Online communities are confronting an interesting problem: how to defend against messaging apps like Slack and Discord, while maintaining the core of their community activity - typically forum posting.
The hypothesis this article proposes is that (1) online communities create groups around shared interest and knowledge extremely well, but (2) they do not necessarily have the intimate coherence that strong interpersonal relationships and good communication support. This first point leads to community fragmentation, whereas the second - intimate or strong interpersonal connections - can lead to better community retention, easier acquisition (because of network effects), and, generally, a more tightly bound community.
If online communities are good at building the information and knowledge base that attracts people to them, real-time chat creates the cohesion that binds users together and retains them.
“Why is this happening?” you might ask. Great question. In order to understand why, we’ll need to understand briefly how online communities scale and what Slack and Discord offer that the typical online community does not.
The problem of online communities losing members to third-party messaging apps points to a larger issue not being addressed by online communities. As communities scale, they begin to fragment into smaller, more specialized communities because people are seeking ever-specialized and ever-refined places for content. Since forum posting is about content and information and is largely public, it isn’t optimal when members are expecting more personal connections and conversations.
As this need to chat with other members, either through 1-on-1 messaging or group chat, is satisfied, it will have long-term effects on platform loyalty and trust and ultimately lead to more quality engagements and a stronger community. That said, real-time chat and messaging will never replace forum posting for online communities. Nor should it. But the combination of both can complement the network effects of content and community scaling with the qualitative bonds borne out by both private and public communication.
So, if for now, we accept this hypothesis, how do communities scale and why do they fragment in the process?
Online communities scale by reaching a critical mass of members and fragmenting into smaller, more intimate communities as members no longer identify with the broader community. As these smaller communities bubble off and scale accordingly, they further fragment into smaller, more specific communities.
To understand this mechanism, take, for example, a fan of the NBA. This member is a general basketball enthusiast, but she is also a fan of the LA Lakers. Say she joins a small community (say, 100 members) of other NBA fans - 12% are LA Lakers fans, 10% Golden State Warriors, 14% Cleveland Cavaliers, and so on. As the NBA community grows to 100,000 members, imagine that the percentages of the Warriors and Cavs fans grow to a larger percentage because of the last four NBA Finals.
If 25% of the community are now Warriors fans and 25% are Cavs fans, then our hypothetical Lakers community member is now in the minority. With the community abuzz with questions, commentary and highlights from the NBA Finals, she can no longer find the jokes, clips, and pre-season banter about her beloved Lakers. In search of a new virtual corner where she can share news and analysis about her favorite team, she develops the LA Lakers community, where the discussion is always about the Lakers or, inevitably, about bashing the Lakers.
Maybe this goes further. The Laker community divides into groups about LA’s most distinguished historical players: Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Kareem Abdul Jabar, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, etc. Or it becomes a community that specifically discusses Lebron James’ career on the Lakers.
Any way you slice it, you get the point:
As groups get larger and discussions become more specialized, fragmentation occurs.
Reddit, the largest and most well-known community, reports that it has over 330 million monthly active users (MAU) and over 138,000 active communities, or subreddits. That’s roughly 2,400 MAU per active community with each community comprising .0007% of Reddit’s total community. Obviously, it’s not true that Reddit’s subreddits max out at 2,400 MAU before they break off into other groups. But it gives a quick metric for how fragmented large communities become.
Even though Reddit’s top communities hover around 20 million subscribers, they are topics with a very broad appeal - either sharing news, pictures, knowledge or information - and there’s no information about how many active subscribers there are.
With this sense of how online communities scale and fragment, let’s understand a potential reason for why it happens.
As we saw in the NBA example above, communities fragment in search of common identity and greater intimacy. As soon as a person feels alienated from the larger group, they go in search of a more appropriate community of like-minded individuals (or, at least, a community of people who are like-minded about feeling mutually alienated).
But there’s another force at work here.
If you read the top 5 posts in r/NBA in the above example, these posts are not about developing relationships with other community members. They’re about information and content sharing. In this case, it’s mostly news.
That is, in cases where a community is built on information and content sharing instead of relationship building, then intimacy is not the ultimate driver for fragmentation.
Of course this is true. Online communities are largely public and searchable, a shared resource rather than a public square where people have intimate conversations. Would you try to develop an intimate community in this setting?
Intimacy is largely challenged by the public nature of social media and online communities.
Take Twitter for example.
Twitter is a good touchstone for how social media wants to build community but actually can’t get over the divide between a public and a private community.
According to Twitter’s branding, it is “what’s happening in the world and what people are talking about right now.” In other parts of its branding, Twitter describes itself as the way to know about the biggest events happening across the world.
Ok, right, they’re basically a feed for current events, however personal or global they are. And, in practice, people do roughly three activities: (1) they share in up to 280 characters their thoughts, pictures, and video in a public forum; (2) they read and follow tweets in curated topics and themes or from influencers; (3) they engage in the content - like, retweet, share or reply.
The key is the public nature of Twitter. It truly is about sharing what’s happening in the world, but the second half of the brand definition is somewhat disingenuous. Twitter is only about what people are talking about publicly. If people want to talk privately to nurture a private or interpersonal connection, they do it over Twitter’s DM, take it offline, or go somewhere else.
Think of Facebook and Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) - Why is X friend of mine always taking hipper pictures than me, traveling more often than me, eating better food than me, wearing better clothes, why is his selfie better looking than mine, etc.?
Simply put: they have a better Public Relations engine. In social media, people present the image they want the public to see.
So what about intimacy? Aren’t communities supposed to be intimate?
Whether the community is built on intimacy or knowledge sharing, real-time chat has become a more private option for people trying to build interpersonal relationships. Chat & messaging has both public and private options, it isn’t searchable by the media or public, and it takes sensitive issues out of the public eye.
This could be one reason why online communities move to real-time chat or messaging, Slack and Discord (or between them).
This is especially true of Health Communities, where diagnoses are incredibly private, patient information is protected by HIPAA, and connections between users are the primary driver of the community.
Gryt Health’s Stupid Cancer app is a good example of this. The app helps connect people who are experiencing cancer in their lives. Whether a user is a patient, a caregiver, a loved-one, a son or daughter, etc., it matches you to someone like you so you can find support when you need it.
“Talk to people who get it,” Gryt says. This is the core statement of every community who coheres through interpersonal relationships or uses them to bind together a content and information sharing community.
That’s an example of how an online community is using in-app messaging to bind their users together. But what about the move to Slack and Discord?
Between Slack and Discord, there are some obvious differences, though both Slack and Discord have DNA in gaming (Slack spun off from a game called Glitch). But both host tools and real-time communication in different “workspaces” or “servers,” where public and private chat channels are conveniently organized for users to navigate.
For one, Slack is SLACK - a Searchable Log of All Communication and Knowledge. So its name is intended to be searchable and, as its “workspace” implies, is largely work- and project-related.
Second, Discord has an extremely strong affinity and mission related to gaming, gamers, and game development and, as a result, also has a strong Voice over IP (VoIP) component to it. Vain Glory, for example, a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game for the mobile phone has a server with Dev-Dialogue, a Welcome and General Chat, a discussion of it’s Alpha product for PC and Mac, a Looking for Group (LFG) channel, Regional Voice chat, and an Ask Me Anything (AMA) channel.
Nevermind that neither Slack’s nor Discord’s search is particularly good and that real-time data is not very well searchable. But that may be a good thing for chat and messaging in communities because it makes privacy on workspaces or servers easier to achieve. Reddit users, for example, put a lot of truck into being anonymous and, so, value privacy despite being on the “front page of the internet.”
Forums, on the other hand, are easy to navigate and search because they are intended to share and organize information and knowledge. The value of the online community lies, in part, in the fact that the content and information is publicly available and, as the quality and number of posts increase, so do the number of users in the community, and the loop continues. That’s one network effect for online communities.
So how to avoid, on one hand, the exodus from online communities to Discord and Slack, and, on the other hand, the tendency for large communities to fragment?
The solution is rather simple:
Combine the strong attraction of high-quality information and content (the bread and butter of the online community) with the interpersonal glue of in-app communication (chat and messaging).
The hypothesis this article proposes is that online communities create groups around shared interest and knowledge extremely well, but they do not necessarily have the intimate coherence that strong interpersonal relationships and good communication support.
Fragmentation, then, only accelerates because knowledge, content, and interests can specialize ad infinitum (See Lukacs).
Coherence, on the other hand, can be built by nurturing connections within the community. It can create a stronger glue, so to speak, so ultimately the single group might be able to scale larger before it fragments.