Aristotle said that all human beings are "social animals in need of a polis." What he meant was that social interaction is not just what people want, it is what they need in order to function. Today that statement might confuse some because of the term "polis." A polis was a Grecian city-state, an independent local nation. They were known for their strong sense of community, where every citizen had a voice when it came to politics, law and anything else that might affect their daily lives. Today there are hundreds of thousands of polis' in existence. You won't find them on a walk down the street or on your summer vacation. These local communities all exist on the World Wide Web. Some are dedicated to a specific topic, while others are more generalized. Virtually all of them are trying to add more people to the community, while most web surfers are looking for a place they can "fit in." The trick is in connecting the two.
Webster's Dictionary defines the word as "A group of people living in the same locality and under the same government" or "A group of people having common interests: the scientific community; the international business community." The webmaster must provide the locality where this can all happen. It must be a pleasant place for people to spend their time (design), it must have several ingredients which attract people (content, promotion), and it must have the necessary tools to facilitate interaction (forums, chat, etc.)
Building a community is not an easy task. One can't put up a website on fly fishing and expect the entire population of Montana to show up the next day. The community builder must be patient, diligent and have an impeccable sense of timing.
Before you begin, find a topic that suits your particular expertise. Spend some time researching a subject that interests you. Once you've found a topic you feel you can communicate and possibly educate, then you are ready to lay down the groundwork.
First you need a truckload of content. How much depends on your topic and it's popularity. I recommend putting yourself on a strict content development schedule, and keep that schedule after the site has been launched. Maybe two pieces a week? Once you have a full site, you're ready to take the next step.
“People are more likely to join in when there's already a solid community intact. Established conversations entice participation.” — Aaron West
Don't put up any community tools right away. One thing that will send people packing is a dead community, a ghost town. You'll want to provide the interaction once there are enough people to insure it will take place.
Putting up quality content is only half the battle. People need to know you're there. If you look around, you'll find plenty of articles on different ways to promote your site. It's in your best interest to try every one of these, see what works, and do what works some more. The more people you can attract, the better your community will be.
When is the appropriate time to take the next step? I wish I could answer that one. It depends on the quality of the site, the popularity of the topic, and a lot of other things. This is where that timing is important. A good indicator may be when you start receiving a great deal of site email. Once the questions and comments start pouring in, you can probably channel these to a different aspect of the site. When you have a dedicated visitor base with plenty of return visitors, you are ready to go.
What components make up a community? Anything that gives visitors the means to interact with others. This can be anything from forums, to voting booths, to live chat. I advise not to implement all the tools at once. Put one up, let it develop, then put another so it can draw from the previous.
Most people start with forums. Generally, this is a great idea. If you're not sure how well a forum would go on your site, try putting up a voting booth first. Find out what percentage of your visitors are interested in offering an opinion.
When you decide to put up forums, prepare to spend some time with them. Remember what I said earlier about nobody wanting to be part of a dead forum. This is equally true of new forums. You need to do everything in your power to get them up and going. Not only does this require promoting the forums extensively on your site, but it might mean going out to find people to participate. They are more likely to join in when there's already a solid community intact. Established conversations entice participation.