In his guest post here last month, Bryant Quan, the chief product officer at Slickdeals, mentioned the concept of “technical debt vs. community debt.”

To illustrate this, he explained how Slickdeals had launched a redesign, but instead of forcing everyone to use it immediately, they made the decision to maintain a classic version of the site. They committed to supporting that version for the foreseeable future with the goal of making the new version so good that most people (or all) would willingly make the switch.

In other words, instead of accruing a community debt by forcing their members to simply deal with a change, they took on a technical burden.

The Cost

As Joe Cothrel said in the comments of that article, community debt is real. “You will need to invest, at some point, to pay it off.”

If you take the example above, the cost of that community debt might be unhappy members. Unhappy members that voice their concerns, which you then must spend time (cost) responding to. It will also negatively change how some members view the community and management, which has a cost that is realized over time.

The technical debt has a cost, too. Maintaining that old design, as software is updated and features are added, takes planning and developer resources.

When you think about how inappropriate content is identified and reported, many communities rely on members. However, if you have the technical resources to build algorithms and machine-learning systems into the moderation workflow, you can take that burden off of members and more effectively moderate against common issues. You are taking on a technical debt to relieve a community debt.

Debt Isn’t Always Bad

You’ll incur debt on both sides. The aim here shouldn’t be to completely eliminate one side of this equation.┬áDebt isn’t the problem. It’s how you use it. Just like a person needs debt to build great credit and to make certain purchases, your community will need both community and technical debt in order to be successful.

I use a credit card for as many purchases as I can. It allows me to delay paying until the bill is due, which provides a longer window through which my money to earn interest in the bank. Furthermore, I receive cash back of 1% or more on all of my purchases. As such, everything I buy costs me less than I was charged. My debt works for me.

The key to it all: I never charge anything I can’t pay off when the bill arrives.