Growing Online Communities Naturally

Something I've always found interesting is the way in which online communities take on a life of their own. There are many resources out there that explore how to run and manage online communities, but there is something that I rarely see discussed, and that is the way in which the community as a whole operates.

From my experience, one key to a successful online community is the sort of magic that happens between community members that keeps it vibrant and growing. You can't force that kind of magic, and you can't clone it. It just happens. So when you take a community that has some magic going, and you mess with the formula, chances are you'll get a result similar to the "new" Coke (or the new Facebook layout - sorry guys, xox). In other words, your results may be less than ideal. Although there are other variables that can affect the magic, in this post, I'll talk about the community's chosen mode of communication.

We're all familiar with the various ways an online community can communicate and collaborate with each other:

  • Forums
  • Mailing lists
  • Wikis
  • IRC
  • Blogs
  • Facebook/Twitter/Identica/ad nauseum
What I find interesting is the way a community will latch on to a certain mode of communication, and not let go. People get used to interacting with other members of the group in a certain way, and will not change even if another mode is introduced into the group. They won't even change if they agree with and prefer the change. I've seen this happen time and time again, and each time it makes me more curious about the "why."

A few examples:
  • PHPBuilder Forums. I became a member of the PHPBuilder forums in 2002 and quickly found myself a part of a tightly knit and comical group of fellow PHPers. Before too long, I was a moderator (and still am) and visited the forums once or twice per day. As the years have passed, the core group of folks I interacted with has changed somewhat, but the primary mode of communication is still the forums. We made several attempts at getting a group together on IRC, but failed each time we tried. The chat channel was inactive and unimpressive and eventually withered away into nothingness. Despite the lure of real time communication, it just didn't work with this community.
  • PHP Community. This is a community that exists mainly through IRC (#phpc on freenode). Various PHPC leaders have tried extending the community through online sites (such as wikis, articles, Ning, etc.) but it consistently comes back to being an IRC-only entity. The real time and informal interaction between PHPers who just want to take a break or enlist their peers for advice or troubleshooting is what keeps the community alive. The community does not respond to forums. Or wikis. Or other social media websites (with the exception of maybe some complementary Twitter interaction). IRC will always be the glue that holds this community together.
  • OINK-PUG. The Ohio, Indiana, Northern Kentucky PHP Users Group has primarily done all its interaction via a mailing list. We have tried several other ways of communication (again, through Ning, phpBB forums, IRC and recently via a Drupal instance on a donated host.) With the exception of providing monthly meeting information to new members, all communication still defaults back to the mailing list. The other modes fall short and become stagnant because nobody uses them.
  • PHPWomen. The preferred mode of communication for this group has emerged as the collection of forums. An IRC channel does exist, but is not nearly as active as the forums, and hasn't been nearly as successful as we expected. We've also tried implementing a mailing list to no real avail. Once again, it all comes back to the forums, because that's what the members choose to use.

One other example I want to mention is in regard to a group of folks that were interested in New Media, primarily where it concerns journalism. As a writer and geek, this group was very interesting to me, as was the fact that a good friend of mine started it up. It began primarily as a mailing list for discussions on how Web 2.0 would affect newspapers and traditional means of reporting the news. The mailing list was very active, and people began to suggest we take it somewhere more permanent and better organized. We all voted to switch the site over to Ning because of all the cool other features it offered. So the admin did as we suggested and moved it over. And then all activity on the site promptly fell away. The group responded much quicker and was much more inclined to participate when we were using a mailing list, despite what we thought we wanted.

What makes a community tick? Why do some communities who are comprised of virtually the same people choose different modes of communication? Why are some communities so compelling that we give up our individually preferred mode of communication in favor of the one chosen by the group?

I'm no psychologist, but I can offer up a few words of advice for those struggling to grow their community or find that magic. Lay all your cards out on the table and see which ones gather momentum. Offer up multiple outlets and ways of communication within the group. Set up forums *and* a mailing list *and* an IRC channel *and* anything else you think would be of interest to the members. Yes, it will be overkill at the beginning, but until you know in which direction the community is going to gravitate, you have to keep your options open and not force your community into a box. If a mailing list is working, then keep it. If forums are better for your group, then keep them. Let the group grow naturally and remember the complexity of the group dynamics is what dictates how the group will gel, not the leader.


6 Responses to Growing Online Communities Naturally

  1. 15201 Sam Hennessy 2009-04-17 03:35:11

    Great post, I find community building a very interesting topic, thanks for your insight.

  2. 15210 Lukas 2009-04-17 09:21:52

    I have seen the same thing. However I think the cause of this seeming inability to change the communication channels in an existing project is mostly that when the change happens, people will do so with different motivation and at different times. As a result there will be a break in communication flow and things become less relevant, reduing the motivation to adjust even more.

    As such the creation of wiki.php.net is an interesting case study. It started on my person site, where I made sure that people would find relevant content in a form that was more convinient then anywhere else. Slowly people began adopting it. Finally when we moved to the final location we have today on PHP.net. Again adoption was low, mostly just the people that were using other externals before (todo list, the doc team, eventually the PEAR guys).

    But then the newly formed windows team started adopting the wiki. But what really gave it a push was the RFC for traits. Again this was something that was more convinient on the wiki than anywhere else. Furthermore it empowered a whole new set of users to participate and the benefit of people able to more easily weed out the talkers from the do-ers from internals was also appreciated by the "old guys".

    So to me the conclusion is, if you change communication channels, you need to ensure that there is some tasty new content (or the old content in a more accessable form) only in the new channel to get people to actually adopt it.

  3. 15229 Kathy Reid 2009-04-17 23:42:30

    Hi Elizabeth, very interesting post! It's amazing how virtual communities often have their own culture and their own preferred methods of communication - some prefer forums, some prefer IRC and others prefer mailing lists. I wonder if this is a product of the personalities of the members of the forum or whether the community takes on a personality of its own?
    Cheers, Kathy

  4. 15377 mwarden 2009-04-25 12:59:45

    Elizabeth, very interesting post regarding communication methods. When I was involved in the admin team at evolt.org, I do recall discussions around other methods to interact with our mailing lists, whether it be NNTP or forums or other. We always saw these other options as just that: other options; we never considered dropping the mailing list, just allowing people to interact with it over NNTP or having it mirrored as a forum or similar. I think a mistake made in the example you gave is that there was an assumption that you could simply flip a switch to the new platform without a transition.

    Also, I think many people do believe that communities appear spontaneously. There is probably some truth to that, but I think it is a very big oversimplification. Take a look at Gary Vaynerchuk's SXSW talk for a recent and rather well articulated explanation of why communities originate. It has to do with a single source of clear value. People go to Wine Library TV because it makes wine accessible. People go to Get Rich Slowly because it offers a unique and reasoned view on personal finance that isn't overhyped with irrational and motivational BS. These things existed BEFORE any community existed on the site; value is a precondition. Secondly, the producer of the value must offer a platform that does not hinder community growth. This means there needs to be some way for me as a visitor to know that there are other visitors, and there must be a way for me to interact with those other visitors. This is another precondition.

    But this is not enough! What I think many people do not realize is that community building is a constant and conscious effort. At evolt.org, we spent at least 3/4 of the time discussing a ways to grow community, and we were damn good at it (this is 10 years ago... evolt is mostly dead now for a number of reasons...). JD Roth from Get Rich Slowly does this by responding privately by email to people who comment on his blog posts. Gary V has an extremely different approach where he will taste and review wines that are suggested by his community. These are not random mistakes; these are conscious efforts to build community.

    But, yes, if you look only at Facebook and Twitter, you may very well think that community just happens. But those are also two examples of sites with no business model except to drive traffic (via ads) to sites that actually do provide value by selling products or services.

  5. 15419 Lukas 2009-04-27 03:04:34

    Speaking of communities and habits .. I am trying to get more digital DJs to join me on #digitaldj on freenode. But I guess due to the lack of tradition .. people are relucatant to join up .. and therefore there are very few people in there .. so its not so interesting to stick around when someone does join.

  6. 21261 john 2009-11-30 11:52:27

    In order to grow a community you have to listen to the crowd and to learn what they want. Social media is so complex because you can listen to it, measure it and watch it over time, thus giving you the option to constantly improve it and to be capable to offer what your crowd wants.

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