There ain’t no party like an Internet party: How to build an online community and why it’s like a cocktail party.
This is a short essay about building communities on the Internet and why they’re like a cocktail party.
I’m Brian Lynch. I practice law, and I build Internet communities. These are my tips for building a popular — and welcoming — online community.
When I started moderating Reddit’s IAmA forum several years ago it had less than 2 million subscribers. In the years since, it’s grown to over 17 million subscribers and featured interviews with names you may have heard — like Barack Obama, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk. Apart from Reddit, I also worked for a professional social media management agency, and, most recently, I have begun administrating LawyerSmack, a freewheeling community for attorneys across the globe founded by Keith Lee. From these projects — some successful, others less so — I’ve compiled a short list of social media principles to help build communities. Here they are:
1) Talk to your SCODUs.
Large communities start with a small core of dedicated users (let’s call them SCODUs). The SCODUs generate content, and the content attracts more users. When you’re picking a platform, keep in mind how you want to engage these users. While Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are popular choices when considering where to settle your digital colony, they can feel impersonal and limiting to the SCODUs you’ll rely on to get your settlement off the ground. You should consider using Discord or Slack, both wildly popular choices that tie nicely into other social media, making them an ideal choice of forum to congregate in. Many of the more successful forums on Reddit, for example, have used Discord or Slack to engage their SCODUs and expand their community.
Once a community is off the ground, engaging the SCODUs gets harder, but it’s no less important. You now have to balance the needs of a community at large with a healthy respect for the SCODUs that give it continued life. And if the SCODUs leave, it can be harder to notice than it would have been in the early days, when their departure would have spelled certain and imminent doom. Now, the community engine will keep turning under its own momentum for quite a while, but growth may stagnate and eventually falter as the SCODUs migrate to new platforms — and other users follow them.
2) Respect the community, but do not fear it.
Online communities are like the dragons in Game of Thrones. Everybody wants one, and everybody is not-so-secretly terrified of them. Nearly everyone with a public-facing business, from the editor in chief of a nationally circulated newspaper to the mom-and-pop bakery owner, has experienced the anxiety that comes from watching some poor bastard’s social media plan backfire horribly. We watched the train crash when Electronic Arts tried to engage its customers on Reddit, only to receive headline-grabbing backlash over its new in-game functionality. The controversy drew lawmaker interest banning the new in-game functionality — saying it was tantamount to unregulated gambling — and the company’s share price dropped more than 15% in the month or so following.
Frequently, though, these high-profile and highly negative experiences inspire the budding social media manager to overcorrect and impose growth-stymying stricture on the new community. Instead of focusing on building a subjectively fun experience to draw in the SCODUs, he’ll reduce “fun” to a color-by-numbers approach, focusing narrowly on engagement numbers and other readily quantifiable metrics. This is a recipe for mediocrity, at best.
3) Host your own party, and don’t be boring.
When you host a party, do you show up to your neighbor’s party and indiscriminately invite everyone there and call it a day? Of course not. They’re already at a house with plenty of food, alcohol, and friends, and the music is bumping. Why should any of them go to your empty house?
The cocktail party is a great analogy for why you should build your own community. Other online communities exist because they drew in SCODUs early in the community life cycle. Whether it was the platform’s awesome features that got people to show up, or the SCODUs just arbitrarily chose a place to go, you won’t be able to persuade people to leave their party to come to your empty house unless you offer something more. That’s hard to do, but it beats throwing a lame party that starts at 7 and ends at 7:30.
You, your product, your brand, and your prized widget may draw guests to the party, but you can strengthen your bond with them by finding something more. Bonding with your SCODUs early, the same way you might with a small group of close friends, will draw them to the party early. Others will follow. To get to know those SCODUs, speak to them like people — because they are. Share the human experience. And listen to them.
Sharing more about yourself encourages others to share about themselves. They’ll invite more people and share what they’re talking about if they’re having a good time. This is where your party will start to get large.
4) Cocktail party rules apply, to you, your SCODUs, and their friends.
As the host, you need to create an environment where people feel free to be themselves. Trying to host a “super serious forum strictly for company business” will scare people off. How odd would it be to interrupt guests at your party to remind them they should talk about you and the topics you want to talk about? Not only is that rude, it’s also weird. Whether cocktail party or fledgling online community, the same social mores apply.
Keep in mind, the same cocktail party rules also apply to the new guests who show up. Anonymity and the absence of face-to-face communication can be a libation to people that helps them open up and share their experiences. Sometimes people over-indulge, and the resulting behavior you can show the door. You don’t need an elaborate rule scheme to do it. If someone shows up at a party in real life, stands on a table, and starts screaming about something patently offensive, you can kick them out. You don’t need to draft and enforce a complex web of written rules to bounce the assholes harassing the users you want to keep.
If your community is full of assholes, it’s your fault because you gave them a place to set up shop. If you establish a positive culture early on it’s easier to foster that same culture into the future. But if you keep people around for the sake of having active users — even if those users are assholes — you will fail when they drive everyone else away. Removing one unruly drunk early is easier than removing 3,000 unruly drunks who showed up because you tolerated the first one. You want something fun and freewheeling — not Internet Charlottesville with tiki torches and white hoods or red hats.
5) Pay attention to the lawyers.
LawyerSmack exemplifies how these guiding principles help build a new community. LawyerSmack started as a Slack channel, founded by Keith Lee, that catered to a small, private group of attorneys. Keith bleeds extroversion, one of the most genuine people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. He’s also somewhat of a rock star for lawyers on Twitter. His SCODUs were eccentric, Internet-savvy attorneys looking for an online community to call their own. When users got comfortable, they shared knowledge, client referrals, resources, and general Internet entertainment. Participants shared LawyerSmack on other social media and invited friends. As the community grew, LawyerSmack switched to a paid model to provide more features to its enthusiastic participants. In other words, Keith’s cocktail party is so fun, people will pay a cover.
Those are my five tips for building an online community. Now grab a French 75 (no other drink will do), pick an online place to settle, and invite people to your community. Talk to them, learn about them, and share the human experience. It isn’t all about numbers, engagement metrics, and growth on paper. Those will follow if you foster a great place to hang out.
P.S. Outside my time as a community-building hobbyist, I practice law at Lynch LLP with my brothers, Sean and Connor. We help businesses, artists, inventors, and creatives secure their Intellectual Property including patents, trademarks, copyright and business development. Check us out at www.lynchllp.com.