I wrote earlier about creating online communities around business-to-business applications, with a vague promise to add more, but didn't. What rejuvenated my interest in the topic was going to a lecture and buying a book by one Joseph Myers, who lectures on creating small groups for churches. Churches generally don't like to be impersonal - it kind of misses the point - but there's no real alternative once the congregation grows beyond 100 or so people, so they like to subdivide into smaller groups so everyone has a group they can be comfortable with. What Joe Myers pointed out, as I understood it, is that it's very hard to create this sort of a group from the outside - intimacy generally arises from a group of people who like to be around each other. So, if you are a corporate executive, or a church leader, who is tasked with creating a community, how do you go about it? On the one hand, it's our job to create these communites, on the other, we know that they're not created, they just appear.
So the recommendation, for church leaders at least, is to define more exactly what groups already exist in the church. Church leaders want every small group to provide intimacy, but that's really only one way to relate to a group: the group can be more of a public group, or more of a social group, or just a personal group, and churches can take advantage of knowing how these groups relate to each other to encourage more fellowship in the church.
Is it applicable for online groups? I'm not sure. Here's the issue: at least if you're working with a church congregation, you can call a meeting, bring everyone in, discuss the issues, maybe figure out what the existing groups are and what they're doing. You can't do that online. Maybe the best thing someone tasked with creating an online group can do is simply to monitor the group, or groups, and make sure that the company is willing to go wherever the group takes them. Seems obvious, but is it? Check out Yahoo's handling of Flickr accounts, or Facebook's decision to allow non-college students to join. Or check out a lot of different online forums that die because people thought they were cool at first, but then they never changed again and everyone left for more responsive pastures.
I don't know the answers. But it's an interesting bunch of questions.