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Ask HN: How are online communities established?
128 points by jayshua on Sept 11, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 92 comments
HN, Reddit, Stack Overflow, etc. are all established communities with users. How do you start a community when you don't have any users?



Usually they splinter off an existing online community or fanbase of a prominent writer/net-celebrity. Hacker News was initially populated by refugees from Reddit. Imgur also got started off Reddit. Reddit's initial userbase largely came from readers of comp.lang.lisp and Paul Graham's essays (PG funded it, and posted announcements there when it launched, 3 weeks after it started). StackOverflow largely came from the readers of the blogs of its two founders, Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood. Github's users were recruited from people the founders met at meetups.

(I was an initial user of both Hacker News and Reddit, checking both out the first day they opened. Also was an admin at FictionAlley.org, which grew from 1881 to 100,000+ users while I was there. That one was largely founded by refugees from Fanfiction.net, along with the readers of two mailing lists devoted to prominent HP fanfiction authors, Cassandra Claire and AngieJ. Same pattern: refugees from an existing community, + followers of a local Internet celebrity.)


If my memory is correct, I discovered PG's essays from Slashdot, and through them reddit, and through reddit hn.

And this reminds me of how some people theorize that life on Earth came from another planet.

In one way it answers the question, but also does not answer it at all.

My guess for origination online communities from scratch would be advertising and already having a small community. Well obviously content too. But I think the reddit founders early on pretended to be many more people on reddit, because no one wants to join an empty community.

The founders provided the startup community. PG's essay were the advertising. And both slashdot and the people who posted PG's essay there, where the advertising of PG's essays.


Where’s the mention of Digg? Thay was a large contribution to Reddit’s traffic after their... redesign


I thought I was here on the first day, but your HN join date is one day before mine. Time flies!


Sure does, I have the same day as you. But wasn’t it pg’s blog and not Reddit that sent the initial users? Starting to get hazy on the details.


I think it was both - not unusual to post an announcement for a new forum in multiple places, and PG's blog and Reddit very much had overlapping readerships (and authors) at the time. I found it through Reddit.

BTW, there are some YC founders that have join dates several months before us - HN was open to internal YC batches about a half-year before it went public.


This is true, but they can also splinter off or be online versions of of real world communities. For example Facebook started from collages.


Indeed, from collages of college students.

Sorry, but I had to make that joke.


Why did people leave Fanfiction.net? I spend quite some time there, but I never follow the meta discussions


The immediate reason was the whole "PLAGURISM!" kerfuffle - Cassandra Claire's work (which was immensely popular within the HP fandom) was booted off of it for having a few too many Buffy quotes. Discontent about FF.net had been growing for a while, though - since they let anyone upload with no moderation, many of the fics there were low quality or unfinished, many of the reviews were one-liners or abusive, etc.


Thank you for the answer. It seems that it dates back from before I started reading fanfiction, so I wasn't even there then.

It's true that sorting through the low quality fics on ff.net is complicated. Though I appreciate being able to leave a positive one-liner as a review (when it's negative, I usually try to elaborate a little more).


Has HN changed a lot since it inception? Or has it stayed mostly he same?


It goes in waves. The tech industry (and the world) has changed significantly in the last 13 years. I'd say at the core the culture has been largely the same, but it's a bit less tech-focused, less startup-focused, fewer people with personal experience in the topics being discussed, with more discussions on politics (despite the general ban on political discussions) and social phenomena.


Thank you for responding! The technical topics are the main draw for me. I hope the core of HN stays.


I think there's also a very important step which is that often these successful communities have value even if others don't join -- what I've heard previously described as "Single Player Mode".

Instagram had filters and photo editing -- and could then also post to Facebook. Even if you knew no one else on Instagram, there was a reason to use it.

Github is still a great UX for Git. You can host your own repos and work with your own team, even if you never look at others.

Why do people want to join first?


"Come for the tool, Stay for the network"


I had no idea about "Single Player Mode". This is very interesting and makes sense. Knowledge like this is game-changing. Thanks!


This isn't helpful in the context of an app where its purpose is the community, so you haven't really answered OP's question. I can't play reddit on single player mode.

Communities start around passionate, interesting individuals. Reddit initially got popular because it was chuffed full of technologists who were openly sharing juicy details about their work. There were hundreds of other websites at the time that allowed you to curate bookmarks and such, but reddit had the people who made interesting comments on those bookmarks.


Reddit's single player mode is "news reader." Doesn't matter if it's aggregated by the community or curated. The reason why it blew up was because people migrated from another news aggregator, Digg, in 2010.


Why did everyone leave digg? It wasn’t because they fucked up the news aggregation, it’s because they fucked up the community - the ambitious and passionate users couldn’t get their posts to the front page any more, it was reserved for people who were paying digg.

Reddit is awful at news aggregation, the front page is a hot mess of memes and clickbait. You have to weed all that crap out to find the people you actually want to listen to.


Build a community goes beyond "rally people around something they are passionate about".

1 - Not all people who have same preferences or like the same things are willing to discuss or share ideas about that.

2 - I like to think people gathering around some topic is a secondary move, the primary thing that make people gather around is 'VALUES' and 'Principles'.

3 - We like to discuss ideas with people who we value, we like to talk about what we like with friends, not strangers, why? Because we know that we share values, principles and a cosmovision with our friends, family, etc.

So if you want to build a community, build around 'principle and values' and from this common ground you can set a main topic to be addressed by everyone.

Not always will be a single topic, but a niche, like the hacker news, our discussed niche is "hacking things", our values? Defy the status-quo, think out of the box, catch the black swan, see through the non-obvious, seek for excellence, etc.

It wouldn't be so successful try to discuss how to "hack things" with a bunch of douchebags ;D

Edit1: Also I saw people talking about the moderation drama but if you have done the principles, values, rules... you are going to have your own community policing who doesn't reach the cultural/behavioral fit.

Rules must be the very first thing to avoid a 'broken window' culture.


Interesting perspective. Do you think those “values” and “principles” should be explicitly stated somewhere, or should they emerge from the early users and the dialogue happening around a topic?


I believe We need to establish as soon as possible the main values and principles addressing what can kill the community as you are envisioning.

Furtherly, You can be open to discuss and aggregate more and more if necessary...

Rules can be more specific and based on your values and principles, the rules are the way you make the principles and values be followed/respected. Rules can change and adapt towards the behaviors but, on the other hand, I think principles and values shape behaviors, indeed.

Thanks for asking that ;)


I built a 30k+ member vbulletin community in the 2000s.

I used sock puppets with different personalities and views that created threads, replied to each other and encouraged real users to reply and made them feel welcome.

I also moderated as myself and was welcoming to real new users, (and the puppets :)

This did not last more than two months, as there were enough real users that the puppets were able to largely hibernate. But it did happen, and it worked.

I never outed my puppets and they were not used longer than necessary.

Puppets will not sustain a community, but they can help establish one.


That was actually the same thing Reddit did, IIRC. Have a bunch of different accounts and post interesting stuff.

Nobody wants to join a barren community.

That's also why clubs and other social gathering places entice people with free drinks, VIP passes and get some cliques to be in early, to generate movement.


AFAIK, Reddit was created in a similar manner. According to Reddit cofounder Steve Huffman, in the early days the Reddit crew just faked it ‘til they made it – hundreds of fake profiles to boost popularity of the site.


I have a very early account. I remember being chastised by another user for posting links to my own blog over weeks. That’s how few posts there were.

I wonder if it was them trying to shape content.


how is it doing now after 20 years? I feel the real challenge is once the community comes together, it invites or makes new comers feel comfortable. Also usually old members just move on for various reasons.


It was a Dave Matthews Band fan community and I shut it down in 2015 due to server costs, (which the community mostly covered Via PayPal but I had to do fundraisers) looming security issues (drupal and vbulletin integrations that became hard to get security updates for and my own passing interest in the band.

But not because there wasn’t community.

I had a solid moderation and community admin staff and people writing content for the blog.

To your point yes. Any community, band fans to burning man needs new blood constantly or it will die. People move on.

There’s a lot of talk about this in the DOTA 2 community—-fear it will not stay at the top of esports if it doesn’t do more to make itself welcoming to noobs.


Why not start a subreddit on reddit and use the wiki for a blog? Just an idea, I have no experience running a subreddit. Plus I am sure a Dave Matthews Band fan community wouldn't offend anyone. So, reddit can foot the bill for your community. Just keep a backup incase of issue.


I made a Facebook page people used to connect afterward. I think these other sites are not the same as an integrated experience I had before. It was a “community driven online destination.”

I do have a backup and I may make the forum available again, but I am not sure. It was a lot of content to go dark suddenly.


You get users. The most important part imo is the regulars who stick around and talk to everyone, answer everything. They make the core of a community and help turn others into regulars.

I used to have 2 small niche forums and there were always 2-5 people that created the bulk of the content (along with myself - I had to post a lot to start and keep it going, I was the first user!). Always making threads, checking in, answering questions, posting updates and pictures.

New visitors would read all that and either never return, lurk or join in. They were passionate about the topics. Giving them special/higher privileges helped retain them for longer, as well, but eventually they just visit less (or leave completely) and someone else takes their place.


I think you really nailed this! I've built a couple forums, one which just hit 15 years and has around 6000 registered users. It is member funded, hosted, moderated etc. I have no part in it anymore really and it has a great culture. I've actually just launched a new forum for my current employer and our community members.

Like you said, it takes effort from the person starting it to create activity and get people coming back / building a habit of checking for new content. Then you must empower the people that are passionate about what you're doing and treat them more like an equal / admin / mod vs a simple user.

This ted talk explains how I feel about building a community really well: https://www.ted.com/talks/derek_sivers_how_to_start_a_moveme...


How do you jump from the initial tens, to hundred to thousands of users? How does the popularity scale in your experience?


I think the OP wants to know how you get those initial users.


I think the best way is to pick a niche interest and start there. When I first joined Reddit, it was mostly just LISP programmers and there were no subreddits. They served that niche well, then grew from there. Facebook started out serving Harvard students, then all college students, then everyone.

I started a YouTube channel (https://youtube.com/parttimelarry) last year and was wondering if anyone would find me. I had zero subscribers for my general programming channel, then decided to focus on something I was interested in learning myself. I narrowed my focus to Python for Finance / Automated Trading and documented what I was learning in public, and turns out there are plenty of people looking for information in this niche and they are happy to find a place to discuss it.

Now I am on track to reach 10,000 subscribers this year and have an audience that is very engaged and gives a lot of feedback. So start small, get the first 100 users. Once you have 100 users, you know you can get 1000. And once you get 1000, you feel like you can get 10,000. And then more people start noticing.

I also used to run a message board to discuss the band Tool. It's just one band, but people like discussing their music and lyrics. At the beginning, I needed to be the lead content creator and give people a reason to stick around. They wanted some discussion of lyrics, photos, show reviews, links to news articles etc. Eventually, certain members started posting more than others, like thousands of posts. I made some of them moderators, and they became leaders of the community, and it grew from there. The hardest part is getting the initial 100 or so people who are engaged, are passionate about the topic, and are willing to contribute.


YT Channel looks awesome. Just subbed. Side question -- is algo trading worth it? Is there any edge that can be obtained? I'd guess that you'd be rich and on a beach if it did...but maybe I'm wrong


Not sure why, but that's the third time I've heard about Tool communities and their organisation this month.


Online communities are basically just discussion boards, so you need something for people to talk about, people who want to talk about it, and functionality allowing them to talk to one another.

The structure of a discussion board is usually a chronological feed of discussion topics, so you’ll want a pipeline of topics to keep the discussions fresh(ish).

And of course you’ll be competing with a saturated “discuss things online” space, so there are strategic questions you’ll need to answer. Are you going to provide a place to discuss things people can’t discuss elsewhere? Are you going to provide a stream of topics people want but can’t find elsewhere? Are you going to provide a uniquely engaging discussion format? Etc etc etc.

I don’t know that anyone really starts communities, honestly. We’re already in a global one and it just breaks down into smaller ones depending on geography, beliefs, interest, etc. The thing you might provide isn’t a community, it’s a platform. Give a community that already exists a refreshing new way to connect and you’ll be in business (scale tbd).


Here is a very good book that summarizes a lot of the scientific research about creating and fostering online communities.

Building Successful Online Communities: Evidence-Based Social Design

Here are the chapters:

  * Encouraging Contribution to Online Communities
  * Encouraging Commitment to Online Communities
  * Regulating Behavior in Online Communities
  * The Challenges of Dealing with Newcomers
  * Starting New Online Communities


This is a $150 textbook ($75 used $25 Kindle): have you read it and actually gotten value out of it? https://www.amazon.com/Building-Successful-Online-Communitie...


The book shows for me as $35 on Amazon (paperback) and $150 for hardback, so I'd suggest getting the Kindle or paperback version.

I've used parts of the book in a class I taught on the Social Web, and yes, I did find it really useful and I think the students did too. This book really is the best one out there summarizing a lot of the experimental scientific research by the research community.

It presents a series of Design Claims, and then backs up those claims by synthesizing the results of previous studies and analyses done by the research community. If you're less interested in the scientific literature, you can just read the Design Claims and still get a lot out of it.

Here is one example Design Claim from the book (you can see it on p29 in Amazon Look Inside feature): Compared to broadcasting requirements for contribution to all community members, asking specific people to make contributions increases the likelihood they will do so.

(Or to operationalize things more: if you want people to do something, don't send a mass email, send the request individually. I've personally found this to be a more effective way to get things done. Remember to only use this power for good, though.)

Also, let me clarify my conflict of interest: I'm a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in the same department as one of the authors (Kraut), who I'm pretty sure the vast majority of people doing scientific research on online communities would say is a clear leader in the field.


Thanks for clarifying, I had run across this book last year and put it in my Amazon cart and then decided it was too academic. I will give it more consideration.


Lots has been written about this. There are several ways.

1. You start small ( pick a topic and be the best place to discuss that topic)

2. You can fake engagements with multiple accounts to get the ball rolling ( reddit did it, indiehackers did it etc...)

https://www.google.com/search?q=indiehackers+how+to+start+co...


> You can fake engagements with multiple accounts to get the ball rolling ( reddit did it, indiehackers did it etc...)

As Steve Huffman described it in his old Udacity course (no longer available), no one wants to visit a ghost town. So when they were making Reddit, they'd create multiple accounts to post from so it "seemed" like a thriving community already existed. It does bring up interesting questions on where it sits in on the ethics spectrum, but the cold start problem is still very difficult with no one solution.


The Reddit founders talk about this in their episode of "How I Built This":

https://www.npr.org/2017/10/03/545635014/live-episode-reddit...

At about 19:40 is where they talk about seeding the community.


I was very involved in the Center for Humane Tech community back when they first started and was a volunteer mod for a little while. CHT is still a thing but I believe the forum no longer exists. I saw the press release about the organization being formed and it was something I really cared about so I found the forum on their website where a lot of people were joining and very excited to actually get something done about these issues. The people joining had impressive bios, connections in every corner of the tech industry, as well as educators, psychologists, researchers, etcetera. The energy was very real and very exciting at first. It went stale after a few months because everybody was just there spinning their wheels, not accomplishing any action. It began to feel more like talk therapy for people who hate dark patterns and manipulative app design. The leadership of CHT had an amazing start to a real national grassroots network that they could have engaged to push for policy change in states across the country. There could have been organized film screenings, letters to representatives, pushes for legislation, all the usual stuff. But I think they weren't ready or able to take advantage of something like that, and the momentum died.

So based on that experience if I had to outline a simple 2 step process, I would say: 1. Rally people around something they are passionate about, and 2. Give them something to do besides talk. My experience was disappointing because #1 happened in a really big way, but #2 did not.


Well, they just launched a very good documentary that might have an impact, so at least now they are doing something:

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/09/movies/the-social-dilemma...


I definitely still believe in their work. But they wasted a whole lot of grassroots momentum at the beginning.

A film is cool, but 5,000+ people who are willing to go evangelize to their family, friends, and elected representatives is a whole different story as far as actually changing things.


The issue here was that the founders of CHT promised "a cultural awakening" but then got flooded by both media and political attention. So much so they could not spend any time on community-building. A number of active forum members then tried to pick up the initiative. Most important imo was that both the scope was too large and the audience (everyone). And as you say many people were full of the problem, but less inclined to be part of the solution in any real sense, or were just there to find candidates for their own initiatives.


You should read the book People Powered by Jono Bacon. Has some really good insights and is a 101 course on exactly this.


Seconded. "People Powered: How Communities Can Supercharge Your Business, Brand, and Teams" (2019) https://g.co/kgs/CF5TEk

"The Art of Community: Building the New Age of Participation" (2012) https://g.co/kgs/P2V1kn

"Tribes: We need you to lead us" (2011) https://g.co/kgs/T8jaFS

The 1% 'rule' https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1%25_rule_(Internet_culture) :

> In Internet culture, the 1% rule is a rule of thumb pertaining to participation in an internet community, stating that only 1% of the users of a website add content, while the other 99% of the participants only lurk. Variants include the 1–9–90 rule (sometimes 90–9–1 principle or the 89:10:1 ratio),[1] which states that in a collaborative website such as a wiki, 90% of the participants of a community only consume content, 9% of the participants change or update content, and 1% of the participants add content.

... Relevant metrics:

- Marginal cost of service https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marginal_cost

- Customer acquisition cost: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Customer_acquisition_cost

- [Quantifiable and non-quantifiable] Customer Lifetime Value: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Customer_lifetime_value

Last words of the almost-cliche community organizer surrounded by dormant accounts: "Network effects will result in sufficient (grant) funding"

Business model examples that may be useful for building and supporting sustainable communities with clear Missions, Objectives, and Criteria for Success: https://gist.github.com/ndarville/4295324


Question is: what's an online community ?

I don't think HN is one. At the very least I don't have a sense of being a member of an HN community.


you've got 6000+ karma. whether you feel like you're a member or not, you obviously participate on a continual basis.

i think a reasonable definition for online community is a group of people who regularly and continually participate in the same online platform.


Somewhere on this site there's a comment from me stating that HN is pseudonymous and has a faux small niche appearance due to its UX and its lack of emphasis on interpersonal connections or any expected features of social networks. To me, everyone is more or less the same person (or really there are a billion of different people but since I can't keep tracks of what they said before they all just exist in a vacuum). I just know about dang, percival and another one I forget but recognize when I see it (alathorn ?).

That doesn't feel like a community to me. Every new submissions/feed is filled with new people with new advices, there is no continuity on HN.

Not saying it's bad or a good thing though. That's just how I feel.


We used to call customers of a video game the player base. Now everything's a community.

I don't see the unification around a single idea when they are so many disparate views among the people that come here.


I remember reading that the Reddit founders created fake users and posted links / conversation starters in order to make the site feel like it had some level of critical mass.


This was a trick implementors used when starting a new MUD too. If someone logged in and saw nobody else on the who list they would disconnect and never come back. Ideally you had at least the developers and a few testers committed to actually playing and then you’d pad those numbers with fake accounts or bots.


Almost every large online service started by using fake accounts or little to no rules. That is how you build a community. Get everyone to show up then slowly change the rules/playing field. Anyone remember that linkedin launched as a scam service?


Could you please link some reference to the linkedin stuff? Cannot find anything on google


Here is a summary of what I read on community building.

- Shared struggles are stronger and last longer than shared interests (That is why a forum for solopreneurs (struggling with so much…) might have a more supportive vibe than a photo community.).

- Be an active and bold moderator: Answer questions quickly and be a role model

- Create clear guidelines for posts (What is allowed? What not?)

- Delete everything that violates the guidelines

- Let users flag posts

- Hunt and ban spammers

- Use captchas for newbie posts


Thoughts about maintaining quality of community:

1. Stream of new content

2. Preserving a (possibly revolving) core group of contributors (20% of the userbase generates 80% of the activity)

3. Quality control/moderation (we know what happened to Quora)

An online community has to be aspirational (as in participants want to be part of an exalted peer group, e.g. SV founders) or serve a need for knowledge somehow.


> Preserving a (possibly revolving) core group of people (20% of the userbase generates 80% of the activity)

very true but 100% of the userbase will consume 100% of the activity, extreme numbers but point being that whilst only 20% are creating content a greater share, assume everyone, will consume it.

In the UK there is a community called mumsnet - I know so many people (including me) who consume from it but do not generate back.


Oops I meant to say contributors -- you're right of course.


I think that's not quite the correct question to ask. The question to ask is: what purpose will your new community website/app serve that is not already being met by existing ones?

Here's one anecdote: personally, I haven't yet found anything that captures the feel or social vibe of early/mid-2000s LiveJournal. I think what another commenter referred to as "Single Player Mode" actually had quite a lot to do with what drew me to LJ in the first place - at least initially a lot of what it was about for me was personal blogging just for me, and I gradually explored other personal blogs and communities while I was doing it, eventually forming real friendships/relationships with other LJers.


An estabshed community migrating to their own platform is an option. Five-thirty-eight more or less started this way.

Existing groups or constituencies (software users, professionals, academic community, sport club or fans, entertainment/music, etc.) are other options. Artificially-induced growth is another option --- several subreddits have grown from nothing to 100k+ members in a few months

Starting a generic commuity these days would likely be difficult (though see; Snapchat, WhatsApp, etc0.) Even well-capitalised firms fare poorly at this (e.g., Google+).

Likely better to have a specific community in mind. Or some idea as to what you hope to achieve.

Otherwise: good content, consistent posting, cross-promotion, and time.


Shared common interest. If you're building it for one community segment, odds are that you have connections that would find use in engaging with that community. So I'd start sharing with the ones who don't mind starting the community from nothing.

Like if it's a community about a type of car, you'll want some initial owners or prospective owners (if it hasn't released yet). Maybe some DIY guides for basic maintenance, news section for OEM and aftermarket releases, etc.

This way newer visitors find already-established and useful content and stick around to discuss and add to it.


In the case of StackOverflow, Spolsky and Atwood made podcasts from the beginning. There is a record of the whole process. It's worth noting that StackOverflow built a very narrow channel for community activity relative to typical online communities.

StackOverflow Podcast #1 https://soundcloud.com/stack-exchange/stack-overflow-podcast...


There has to be a reason for people to go to the community:

- HN: discussions and news

- Reddit: niche topics and conversations

- StackOverflow: ask questions and find answers

All these reasons are different for the target demographics. Hopefully you can get people to come to the site to read, then participate and generate more content for others to discover and read ad-nauseum.

Sites which make it fun/useful for people either consuming or generating content, are the ones with thriving and growing communities....


I'd recommend listening the early episodes of the Stack Overflow podcast for some insights. There are a lot of nuggets buried there.


HN/reddit/SO came there first, or at least during the boom times when the pieces are still up in the air. After the pieces fell, making a new community without a lot of $$$ is difficult, if the purpose is solely community. If however the service provides an additional valuable service , a community can form and grow as more and more users use the service.


You have to get people there, and you have to get them to want to bother coming back.

1. raise awareness. e.g. though word-of-mouth recommendations, or advertising (online, TV, events, IRL?)

2. it has to have something to keep attention,

3. it has to be worth coming back to

It happens through phased growth, sometimes explicitly planned, always interactively managed. A marketing and sales pipeline provides a google-able articulated view of a similar process. Or go as far "Manufacturing Consent"

They're built on positive feedback cycles, where contributions spur further engagement of viewing, and prompting others to engage. These are called virtuous cycles, when it's going in a desired direction (e.g. more contributions drive more views drive more contributions), and vicious cycles when they're not (bad drives out the good, e.g. toleration of off-topic / inappropriate content, deters helpful contributors from returning, while encouraging more detrimental contributions).

I would recommend reading Peter Hintjen's "Social Architecture"[1]. He addresses a question worded exactly the same as yours. He built a more narrowly scoped community as an integral part of building the ZeroMQ messaging library and tools, and ensuring that it was useful to as many people as possible.

Also, check out his other books [2]. Though, note that gitbook.com broke the links, and e.g.

https://www.gitbook.com/book/hintjens/social-architecture/de...

becomes

https://hintjens.gitbooks.io/social-architecture/content/

[1]: https://hintjens.gitbooks.io/social-architecture/content/

[2]: http://hintjens.com/books

I'm planning to grow a group chat (matrix self-hosted) with friends, into a dev.to-forked blogging community, that I can share with other tech friends, non-tech friends, co-workers, and use to explain work successes to family.


Before thinking about creating, or participating in an "online" community, think about the same without the online.

A community is first formed by humans. The online piece is just a platform, or a place of logistics.

This may throw you back in time but read Scott Peck's The Different Drum, to get a real feel of what a community is.


The key (for any product), from what I have learned and have no experience of it, seems to be finding a `beachhead market`, a startup term for finding a smallest possible subset of a niche, where you can dominate (establish a community in this case) and then grow from there one step at a time.


You fake it until you make it. Reddit just created users until they had a critical mass of engagement.


I’m trying to do this right now at conferacity.com, and it’s really hard. But I hope people will continue to try to experiment with new discussion communities online, not just based on the topic, but also on the governing rules and structure. It seems unlikely that 50 years from now, we’ll look back and say that the existing formats for online discussion were the best we could do, even though the existing formats are all clearly providing value to users in their current form.

An area I’m particularly interested in is, given that anonymous forums require moderation, but “moderation doesn’t scale”, what would happen if you only allowed moderators to contribute to the discussion. Or rather, what if you only allowed people who have the required attitudes, ability and emotional intelligence to be an effective moderator to contribute to the discussion?

You’d obviously grow much slower if you’re restricting contributor growth to a small subset of users. And maybe that constraint on growth would mean you never become a viable online community. But if you could get to some threshold size, you might find that the quality of discussion is sufficiently different that a lot of people might want to read such discussions without necessarily taking part directly.

Ideally, the contributor community would make decisions about what those required qualities are, and how to assess new applicants. But we already have communities like this offline - this is exactly how academic communities behave. Existing “contributors” (professors with phd’s in the subject) decide who they accept to their community, based on evolving standards decided by that community. It’s also interesting that this, at least from my outsider perspective, is also how YC operates - they have a particular ethos, norms of behavior etc, they admit people who they think are consistent with those norms, and then enforce those norms: https://www.ycombinator.com/ethics/

I think there’s an interesting analogy with professional sports. Baseball is a super accessible game, all you need is a stick, a ball and a field, so almost anyone in the world can play. But the way to get high quality baseball that people want to pay to watch is not by allowing anyone onto the field, but by restricting the players on the field to those with the required skills.

Regardless of how my particular “experiment” works out, I think it would be great to see more innovation in this area.


i gave up on hn.

i became passive a few months ago. sorry dang, but no matter how you wanna look at it or defend it, hn is now, for me, a hivemind. but i just logged in for the first time in a while because i truly love this question.

a community is a place where people go to and talk about things they like. it is a place they can escape to.

i have been part of far too many. i have seen communities started by 12yo and 50yo. some are still there while i moved on. some are dear and near to my heart. i left some for personal reasons. people were getting far too close and personal and you get scared. but you keep in touch with those people you truly love to talk to.

great communities don't die, they just take up a new name.


I am curious how does these online communities do content review to make sure it's not filled with all spams, porn or even illegal content? besides algorithm, how many human resources are spent on these things?


The Art of Community: Building the New Age of Participation by Jono Bacon

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B008224FMC


You generate fake traffic until you get real traffic. That's how Reddit did it, at least.


I have built a couple communities over the years and currently run a community with more than 20 million monthly users.

I'm going to assume the kind of community you're referring to is one where the primary focus is social networking / discussion in the vein of Hacker News, Reddit, etc.

The way you build a community is to start with an existing community.

What I mean by that is you have to find an existing pool of users who are interested in what you offer and bring many of them in at once. From there you can focus on slower organic growth. Examples: YouTube and MySpace both began as dating sites. YouTube focused on getting people to upload introduction videos of themselves. Once they had accumulated a number of people who were willing to film themselves they pivoted over to content creation. Similarly, MySpace was a very crude dating site that allowed people to customize their page. Brad Greenspan was a serial investor who bought up a large number of tiny dating sites. He cannibalized all the revenue from those sites to promote MySpace as a "free" dating site. They had millions of users coming from other sites.

reddit was promoted heavily on Hacker News and focused on a tech crowd at first. Paul Graham threw his endorsement behind the platform a few times and that also helped interest people in checking it out.

For my successful community sites, I'll just mention one experience - I had built a Q&A site from scratch. It was finally done one Sunday night and I decided to go to bed. There were eleven posts on the site, mostly from myself, but also a couple from friends I'd asked to test the site for me. It was obvious there was no community there. I bought a single ad - for $10 - at $0.01 CPC on a Quiz site, then went to bed. My intention was not to launch the site, but to throw a little real traffic at it and see if any bugs cropped up that neither I nor my friends had found. When I got to work in the morning and had finished catching up on my emails I decided to check the site and see if anyone had posted. There were over 100 posts and people were using the site exactly as intended. Not only that but there was about $0.50 in ad revenue already, meaning my monthly run rate was net-positive from day one. I had hit upon a great fit between people who were already interested in asking and answering questions (the quiz site I advertised on) and my product.

In each case I'm familiar with, the formula was to find an existing audience that had an interest in the product in question and bring them on-board ASAP. If the internet were brand-new and no community websites yet existed I would build one by building a non-community website that provided a useful service, and building a community around that once I have captive eyeballs. In other words, to belabor the point: I would start with an existing community.


YCombinator was a successful startup accelerator, then built HN.

The folks behind Stack Overflow ran a popular blog (Coding Horror)

In those cases they had a smarter-than-average population that had some shared interest (e.g. "COMM-unity".)

When those sites came around, Google was recognizable as what it is today, but Facebook was not. Hyperlinking wasn't seen as a crime back then, and Google didn't see organic search results as competition for paid advertising.

Circa 2000 I helped someone build an online community of 400,000 in Brazil -- the start of that was sending 10,000 spam emails, which got us 2,000 sign ups (as incredible as that sounds today.)

Pay attention to retention. If you think it is a hard to get people, then it is all the more important to retain people and to think about the path of getting them to contribute.

I think a lot of people who want to try marketing don't understand how much work it takes. If I wanted to advertise a concert at a college campus I'd expect to put up a (8.5x11) poster for every 10 students or so. I see a lot of people print 1 poster per 1000 students and call it a day.

Some people don't want to make extra designs and wait for the printer, other people don't want to spend the $, other people don't want to walk to every building on campus.

You will hear stories of someone who got an exceptional break (that 20% effective e-mail blast is one) and wish you could get one. Don't let that wishing get in the way of doing the hard work, in fact often it seems you get the "break" by accident when you are doing the "average" work.

Avoid the Girardian ("mimetic") traps that are popular in many places. In particular, do not be "part of a herd" without a well-examined understanding of why your actions benefit you (incl. 'your brain thinks that cocaine raises your utility function but it doesn't)

Specifically, those "Like us on Facebook" buttons feed data and traffic back to Facebook from hundreds of sites. The ratio of engagement the world gets from those buttons is vastly less than the engagement that the world gets.

If I was talking to customers on the phone and trying to get them to buy into a bad deal like that I'd have a hard time, but when people see that "everybody else is doing it", it's hard to get people to think the consequences through.

Those sites you mention all predate the Facebook age. To linear order, "new communities are not being created". If you look closer, new communities are being created but they are smaller and separated from the social media lamestream.


reddit and HN were very focused when they started out. Reddit was like 70% talk about lisp when it started. HN was very much about building business with VC money (which wasn't talked about all that much when it started). They were also completely intolerant of the nonsense you see in comments today. Inane jokes and poorly thought out statements would be downvoted to hell. The idea that dumb comments would be mocked is what made it so attractive in the beginning.

Stack Overflow offered a better alternative to expertsexchange, which was fighting with google over how to show content (remember the scroll to the bottom of expert sexchange to see the non paywalled answers hack?)


Reddit was seeded by sockpuppets.


Here's a list of wonderful communities: https://www.2board.net/boardlist.html


Why do you want to? So you can extract money from them? Don't. So you can have someone to control and moderate and exercise power over? Don't. So you can have the prestige and status of a community owner and/or high traffic website owner and/or successful person? Don't.

Have you noticed that HN was originally a small group of smart industry knowledgable people, and gradually they trended towards disengaging as it got too big and busy and it became a crowd of jeering Redditor plebs like me? HN is a marketing machine for YCombinator, not a real community. If what you want is really "to build a big site with lots of users", the word "community" doesn't really apply, ask what you want "how do I build a site which tempts large numbers of casual users?".

Communities stay small. If your reason is you want a place where people who like X can discuss X then become a good place for those people to do that, be present, engage all the time, invite appropriate people to it and make it interesting enough that they have reason to come back, make it about what they want (could be a mailing list) instead of what you want ("my new forum written in React with a mobile app backed by an IRC channel!"). That will likely stay small - people probably already have a place to discuss X, there's probably a Reddit about X, and the real thing they'll be interested in is who else goes there (and who is excluded), not where it is or what software it uses. There's way more community in 50 people discussing a thing than in some mega-site built for ad revenue. Not much prestige or excitement in that, though.


Don’t know why you’re being downvoted.

I’d add that it’s a lot of work moderating and dealing with the drama that online communities tend to create.

Nowadays there are also legal implications, with certain jurisdictions making you liable for user-submitted content.

Unless you’re really passionate about creating a community of like-minded individuals, I wouldn’t bother.


Even if OP is really passionate about, say, stamp collecting - I'm asking why people who collect stamps should care that OP wants to rule a large community of them, why should they submit to it?

There has to be more in it for them than "OP wants to be in charge, so we will go to OP's place and submit to OP's rules". And OP won't find out what that is as long as OP is asking a general place like HN "how do I collect all the stamp collectors on my site??" like they were collectible things, instead of going to a stamp collecting group and joining and contributing and observing what they might be missing that they don't know they are missing because they aren't technical enough to be aware of all the options, which OP could maybe build or contribute towards.

but that's not at all as exciting as being in charge, which I'm cynically suggesting might be OP's motivation.


For what it's worth I think that's way more exciting than being in charge. I was recently involved (not as a moderator) in a community that burned itself to the ground due almost entirely to poor communication and lack of discussion between the moderators and the members themselves. This lead directly from, I think, the moderators having exactly the opinion you criticize - they viewed themselves as leading and ruling the users rather than supporting them. I've been thinking a lot about how that could have been prevented. Maybe the community could have survived if the system was structured in a way that gave users themselves enough power to hold moderators to account. Or maybe there's some other way the issues could have been mitigated.

That's exactly why people who collect stamps should care. The community I mentioned is gone specifically because the very invested members couldn't do anything about the self-destruction. And we knew we were powerless as it was all falling apart. At this point many would be happy to move to a new platform simply if it provided some type of guarantees against a repeat. (Which I think could be accomplished by giving the moderators less power without compromising their ability to moderate. Somehow.)

As to your final point about joining and contributing, I've done that. I'm here asking about the general guidelines because there are people here who have walked the path of fostering a community, or know people who have.


> Unless you’re really passionate about creating a community of like-minded individuals, I wouldn’t bother.

I agree. I think most communities are created because of a need for them, not so much because somebody wants to create a community.


> "HN is a marketing machine for YCombinator, not a real community."

I disagree, a large percentage of people that are here for the interesting articles and curious discussion, but have no interest in YCombinator at all...


If your disagreement had merit, you’d be saying “what’s YCombinator?”.




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