The whole Comic Book Resources story has me thinking about the proper way to close an online community.
All online communities eventually come to an end. I’ve launched many communities and I’ve experienced unique longevity. I’ve managed KarateForums.com for 13 years, PhotoshopForums.com for more than 11 and phpBBHacks.com for 11 before I gave it away to a member. All of these communities will eventually come to an end – whether I am at the helm or someone else is.
I’ve also closed communities. Because the time had come. They were inactive, it felt like an uphill fight and I wanted to spend my time elsewhere or they had run their course. Whatever the reason – and there are many – your online community will end. For this article, I am going to presume that we have explored the alternatives to closing and decided that closing is the appropriate course of action.
If we accept this, the question is: how do we close the community in a way that is respectful to the people who have contributed to it in the past and, especially, those that are active in the present? I can’t recall anyone really discussing best practices for closing an online community. Drawing on my experience, I am going to set out some recommendations today.
Announcing the Closure
You are going to have to break the news to people one way or another. Keep it honest and genuine. Explain why you have made this decision, express appreciation to those who have contributed to the community and share whatever else comes to mind.
However you would normally communicate with members is how you should announce this. You need to bring attention to it. You should post the announcement where you’d normally post other announcements and then link to it in a visible place in your header. If you send emails to your members, you should do that. If you actively use Facebook, Twitter or a similar platform to promote the community, you should link to your announcement there.
Advance Notice of Closure
How long in advance should you post that announcement? This important because you need to give members an opportunity to connect with each other if they want to continue to stay in touch. Your community might be their only means of communication.
In my usage here, closure refers to no longer accepting new contributions, allowing people to send private messages, etc. – not to the deletion of the community from the internet.
This decision should be informed by how active the community is. If the community has no activity, who are you really providing notice to? If the community is very active, you want to give people time to do what they need to do. You also don’t want the community to linger on for too long, knowing that the end is coming. For example, there probably isn’t a lot of sense in announcing that the site will be closing in 6 months.
- Minimum: 2 weeks.
- Ideal: 1 month.
- Maximum: 3 months.
Keeping the Content Online
Once you are no longer accepting new content, how long should you continue to keep this content accessible? You should be guided by how much activity there is, how valuable that content can continue to be and what, if any, historical context it might have.
Even if you feel the web could do without what your community has produced, like with Comic Book Resources, if you have that much content (12.9 million posts), you need to allow your members a period of time to reflect on old content and to download it through their browser, if they wish.
It is not reasonable to expect that former community owners keep content online indefinitely. There are costs and time associated with doing so. That said, if you served ads when your community was open, you can do so when it is closed and that will support keeping it online. You can also use a tool like HTTrack to download the entire website and serve static pages, so you don’t have to worry about keeping your community software up to date.
- Minimum: 3 months.
- Ideal: 6 months.
- Maximum: No limit.
Allowing Members to Download Their Content
With rare exceptions, members own the content they post on our communities, but they grant us a non-exclusive, possibly perpetual license to display their content. In other words, they can take their post and post it elsewhere. It is their work. So, if you can manage it, I think it makes sense to allow members to easily download just the content they have posted.
This isn’t a feature that is built into a lot of community software, so it may not always be feasible. For this reason, I am going to tag this as optional. But if you can do it, I’d recommend making the feature available.
It becomes even more pressing if you are a community like Flickr or if you host member blogs. People feel even a greater sense of ownership on platforms like that, as opposed to posts on a forum.
Help Where Possible
There may be circumstances that arise that you had not foreseen. Be sure to allow people to contact you if they need help with something. Maybe they missed the deadline and really need something. Make time to help whoever you can.
This is Just a Framework
I want you to keep in mind that this is just a framework to operate within. Not everyone will agree with the basic guidance I’ve provided here, even if the general principles are sound. Your specific circumstances will dictate your choices – but the minimums are important here. Don’t cut your members off from each other too quickly and don’t delete your community’s existence too quickly. Give people some time.
You know your community better than anyone. You need to make the choice that you can be comfortable with, that demonstrates the need to close, but also the respect that you have for what your community has done.