From Dave Deckard, editor of BlazersEdge:
There are only two kinds of communities: those in which the dominant culture exists to serve newcomers and those in which newcomers exist to serve the dominant culture. Over the long haul the first kind of community will renew itself and grow in perpetuity; the second kind will become insular and die out.
Internet communities are fast-paced, intense, relatively free of bonding context and cues compared to face-to-face communities. These characteristics will hasten the progress and effect of the above theorem. A strong enough leader, social connection, or cause can overcome dominant-culture chauvinism in real life, at least for a while. Online, those forces won't be strong enough to halt the death of your community once it begins to sacrifice new folks on the altar of its orthodoxy.
Let's walk through the life-cycle of a typical online forum.
1. A community forms, centering around a particular subject and the discussion thereof.
2. Assuming the subject and the people discussing it are of sufficient interest, that community grows. It becomes a cool place to be.
3. During that growth process the community develops its own culture, language, mores and folkways, identity. These help define that coolness, bound and direct it, deliver it to participants.
4. Everything in #3 finds its expression through people. By virtue of skill, knowledge, personality, creativity, or energy and time spent some of those people become closely identified with the community's characteristics, the standard-bearers or wise elders.
Up to this point, every step has been healthy, natural, and necessary. Eliminate even one of them and your community will not flourish. But at this point, exactly when the community is flourishing, it hits a fork in the road...the dichotomy listed in our assertion. Since the wrong branch of the fork is wider, more instinctive, and more often-traveled, let's finish the steps in that direction.
5. Those standard-bearers, basking in their success and cool-factor, lose sight of a couple important facts: the community centers around a subject matter apart from them and its identity grew through the interchange between them and other participants. Instead the standard-bearers internalize both factors, losing the distinction between themselves and the subject matter, between their own identity and that of the community. In their minds they've become the site and its community.
6. In Steps 1-4, new participants added to the culture. Their numbers increased traffic. Their ideas developed the subject. Their exchanges evolved the site's identity. During that time the standard-bearers were part of this process, the foremost among many, leading the growth curve. After Step 5, though, the culture is no longer defined by interaction and forward motion. It's embodied solely in the persons of the site elders, frozen into a set of expectations designed to confirm the status quo rather than change it. "Correct" and "acceptable" are no longer defined by external standards, nor by measurable results. They're defined as "Who We Are". By definition new folks, not being part of the "We", are neither correct nor acceptable.
7. The task of the standard-bearers now shifts to care-taking, vetting, and enforcing rather than discussing, interacting, and growing. New members are welcome only to the extent that they confirm and support the old ways and ideas. Anyone who doesn't speak the same language and follow the cultural norm is a threat....not just an abstract threat to an idea but a personal threat to the cultural elders and their power. The cultural in-group will begin to react to outsiders with hostility, shouting them down in disagreement, insisting that they learn the cultural code, speak the group's language, and agree with the insiders before they're given standing in the community.
8. Note that the original claim in Step 1, "A site forms around a particular subject and the discussion thereof" is no longer valid. A newcomer offering fresh perspective will find himself shouted down and cast out even if that perspective deals with the central subject matter. The masthead reads the same as it always did but the topic has changed. The true subject matter of the site is now the standard-bearers and their exclusive culture, apart from which there is no acceptable discussion.
9. Though the standard-bearers have lost the ability to distinguish between the subject matter and themselves, most visitors will not have been so indoctrinated. They will perceive that their views are not welcome, that site conversation is not honest, that they have no way to become a part of the "in group" without conforming. They'll also figure out that they will have no power to change the course of the site as long as the current standard-bearers remain in power...that the established elders will always trump them, that their only hope of mattering is to wait until those elders "die off" and leave a vacuum.
10. At this point all but the densest, orneriest, and most masochistic of visitors will exit, finding another site actually centered around the subject matter they wish to discuss...a place without all the baggage.
Our site has now activated its doomsday clock. It will dwindle until its remaining elders, having driven off all new voices and potential for growth, find out that the depleted community isn't cool enough anymore and leave...likely lamenting that the site was better "back in the day" but got spoiled by all those stupid newbies.
The process looks clear when you see it listed out like this. Hopefully it's equally clear that taking the fork into Step 5 is a bad idea. But when you're living this out in real time on your website, the process becomes harder to identify.
In succeeding installments we're going to talk about ways to build from the bottom up to slant your community the right way before Step 5 takes hold...in essence to create a new Step 5 that allows for proper ownership of the site and its subject matter while minimizing the baggage of cultural chauvinism. We'll also go over tactics to undo the process if you're already past that point, turning a community around. Finally we'll affirm the power and benefit of new voices--even annoying, clueless new voices that you don't agree with--and how you can harness that power as an asset to your site.
All of that would be cramming a 5000-word treatise into a 1200-word space, so for now let's stick with the basics:
· There IS a difference between communities designed to welcome, honor, and serve newcomers and communities where newcomers are expected to serve everyone else (either as sycophants or fodder).
· If you're not doing the first (actively!) you're probably doing the second.
· Understanding the importance of that difference will put you way ahead of most people.
· Failing to understand that difference and to keep a critical eye on your community, making sure its culture is traveling the right road, will eventually brand your site as undesirable and curtail your growth.
Let's close with a story to illustrate the difference between the two approaches. Over the years a handful of bloggers have asked variations of this question.
What do you do about a guy who comes in and writes a Fanpost on the same day he joins the blog? He hasn't read anybody else's stuff. He doesn't know anybody. His take is probably super-basic and the subject is something we've been over several times before. We talked this to death last month and he doesn't even have a clue. What do you say to him?
I get the gist here. And I agree, that guy barging in is annoying to everybody who's been participating up until now...all the site regulars and old-timers. I'm empathizing.
At the same time, you know what I see? I see an extraordinary fellow. Not only did he come to our site (which makes him unique right off the bat) he overcame inertia and shyness, had the courage to dive in and contribute, indicated that he might become one of that rare 1% who creates content instead of the 99% who just consume it. No matter how rough the initial Fanpost, that guy is a potential diamond. If the subject matter is old, the take pedantic, those things can be developed. A little conversation, a little getting up to speed, and our brassy first-grade Fanpost author has developed into a PhD-level contributor. That process happens all the time. I can even help it along. That's easy. You know what's hard? Changing somebody who won't write a Fanpost into somebody who will.
Forget what the Fanpost contains. The most important, rarest gift is that this guy actually bothered to writesomething. On his first day! And yet the whole premise of the question is how to get him to stop.
Can you see the night-and-day difference between the approaches? One outlook sees a long-term, regular contributor; the other just sees a problem. It's like a furniture store owner saying, "That dude has a huge wad of cash in his pocket but he asked about that 'couch' when it's clearly a divan. So I'm kicking him out."
I forget how I answered that question the multiple times it's come up, but I know what I was thinking in my head. "If you don't want that guy, send him to ME! Please!!!"
You know what I also see in that first-day Fanpost guy? I see a guy who put himself out on a limb and is waiting to see how the community will react. He probably knows his prose isn't perfect. He probably knows people will disagree with him. He may even be aware that his take is infantile compared to the norm. But it's the best he could do. None of that stopped him, nor will it really bother him. All he wants to know is whether the community will read his work, accept it, respond to it, and consider it valid. He's not asking if he's right. He's asking if he belongs here, if this site is on the up and up, and if it has room for him.
What do you want your community's response to be?
Here's a hint: the question at the very end of the quote (What do you say to that guy?) is misdirected. It's not about what you say to him, it's about what you say to the rest of your readers--the dominant culture, the old-timers--long before that guy and his Fanpost ever show up. It's about how you define your site, what you value in your community and conversation, what you help others to value too.
More on that next time...