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What Can Visitors Do?

Like tourists, your visitors may want to get a taste of community life by hanging out with the locals. But because they don’t have a persistent identity and are therefore unaccountable for their words and deeds, visitors clearly need to have different rights than members. Where exactly to draw the line is a tricky issue. What can visitors do? What should they be able to do? Can they:

  • PERUSE the archives of a mailing list?

  • BROWSE through a member directory?

  • ENGAGE in (or eavesdrop on) a discussion or chat?

  • CHALLENGE a local to a game of checkers?

  • START their own private gathering place?

The larger and more diverse your community, the more you need safe, somewhat controlled places for your visitors to mingle. Visitors need guidelines: they need to know where they can go, what they can do, and what restrictions will be placed on them. To determine these guidelines, ask yourself the following questions.

What content and conversations can visitors read?

Many commercial Web communities--including GeoCities, Third Age, eBay, and iVillage--allow visitors to read essentially all content on the site, including message board postings. The idea is to entice visitors by showing them conversations and activities they’d want to be part of. This approach works well for generating interest among a wide selection of people and maximizing the number of hits, which is great for an advertising-based site. However, some of your members won’t want to discuss certain topics with visitors around. You can resolve this by offering members-only areas while allowing visitors into the more public spaces.

Other business models argue for limiting visitors’ access to content and/or conversations. If your community is subscription-based--like the WELL and the Wall Street Journal Interactive--it makes sense to limit visitors to a few areas designed to tantalize them into becoming members. You might also decide to limit access if you’re providing technical support to existing customers and you want to integrate that process into your customer database.

Can visitors participate in conversations?

Letting a visitor jump into an ongoing conversation is a controversial issue. Many Web communities--including CNN and Salon--adopt a read-only policy for visitors, whereby they can ‘listen in’ on conversations but not participate themselves. This policy allows visitors to get a sense of the style of discourse and topics of interest but prevents them from disrupting the conversational flow.

Other Web communities--such as GeoCities and Talk City--allow visitors to choose a temporary screen name and immediately start posting in public chat rooms and on message boards without offering any further information. This approach helps visitors get engaged quickly and encourages people to freely try on different personas. Yet because visitors don’t have a permanent identity, they can easily disrupt conversations without repercussions. Whether intentional or not, such disruptions can be quite harmful to community life and drive away your most valuable members. You’ll probably only want to allow full participation from visitors if you have the resources to moderate the effects of uncontrolled access, and your community culture is strong enough to withstand occasional disruptions.

Can visitors leave their mark on the community?

One of the fundamental pleasures of the Internet is expressing yourself on a global soapbox. People love to see their words appear on a Web page, so it can be smart to let your visitors post a message in a public forum even if you’re limiting their access otherwise. For example, your Visitors Center could include a guestbook in which visitors can read other people’s comments and add their own impressions (this has the added advantage of giving you feedback on your Visitors Center). Or you could solicit comments on a particularly provocative topic, as iVillage does in its “Dilemma of the Week” feature, where visitors can voice their opinions alongside the advice of an expert (see Figure 9).

Figure 9

iVillage features a variety of interactive advice columns, including “Ask Mr. Answer Man” in the Relationships channel. Every week, this resident expert answers a member-submitted question, and visitors and members can post their opinions alongside his answer.

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