Punk rock bands. Star Trek enthusiasts. World Cup soccer fans. Communities of real people, each of which have their own set of behaviors and norms. Anthropologists call this “culture”. Now let’s look at a different group of communities: Quora, TED, Google+. Do these online communities also have a culture? Of course they do. Let’s take a look at how each established a culture early on, and what this means for new communities:

Two former Facebook employees founded the Q&A site Quora in 2009. Quora is all about thoroughness. Why? First, Quora encourages using your real identity, not an alias, so you’re accountable for your work. Second, users vote up or down answers based on their quality. Finally, many early adopters were from the tech industry, where meritocracy rules. Glib contributions don’t get you far in that field. The combinations of these three factors, established early on, meant that Quora became a place where meaningful information is the norm. You can imagine what the site might like otherwise – just take a look at the comments under any YouTube video. Want to hear what happened when these norms were broken? Read this post by Robert Scoble.

TED Conversations was developed just earlier this year. It’s a debate forum for TED enthusiasts. This community strongly encourages quality discussion. The “TED community” is very much a reflection of the TED talks that have been taking place for several years – intellectual, well thought-out, and poignant discussion around complex issues. As you might expect, TED Conversations is a very polite place, a behavior no doubt influenced by the fact that TED talks encourage sharing and appreciating different viewpoints. Take a look at TED’s guidelines, and you’ll see plenty of statements like “if you choose to start (or join) an Idea conversation, it’s important to maintain a polite attitude toward what’s working and what needs fine-tuning.” This community will obviously be a place where intellectuals thrive.

Finally, Google+ is a nascent community whose culture is still being developed. See if you can imagine where it’s headed, though: “Circles” allows you to arrange your contacts into relevant groups. “Hangouts” and “Huddles” are features that allow groups to easily video chat or IM together. And “Sparks” is a way for users to find content relevant to them, particularly if it’s shared by people within their Circles. It’s too early to tell exactly what Google+’s culture will look like, but it’s obvious that informal group sharing will be at the core. My guess is that Google will allow its users to establish the sites culture as much as Google will itself.

So why make a point of understanding these online “cultures”? Each of them has been successful (in their own way), by being very intentional about how users behave within each community. Think about how difficult it would be to change any of these cultures, after norms were already established. Having trouble? Just review the negative feedback Facebook dealt with when it changed its privacy settings.

If you are planning to build your own online community, sites like these are worth paying attention to. The culture you build for your community is primarily defined by the norms you establish early on. Since it’s much easier to do this right the first time, ask yourself: “What kind of culture do I want to establish? How do I want users to interact with each other and with my organization?” Pick whatever behaviors you’re looking for, and set those as the default way for taking part in the community. Don’t pay attention to this, and you may as well not even start!

What do you think – how does establishing the right norms early on establish the long-term behavior of an online community? What are some other examples that have a done a particularly good (or bad) job of this?