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Embracing the decline of a community

Developing an engaged online community is increasingly becoming a crucial business driver. When done well, it becomes a strategic moat that is difficult to replicate. However, over time, communities can also decline in value because of several reasons. What is the best way of dealing with this when it happens?

Embracing the decline of a community

Online communities are magical — but they don’t just appear out of nowhere. One can follow a set of steps to assemble a like-minded group of people who evoke a unique quality when gathered. However, only relying on “formulas” to achieve this goal is like using financial firepower to bring together an all-star team that must win a major title. Despite the magnitudes of talent that sign up to join the cause, the team might lose out to an underdog on a modest budget.

Why?

Well, there’s a big difference between active engagement and passive participation. At the inception of a community, you’re looking for people who will simply just turn up before anything has gained momentum. You can’t put a price on that type of interest.

You’re looking for a passionate group of individuals with a sense of ownership. These qualities are immediately discernible from day one.

At the outset of a community it is easier to epitomise the best human virtues in our dealings with each other. We are kind, accommodating, respectful, and helpful. The community is sacred, and its members feel inclined to do their utmost to protect it.

I think that this comes with every new situation in life. We treat new relationships and opportunities with a certain sanctity.

However, over time, our attitude towards an individual, hobby or job inevitably fades into a routine. Within a community, this might look like inactivity.

At a high level, we can see this as the rate at which people reply to each other’s messages. The higher the measure of activity, the more people there are responding to other people’s messages. Over time, these interactions within a community create historical artefacts that give it a semblance of structural and cultural continuity.

However, when a community sees less activity from its members, these foundations give way. From this point onwards, its decline is inevitable.

A couple of weeks ago, I used to think that this downturn was a negative period in the existence of a community. But now, I think of it as a process of consolidation. Looking back on weeks, months or years of offline and online interaction, members of a community may:

  • have said everything they needed to share with each other; or
  • could predict each other’s opinions in discussions, so there was no need to partake in any more in-depth discussions.

Hence, the historical artifacts that create increasing familiarity might also affect someone’s motivation to contribute to a community.

We can offset this by regularly introducing new people to a community, but this depends on if it is in everyone else’s interests. After all, “strangers” might disturb the intimate atmosphere and norms established between members.

Cohort-based courses are a perfect case study. They are private communities that restart at scheduled intervals with a new set of members. Sometimes these communities overlap, sometimes they don’t.

Regardless, planned obsolescence is an in-built community “feature”.

Beyond the educational component, there is often little motivation from the instructors to maintain engagement with a set community once it has outlived its initial purpose.

It’s implied that the affectionate feelings that arise throughout the programme between members will be enough to sustain it. The teaching then moves from a single authoritative source to something that takes place within the community. But as expected, over time, people look to move on to the next big thing, and this type of activity stagnates.

An online community will exist for as long as its participants see it as needed. It seems like each member has their own way of embracing this decline. This decline is a natural process that cannot be avoided. It is a necessary part of a community’s existence that allows people to move on to something else.