Musings on what makes a community succeed

Now that there are many established and vibrant web communities out there it is interesting to try and understand what it is that makes them successful. There are many aspects to this, but one that isn’t discussed very often is the behavioural norms of the members.

People hang out in communities (online and offline) because they are pleasant places to be. You choose the communities you like in large part because the other people there are polite and behave in the way that you like to behave. There are unwritten rules which determine what is acceptable and what isn’t and the community is policed by its members. Think rural village or social network – it is the same for both.

When these rules work well the community thrives, and if they stop working the community can fall apart.

Webforums like the Mobile Monday Yahoo Group are a good and simple example – people post news and questions to the group and over time rules have emerged governing what is allowed (anything to do with the mobile web) and what isn’t (blatant advertising). When the rules are broken people respond with lots of angry posts and if necessary the moderators wade in to sum up group opinion and explicitly say what should be allowed and what shouldn’t. Thus the group has a set of rules, is self policing and thrives because of it. If the self policing failed and the advert spam became to voluminous people would stop participating and the community would fall apart.

An interesting question then is how those rules evolve, and if you are building an online community what you can do to influence that evolution to maximise your chances of success.

I have mentioned before that I am reading Emergence by Stpehen Johnson (if you are interested in this post you will love his book) – his view is that communities are best understood as emergent systems – by which he means the behaviour of the collective is determined by the ways in which community members behave in their everyday interactions with each other. The rules which govern those interactions determine the direction and ultimate health of the community.

Thought of like this there are clear parallels between online communities, rural communities and cities and even ant colonies and the operation of the human body. All these things are emergent systems.

Bringing this down to earh, as per Emergence the success of communities is determined by:

  • The number of members in the community
  • The rules that govern the behaviour of members
  • The feedback loops which re-enforce certain behaviours and filter out others

Johnson does a case study on Slashdot which illustrates this well:

  • Size – when the community was small everyone could read all the posts, but when it became larger the number of posts became too large and sophisticated rules and rating systems were required to keep the site usable – the optimum rule set changed as the community grew
  • Rules – the introduction of a 1-5 rating system, vertical subdomains, the formation of a cadre of people with sufficient status to review and critically the emergence of an unwritten rule or community norm that “slashdot status” is desirable – the evolution of this sophisticated rule set was critical to the success of Slashdot
  • Feedback – the rating system they devised has a complex feedback process which encourages quality submissions and fosters the emergence of an elite group of moderators and to maintain a position in that elite your contributions to Slashdot have to be highly rated by the community generally – the ruleset incorporated sophisticated feedback mechanisms

In conclusion this says a couple of things to me:

  • Growing a community pre critical mass and post critical mass is a very different game – the rules for the community itself will be very different
  • Status in the community is going to be a critical part of most social networks – as well as being an incentive to contribute it forms the bedrock of feedback mechanisms
  • Governing your community will be very hard if you are not part of it – site owners play the biggest role in determining rules and behavioural norms – getting these right will be a matter of fine judgement and will require a good understanding the mindset of the community
  • Most online communities have an offline component – this will be an important enabler of status and part of the feedback mechanism

A word of caution to the wise. Not everything that claims to be an online community is a community in these terms. Interaction between members is key, and unless there is a lot of it there is no “community”. A great and valuable service perhaps, but not a community.