Evaluate online communities for their usefulness

Sit back for a moment and visualize the sentences filled with information passing each other like airplanes in front of your eyes. They’re unstoppable. You may not have time to evaluate them before they fly away. It’s no surprise that people are looking for resources to corral information.

I bring this up to get you to think about the quality of information you may find in online communities, which attempt to repackage and disseminate useful information. Many beside LinkedIn and Google+ are emerging, seemingly to spare you the rigors of research, analysis and synthesis. How best to choose them?


Brian Short, founder and CEO of allnurses.com in Minneapolis, developed his site in the mid-’90s to appeal to nurses at all levels in any specialty seeking professional development and opportunities to communicate. Short describes allnurses.com as a “peer-to-peer network communicating online.”

Alex H. Yong, a freelance writer in New York City, says that members of online communities “begin with some level of knowledge and learn from there.” He frequents a SKYPE group, a grapevine where “everything happens in real time, which makes for interesting discussions and quick decision-making.”

Kelly Walsh, CIO at The College of Westchester and founder of www.EmergingEdTec.com in White Plains, N.Y., defines an online community as “any web-based platform that allows people to communicate with each other.” He adds that “focused communities make a point of learning.” He developed his own network to keep up in his field and, more recently, has been relying on Twitter.


The proliferation of sites will tempt you to join communities and waste time if you don’t analyze them first. If you’ve already joined and discovered you’re a leading contributor, consider moving on.

Yong says that the best way to qualify a site is “to find out who’s in the community,” but mentions that it’s difficult when sites are open only by invitation. Short recommends evaluating and browsing a site to determine the level of the activity and its content.

“Sometimes a response comes within minutes of a posting,” he says. “How active is it? Was a question posted three weeks ago and no one responded?” He also mentions taking note of the community’s DNA. Personal attacks, colorful language and a lack of guidelines – or guidelines that aren’t enforced – might not suit you.

Walsh advises signing up on members-only sites to review the content for quality and quantity, and says that a site’s usefulness may wane; so “keep learning and keep adapting.” Yong advocates leaving a site without a moderator to uphold standards or one that “becomes a dumping ground for spam.”

Another way to qualify the site is through its sales activity. Advertising-based sites like allnurses.com don’t sell products or services. Are these any more pure?

Walsh points out that selling “starts to take away from the genuine nature.” However, while he states that “I need to be delivering very good information for free to have a robust dialogue,” he says he also needs to “be respectful in offering products and services as an added value.”

Dr. Mildred L. Culp of WorkWise® welcomes your questions at culp@workwise.net. © 2014 Passage Media.