Monday, 4 June 2012

This Community Is Not What It Used To Be


4Chan's [NSFW] founder Chris Poole seems to be suffering from a heavy bout of nostalgia. In his one man panel at ROFLcon he bemoans the decline of the internet communities that used to be home to meme creation and storytelling, now replaced by endless repeats of advice dog.

There seems to be a built in reaction to humans that we believe everything is in decline. It's been a popular meme of its own since ancient times. Plato believed that wide spread literacy would lead people to becoming more forgetful, even if the great value of literacy is now accepted everywhere.

We can probably trace this attitude back as a survival instinct. Bad news requires action to solve and takes up more energy and mental space. Not following up good news tends to have fewer negative consequences; our mind will discard unnecessary information quickly and focus on what needs action.

After taking this trait into account, does Chris still have a point? Jaron Lanier's "You Are Not a Gadget", mentioned earlier, has similar themes in places.

I think there are three effects that help to drive a cycle small tight knit communities expanding and in the process becoming looser, having a higher signal-to-noise ratio and leaving its members feeling less involved.

First is that the early members of any online community are a sort of online explorer, those naturally curious, not happy with what appears first in the Google rankings and willing to hunt out something that matches their needs more exactly, or find interested others. This extra time invested in seeking out more obscure groups means less people will get there and the community will be smaller.

When they are part of a nascent community (a forum, usenet group, Facebook page etc) then they have to contribute, as it consists of very little, and each contribution is notable in a mostly empty environment. Hence people regard this as a golden age of any community, when 'everyone' was contributing. If there is already a large collection of information, and increment appears smaller to the sum total.

Small communities are easier to manage, you can keep up a forum or free site for very little if not zero money. As more information is added it will attract others, perhaps with only a passing interest in the community itself. More hits and links, higher search rankings and a greater likelihood of being found easily.

The second feature is that small communities are easy to maintain. They don't require a big website and mostly will be happy with free services. If it grows and feels the need for more substantial infrastructure this has to be paid for, leading to the internet's current hot topic: advertising. If you can't charge for membership, something that is most likely to drive away long standing members, then you have to rely on adverts.

Adverts rely on many views, each one paying a tiny amount. To make even modest money, simply to pay for hosting a website and administration, means that you're probably going to have to get more page views than you current community is contributing. This leads to site administrators, with perfectly good intentions, now having to attempt to attract more viewers and so often having to drop to a lower common denominator in content to attract more readers, ones whose casual interest means they are not interested in the more advanced elements of the communities' interests.

This is also the driver behind sites offering to import all your contacts and for you to bring your friends along; more users and more page views.

This leads to a rapid increase in users, often casual who then contribute less and a change in what attracted people to the site originally. Those early adaptors, with their higher standards are then likely to leave and either find another community or found a new one.

The last general effect is classic Dunbar's number, once the community of people you interact with expands beyond what you can easily keep up with, the names stop becoming friends, but a mass of people. This makes large groups annonymous and you looses the community feeling as you can't relate to the people as individuals.

I don't know how many of these trends are avoidable, but you can imagine a few things which prevent this from happening.

Having a very specific niche may avoid this problem. If the topic of interest is so niche that it could never attract a large audience, then there's no chance of the community growing beyond the Dunbar number. But be warned, even the most obscure sub-catagory, when scaled across the whole of the web-present population, is probably surprisingly large.

The other choice to to have an invite only system, where existing members vet those applying and decide if they should be allowed in. This is very dangerous, as you are likely to exclude dissenting opinion and reinforce groupthink. The membership is also likely to end up being the worst kind of monoculture outside of an invite only suburban golf club.

The last option would be to try and charge membership, something few sites have managed with an success. If it is a collaborative community then members are also likely to feel offended by having to pay for something which they are already contributing time and material towards.

I don't think that these communities have vanished, as Chris Poole fears, but I think they have just moved on. For the same reason that these explorers were there at the beginning, they'll always be there at the beginning, you just have to move with them.