Communities Can Grow Too Quickly

I was recently granted access to a Slack community associated with a newsletter I’ve been reading for a while. The kinetic energy of new members started on the #Welcome channel and then flowed to other discussions on themed channels. Whether intentional or not, the batched admissions — we were added as a cohort — created its own dynamics. It felt like an fun event. Reminded me of bit of when a startup we’ve recently invested in announces itself to the rest of Homebrew’s founder group.

Communities can grow too quickly and lose some of the camaraderie which comes with being part of a group. There are a number of dynamics which factor into the carrying capacity of an existing community to absorb newbies. Product designers and communities themselves will build in techniques to manage this scaling — for example, a hardcoded onboarding tutorial when you start an app or even the pinned note at the top of subreddit which spells out the rules of engagement and FAQ.

Sometimes incentives will be explicitly and implicitly baked into a community to encourage successful absorption of new members. MMORPGs which early on insert a task involving the teaming of a new player and midlevel one is a frequently used element. Forums will sometimes have a moderator or guide-type which includes a badge or other notification, signaling that it’s ok for a beginner to ask them questions. When we were creating Second Life I became familiar with Bartle’s Taxonomy of Player Types, which I later brought into YouTube as another way to understand motivations of individuals.

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When a community grows too quickly, or when new members sharing a specific common characteristic swamp the existing user base, the existing norms can get disrupted. Sometimes this can be a positive strategy — like introducing a new advantageous gene. Often it can cause confusion, tribalism and outright hostility — the Brazilian “invasion” of Orkut.

Figuring out the carrying capacity of your current community, how to onboard new users and manage growth is a set of fascinating design decisions. More recently I’ve had a chance to observe how successful community/audience products like Winnie and theSkimm have thought through these questions. Have you encountered products that do an especially interesting job of managing community growth or any anecdotes from your own work experiences? Would be interested to hear them — just tweet at me.

Written by

You’ll find me @homebrew , Seed Stage Venture Fund w @satyap . Previously made products at YouTube, Google & SecondLife. Married to @cbarlerin .

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