I’ve been chewing on what makes a great online community over the last few weeks and thinking about what I’ve done in the past that’s worked (and, of course, haven’t). A couple of things that have happened in communities I’m members of crystallized this for me, and so I thought I’d write it out and share it for those that might find it useful.

Communities thrive on fresh outlooks and the energy that new and enthusiastic members bring to them. The problem is that as communities grow up and mature, they tend to shift towards reinforcing “accepted” points of views and try to reject alternatives that rock the boat. Down that path lies stagnation and ossification of a communities attitudes.

A question to those of you who run communities: how open and welcoming are your communities to new users? How’s your on boarding process? Are you sure? Have you tested?

Case in point: On a community I’m a member but not a manager of there was recently a situation where a user that was new to me popped up and made a comment about a podcast that was mildly critical of it. As it turns out, someone else in the community knew the people running that podcast and stepped in to defend them. Laudible, but…

In reality, it was an ambush. The reaction by the original posted clearly showed they were upset and surprised at the reaction. I popped in and posted a comment partly to try to defuse things before this escalated but mostly to throw some moral support at the original poster and try to deflect the attack a bit. That led to a discussion about why I felt that response to his criticism was inappropriate, which went nowhere, so we all dropped it and moved on.

But stop and think about this for a second. Suppose you’re a new user, a friend told you about this place and you join up and spend a few days following discussions, decide to join in and post something — and this happens.

What do you think the chances there will ever be a post from this person? In my experience, unless it’s a “you’re all assholes and I’m out of here” post, slim to none, and in reality, that response is more likely to end up on their facebook or twitter and spread through their friends and social networks instead, and you likely won’t know about it until months later when your numbers show your growth is flattening and you go researching things and find out that somewhere along the way, the internet decided that “don’t bother, they’re all assholes” is what people find when they search for your community.

Good luck fixing that, too.

Rules define a community for good and bad.

A community can not succeed without a set of rules and a code of conduct that defines how users interact with each other and draws lines in the sand defining what kind of behaviors are not going to be accepted or tolerated. A good set is short, clear and understands these situations are highly subjective and nuanced, and works from the understanding that a community will primarily self-police based on it as a framework. Writing one of these well is difficult and complicated, so I always recommend someone starts with an existing set and adapt it to their situation, and right now, I think the best starting point for most communities is the Code of Conduct for the Rands Leadership Slack — and it’s available under Creative Commons.

But what happens when your rules become the biggest problem in your community? Will you even notice it if it happens? There is a tendency for a community to get comfortable with itself and as the senior members get to know each other, it tends to narrow the diversity of discussion. Worse, this tends to lead to the kind of reaction I discussed above: someone new pops in and all of the regulars pile on because they say something that doesn’t fit the accepted canon of the group.

I’ve had that happen to groups I run, and I’ve had groups that I didn’t recognize this until it was too late for me to fix. One group I am part of has made part of its charter working to help everyone understand how use of specific language can be hurtful even when (especially when) unintended. I’ll admit up front I’ve tripped across this with some of my language, and it’s made me step back and rethink some of the terms I use and change them (because they’re right).

But this is a slippery slope, because this kind of education has a dark side. What starts out as a well-intentioned attempt to bring to light these unconscious micro-aggressions can turn into a full out passive aggressive attack on topics people don’t like. What starts as a well-intentioned attempt to improve one thing turns into an attack vector elsewhere. We see this kind of attack today on many topics by the alt-right supporters and press, but they’re not alone: it’s also happening with more liberal groups and you see these kind of attacks on many college campuses now on controversial or uncomfortable topics.

The problem with slippery slopes is you rarely notice when the slippage starts, only when you suddenly realize you’re half way down the hill and gaining speed with no traction to slow down. And at the bottom of that hill, inevitably, is a cliff.

If you don’t catch this one early, good luck fixing it.

A few takeaways to think about with your community

So, how do you treat new users coming to your community, anyway?

Are you sure? How do you know?

At a macro level, you can track this and look for broad trends:

  • What percentage of new users return for a second visit? How does that change over time?
  • What percentage of new users post to your community? What percentage post a second time? Ten times? How do those numbers change over time?
  • Have you sent someone through your onboarding recently? This would be a great use for an intern using a burner email and with no visible attribution to your management team. Have them post some things on the community, such as a “hey, I’m new here, what’s up?”, or something innocuous and safe, or something a bit edge and controversial. How does the community react? Hint: if they’re completely ignored that’s bad, too.
  • How many of your new users are still active users 90 days in? Is that number changing over time? If it’s going down, why?

This stuff can kill your community

These things matter. I learned that the hard way. A community I ran for over a decade effectively failed because of it. The group got too comfortable with itself and started cold shouldering new users — the point we could literally build an annual calendar of the topics we were going to argue about and when those arguments would happen. I got into a fight with a couple of passive aggressive that impossible for me to contribute to my own group without a fight on every posting. I then realized that we hadn’t had a new member stick in six months; they’d show up, a few might post once or twice, and they’d bail.

Either one of those might have been solvable but the combination made solving either one for me impossible, and in fact, I’d hit a point where I no longer cared. End result: I found new owners, handed them the keys, and stepped out of sight stage left. For what it’s worth, the group still exists a decade later, but as a small group of mostly the same regulars discussing the same stuff with each other, but last I talked to them, they seemed fine with it.

Before I hit that point I tried a bunch of stuff. One that I’ve loved and tried to use a lot since is enabling what I call the quiet voices: communities are dominated most of the time by the alpha voices in it (raises hand and self-identifies), but I’ve found some of the most interesting discussions come out of the quieter people in the community. The challenge is how to get them talking and contributing in and around us Alphas who are loudly explaining how smart we are and breaking up the furniture in the mosh pit.

I wrote about this challenge a while back (my god: 15 years ago), and it’s something I still consider when working on or building a community: how to surface these quieter folks who have very interesting things to say but simply aren’t interested in fighting for a podium to say it on.

Because it’s these quiet voices that can stop the dry rot communities get as their start that move into ossification and a uniformity of attitude. The problem is figuring out how to get them into the mix and contributing on their terms, not on the terms of the alphas that want everyone to be alphas because it makes the mosh pit more fun…

And that’s easier said than done…