Technical Debt vs. Community Debt

Posted by Patrick on August 3rd, 2015 in Community Cultivation

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.

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AMAs Aren’t Just for reddit

Posted by Patrick on June 11th, 2015 in Community Cultivation

reddit is widely known for their AMAs. Short for Ask Me Anything, these are reddit posts that invite questions from the community. These questions (or as many of them as possible) are then answered by the poster. Many of the AMAs that receive a lot of attention are hosted by celebrities, but plenty aren’t. To be a good subject, you really just have to be someone who people want to know more about.

A few recent examples: a retired bank robber, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, a longtime NASA engineer, scientist Bill Nye and comedian Jim Gaffigan.

All of these link to the main /r/IAmA subreddit, one of the most popular sections of reddit. However, AMAs also occur in niche sections. In fact, for many who want to host an AMA, the best bet for success is to find a subreddit that speaks more directly to what they have to share.

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When your online community is focused on a particular topic – as most online communities tend to be – the emphasis tends to be on expanding as it relates to the subject matter of your community.

If you’re a toy community, and you see a lot of discussion around a particular toy or type of toys, you’ll launch a new section for those toys. If you’re a web development community, and you see a lot of questions about a particular programming language, you’ll introduce a new section for that language. And so on. That makes sense.

What can be lost in the shuffle, however, is the off-topic section. If you look for the off-topic section on most communities, that’s all you’ll find. One section, dedicated to everything that isn’t about the chosen topic. Sure, they might have an introductions section, an area for announcements and maybe one or two other forums, but for the most part, everything “else” is happening in that one section.

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In the past, I’ve seen forum owners and managers suggest that it was harder to grow their forums or their hosted community because of people spreading their time out across different forms of social media. I think that’s probably true, but I don’t see it as a bad thing.

What we’re seeing is platform diversification. Forums are fine. We just have more options, and we use the options that best fit a particular need.

But if you run a forum or a hosted community, you have to accept a simple reality: people will spend time on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and other platforms. Once you accept that reality, you can begin to utilize these platforms to offer community members more value and to engage with them – and others – with the idea of driving traffic back to your community.

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After his great guest post about companies engaging on reddit, Dave DiGiovanni of is back again with a great example of a company that has created their own subreddit as a means of building community on the platform.

Duolingo is a fun, addictive and free way to learn a new language. The Duolingo Incubator is a community that was created to give users a process for generating new Duolingo courses. The Duolingo Incubator community is a great example of what is possible when a company embraces community. You can learn more about how that community was created and developed in this post on CMX Hub.

The Duolingo Incubator allows Duolingo to release new language courses at a much faster rate and is critical to their success, but it is not the only way they leverage the power of community. They have also created r/Duolingo, a subreddit on reddit that serves as a community for reddit users that are fans of Duolingo. The subreddit has almost 23,000 subscribers and multiple active discussions every day.

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FacebookUploading pirated “viral” videos to your Facebook page is not a smart way to increase your page’s reach. It may seem like a good idea, but in the end, it doesn’t really work. Unfortunately, far too many Facebook page managers believe that it does.

They see a cool video (usually on YouTube, but sometimes on Vine), and they download it from the site, using some third party software. Obviously, you can’t download a video from YouTube under normal circumstances. They use a tool or a browser add-on and rip the video that way. Then they upload the video to their Facebook page. Sometimes they provide some lame attribution; sometimes they don’t.

This isn’t a new problem. It’s been a constant in my Facebook news feed for several months. At pretty much any given time, I can visit Facebook and instantly pick out a pirated video. Mashable reported on the issue in August, as did The Daily Dot in October.

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Disruptive MultimediaI’ve been thinking a lot about music artists and community recently, thanks to Ryan Leslie and Nathan McCartney of Disruptive Multimedia. They are on a mission to convince music artists of the value of connecting directly with fans. When I listen to them, I really believe they are trying to get artists to understand the value of actively managing your community.

The sad fact is that most music artists are all too happy to hand their community over to a third party and lose the direct connection. When you send a fan to iTunes to buy an album, iTunes keeps 30% of the revenue – and 100% of the relationship. The revenue cut isn’t a big deal, but the relationship is everything.

And yet that is what most artists do when they try to sell music. They send people to iTunes. They transfer the relationship to Apple, who knows everything about the buyer. Meanwhile, the artist knows nothing. Too many artists are accepting of this arrangement. Data is power, and Apple holds the power. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

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MetaFilterThe other day I wrote about qualifying new members and the idea of making it harder for people to register on your community. A highly visible example of this is MetaFilter, a 15 year old, well known online community that has charged a one-time $5 membership fee for ten years. They also make you wait one week before you can create a new post. You can respond to posts by others, but not start your own.

A lot of community managers would be scared to even attempt such a thing. Clearly, it has worked for MetaFilter, or they wouldn’t have done it for so long.

I mentioned this in my initial post, but it bears repeating: a measure like this is meant to mitigate the challenges of success. If no one wants to join your community for free, then no one is going to want to join it for $5.

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When people talk about seeding an online community, they often talk about content. As in, “if we post X pieces of content, then people will reply to that content.” One person, or a few people, post a bunch of content then wonder why no one replies.

This is backwards.

Seeding isn’t about content. You aren’t seeding content to encourage people to engage and stick around. You’re seeding people (sounds kind of like a horror movie).

Optimal seeding is when you bring a good selection of quality people on board. When a potential member visits your community for the first time, you want them to see quality interaction between members who represent what your community can be. Not simply “content,” but people.

You can have all of the content you want, but if you don’t have the people, all you’re left with is articles waiting for the first comment.

There are organizations that host online communities that have been or are now successful that have also been able to get away with not making a full time paid employee responsible for the community. Managing, growing and moderating the community just falls to whatever time other paid people can make available, and to volunteers.

I don’t think anything is wrong with that, necessarily. But what I notice is that when things get stale or activity declines, what happens is that some of these organizations throw a software update at the community. A redesign, new software, a substantial upgrade in feature set – something along those lines.

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