed last year. There are six public message boards and users can also submit diaries, art and creative writing in other sections.

Laila Takeh, the MS Society's web co-ordinator, says the site reflects the diversity of people who benefit from the charity. "It's used by everyone affected by MS - not just people with MS, but also their carers, such as family and friends," she explains.

"They use it to get in contact with each other and share experiences. People have such differences in their experiences of MS, and they use the site to feel less alone. People also recommend treatments to each other, and find pen pals. Some people use it just for jokes."

Anyone can browse the message boards, but to post messages you have to register. The boards are moderated by MS society staff under thorough guidelines, which was one of the reasons it won the award, and moderators tend to be particularly qualified for a certain board.

"The newly diagnosed board, which is immensely popular, is moderated by a nurse who has experience in that area," says Takeh.

The online community on this site has tended to be self-policing, helped by a feature which allows them to draw attention to inappropriate messages.

Users can flag up a message for the attention of the moderators, who will then investigate. The message is only flagged up for the moderators, not the public, and any future messages posted by that person will also be automatically flagged up.

Moderators look out for insensitive postings, or anything of a commercial nature. "We get a lot of students asking questions," she explains. "But sometimes it goes beyond what's acceptable, if they probe too deeply. People also object to certain kinds of terminology, like the word 'sufferers'."

The subject of cannabis also tends to crop up, and this is an area where the charity has to tread carefully. Messages that advocate breaking the law are removed.

Service-users can find a voice online through chatrooms and message boards. Caspar van Vark finds how to create a virtual community without compromising your charity.

Chatrooms can sound slightly sinister, perhaps because we associate them with reports of prowling paedophiles. But along with other kinds of online communities such as message boards, they have much to offer the voluntary sector.

Charities are not known for being trailblazers on the internet. Many have web sites and some are excellent. But the sector as a whole has lagged behind. There are still a lot of "brochure" sites which fall woefully short of harnessing what the medium can do.

"Charities and community groups have a large number of disparate groups to bring together," says Luke Brynley-Jones, director of business development at etribes, an online communities consultancy. "That was difficult with the limitations of geography and time, but the internet has made it possible."

Some organisations have caught on to how they can use the internet to reach out to their beneficiaries in a whole new way. Email, message boards and chatrooms are innovative because they allow people to communicate with each other, and not just with the charity itself. Those people might never meet in person, but online they can share experiences and offer mutual support. The charity's site acts as a meeting place.

Email has been around for years now, and it preceded more advanced online tools. The Samaritans realised about eight years ago - a lifetime in internet terms - that email offered a way of reaching out to people who might be reluctant to pick up the phone. It started offering email support from its Cheltenham branch, and it now has the service in 100 of its 203 branches.

"Email was becoming more mainstream, and we felt that there was a real gap that it could plug," explains Sarah Nelson, a spokeswoman for the Samaritans. "Some people still don't find it easy to say the words out loud, and that particularly applies to some groups such as young men, who are a risk group for suicides. They can find it easier to communicate by email."

The emails are dealt with by the same volunteers who work the phones, but the volunteers get extra training, mainly to handle the specialised software. Confidentiality is vital, so the charity does not use ordinary emails but has a bespoke system with extra security.

The messages are also stored for a maximum of 30 days.

"All emails are routed through a central server, and whichever branch logs on will pick up the emails that are first in the queue," says Nelson.

"The volunteer can't see the address of the person who sent it."

Another charity that was quick off the mark was Scope, which had message boards on its site from the time it launched in 1996. Alex White, web site content editor at the charity, says the feature grew gradually but was popular from the start.

"When we started there were just two of us working on the site and responding to messages," he says. "Now there are around 4,000 messages on there so we have to delegate. Helpline staff now also have responsibility for responding to messages and monitoring the boards."

White says the boards are often people's main source of interaction with other people affected by cerebral palsy. "A lot of people use it very regularly to exchange views, and it's a good source of peer support," he says. "It's also a good window into the soul of Scope."

White is part of a web team of three, along with a full-time developer and a manager. Freelance or in-house support is called in when needed for areas such as design, and there are around six to eight people from the helplines who work on the site.

Monitoring the boards is important, but White says that they try not to be too heavy-handed about it. "Our principle is to take a light touch. In terms of monitoring, we focus on two things. Abusive postings are one, or occasionally you'll have someone plugging a product. In those cases, we'll take the message down straight away."

Most charities will leave their message boards and chatrooms alone as much as possible, but still keep an eagle eye on what's going on. However, they will occasionally take an active role to answer questions or to get the ball rolling on a discussion. That can be important because an online community can stall and need someone to kick-start it.

"Our new chief executive is keen to encourage debate," says White. "He'll be starting that himself on the message boards soon. One of the things he'll talk about is the strategic direction of Scope, and he'll put his thoughts on there and invite discussion."

Chatrooms are still rather less common than message boards, probably because they are more immediate and harder to pull off. A message board can be read and added to at anytime, but a chatroom is live and needs users in it at the same time.

The Royal Association for Deaf People has a link to an independent, external chatroom, rather than hosting its own. Linda Isaac, the charity's head of information, says that this approach makes it more likely that visitors get something out of it. "The chat link is very popular," she says. "But several charities have run their own chatrooms and found that they were rather lonely places with tumbleweeds blowing about."

There are exceptions. Epilepsy Action has an active online community, including emails, chatrooms and message boards. It's a big part of the site, and went live around the end of June 1999.

"There was slow, steady growth," says Lesley Peace, editorial and online officer of Epilepsy Action. "When people visit the site now they tend to click through to the community section. We have 1,500 registered users."

Peace monitors the chatroom herself at least once a week for a few hours, and looks at it several times a day. It gets particularly busy after around 9pm.

"I'll go in there and moderate it for a few hours in an official capacity," she says. "We organise things like birthday parties in there and it can get quite busy. The most I've seen is about 17 or 18 people, and there can be three or four sub-conversations going on."

When an online community gets busy, there can be a lot of messages on the boards and it's important for charities to be aware of legal issues.

It's one thing to watch out for commercial or abusive postings, but libel is another matter. In the eyes of the law, a web site is the publisher of what goes on it, and defamatory postings can get you into trouble.

Almost all sites will have a disclaimer, saying something along the lines of "what you read here may not be the view of the charity". Unfortunately, that alone will not get you out of hot water. Esther Adams, assistant solicitor in the litigation department of media law firm Harbottle & Lewis, says that this is a grey area of the law and caution is the best policy.

"Although some sites display disclaimers excluding liability for defamatory statements, such disclaimers are not watertight," she explains. "They have little or no legal effect, and at best can only dissuade potential claimants from suing."

The internet is a relatively new medium, so there are very few legal precedents in this area. "The boundaries of liability for web site owners are not yet wholly clear. The best advice is to carefully monitor your site, and to err on the side of caution. Claims for libel can only be brought for a year after publication, but with the internet, that one-year period restarts every time the material is accessed. Therefore the sooner the offending article is removed, the better," says Adams.

Having an active moderator is essential, and the key issue is that online communities require a particular kind of management, says Brynley-Jones.

"The difference between an online community and a normal site is that it's about managing people," he says. "Most of what we do is working with clients so they understand that. We lead them from being a web host to being a community host, so they know how to manage it and have an administrator for it."

Before an organisation gets to the point of worrying about defamatory messages, though, it should think carefully about what the purpose of its online community might be. The reason some chatrooms have virtual tumbleweeds blowing around is that there is no demand for them. Epilepsy is one thing, but not everyone has time to chat about sea-horse conservation, for example.

"Before you invest in any technology, look carefully at what you want to do and why," advises Brynley-Jones. "How will it help you achieve your strategic objectives? If you can make that case, you'll get the budget for it."

DO'S AND DONT'S FOR ONLINE COMMUNITIES

DO:

- Find out what your charity's beneficiaries want from a web site. "We would do research into what their users are interested in, and what they'd genuinely use online," says Luke Brynley-Jones of etribes.

- Make sure you have dedicated moderators for message boards and chatrooms. Train them to deal with the software and to understand legal issues.

- Make your users register. That way, you can ask them to agree to terms and conditions of using the online community.

- Consider using a third party to help you set it up. They will know which tools best suit your audience and can advise you on how to maintain it.

DON'T:

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