Are you encouraging or discouraging online communication?

When I was studying interpersonal communication at Ithaca College in the early 90s, one of the concepts we looked at was whether your environment encouraged or discouraged communication.  The terms I learned were: sociopetal (environment encourages communication) and sociofugal (environment discourages communication.)

Happy Chairs (via Flickr) from Lars Ploughmann
Sociofugal Environment
Sociopedal Environment

Determining if a physical environment encourages or discourages communication is a pretty straightforward process.  You may look at how the chairs are arranged in a room or where the food stations are placed at a party.  Evaluating how we’re encouraging/discouraging communication online can be more challenging.  It’s obvious that a blog post with comments closed discourages communication.  But what if your goal is for blog commenters to interact with each other?  Does it make more sense to have threaded comments so it’s clear which comment someone is replying to?

When designing your blog/community/site/app, you need to know your goals to determine if you’re getting what you need.  Are you looking to encourage discussion among your customers?  To encourage conversation directly with you?

A form to rate content and submit comments that doesn’t show previous ratings or comments like in Microsoft support articles (at bottom of article) will encourage communication with you directly, but not among customers.  While an approach like Amazon customer reviews, encourages some interaction among customers.

It’s worth stepping back (or getting someone with fresh eyes) to look at how you’ve designed your blog/community/site/app.  Are you encouraging or discouraging communication?