Scaling Facebook Groups

From 0 to Sam Altman and Beyond in 9 Months

It’s been a little over 9 months since my baby was conceived, which is pretty impressive considering I don’t have a womb or any female reproductive anatomy. That’s because I’m talking about a virtual birth, one which I’ve had the luck, privilege, and sometimes duty, to have brought into this world.

It’s been one hell of a ride—in the course of a school year, our group has grown to include high schoolers from all 50 states and more than a dozen countries, organizers from nearly every major U.S. college hackathon, newly-minted founders of high school hackathons and hacker meetups, and yes, even the president of Y Combinator.

In sharing our story with the wider hacker community, I hope that others — especially other high-schoolers—will be inspired to learn from our mistakes, and maybe even start their own communities.

Trimester 0: Conception

As I’ve written about previously, HS Hackers was started the day before PennApps 2013f, a 48-hour, 1,000+ student college hackathon, held twice a year at Penn. Now a massive, multi-million dollar industry, the college hackathon scene kicked into high-gear with PennApps, which in turn kicked off the first season of Major League Hacking. This was an incredible time to start a Facebook community—hackathons exploded in rhythm with my Facebook group.

But I didn’t know any of that at the time. In fact, I didn’t know anyone, which is why I created a Facebook group, then aptly named PennApps HS Hackers, for the dozen or so high school students who were also attending PennApps.

We introduced ourselves, sharing our interests, plans, and passions both in the Facebook group and at small meetup during the hackathon. It was incredible to connect with kids my age (and even younger — I was a senior at the time) who were as passionate about technology and hacker culture as I was. It felt great. I was starting to belong. We stayed in touch during and shortly after the hackathon, but for the next few months, the group was mostly dormant.

Trimester I: Signs of Life

Almost exactly two months after PennApps, I found myself at another hackathon. PilotPhilly was also held at Penn, but unlike PennApps, only high schoolers were allowed to compete. Hundreds did, from all over the tri-state area. It was a tremendously fun event. I reconnected with some high schoolers I had met at PennApps, made new friends, and built an awesome hack with a sophomore I met on Twitter the day before—and won first place.

My hackathon partner, Victor, and I, respectively.

After my post-hackathon crash, I was on a hackathon high. I wanted to connect the high schoolers I had met at PilotPhilly with those I had met at PennApps. I added my hackathon partner to the Facebook group, and soon everyone was adding their fellow high school hacker friends, and they added theirs. We changed the group name to HS Hackers, and so began our exponential growth.

Jared has been my sole co-admin since November.

Trimester II: Rapid Growth

I once heard someone explain that the early days of a soon-to-be-successful startup feel like walking into an “up-elevator”. While HS Hackers is not a startup, I think the simile applies. This is not to say it was a perfectly smooth ascent. Sometimes we had to make stops, sometimes we got knocked down a floor or two, and sometimes the elevator just completely broke down. But on the whole, the early days were, for lack of a more precise adjective, magical.

It felt like the best parts of Hacker News combined with the camaraderie of an after school club. We had debates about tools and languages, about school and technology news, and of course, about hackathons. My god, was there talk about hackathons.

In the days leading up to and during one of the dozens of Spring hackathons, the group became a home base for team forming, updates, meet-ups, and posting pictures of half-awake hackers and half-finished hacks. After every hackathon, our membership grew—and we soon became the definitive bulletin board for high school-friendly hackathons. Dozens of MLH hackathon organizers joined to solicit feedback from high schoolers and to advertise their upcoming events.

We developed our own culture. We had our own memes, from self-satirizing Twitter accounts to flame wars, to quirky obsessions—including diehard C and Lisp fans, collective commiseration about AP Computer Science, weekly discussion of Silicon Valley, and begging for Namecheap coupons.

We eventually created an entire sub-group devoted to bartering for domain and hosting coupons.

There were new threads in the group every day, sometimes with a hundred or more comments. One of the original 12 members of the group, and now a good friend of mine, described how many of us felt:

I’m not sure when exactly it happened, but HS Hackers evolved to seemingy transcend its technical designation as “Facebook group” — it became a real community.

This coming from a founder of MHacks, and more importantly, a member of over 300 Facebook groups.

How exactly we got here is still something of an unresolved case study. I do know that the group became viral, spreading through hackathons, computer clubs, private and public high schools, and even other Facebook groups.

Our diversity and heterogeneity became a tremendous source of strength and pride for most of us, but also proved continually challenging, both personally and collectively. One high-profile instance of this was conflict with another (substantially older but ostensibly similar) Facebook group: TeenDev. To make a long story short, there was a tremendous cross-pollenation of memberhip between the two groups. Some people on both sides called for a “merger”, others objected on the grounds of elitsm or otherwise irreconcilable differences.

In what would become a signature tactic of mine in navigating majorly contentious political debacles, I wrote a Medium post attempting to make sense of the issue, which proved quite successful.

In the end, we learned to coexist happily, and we’ve somehow figured out which content belongs in which group.

Also around this time, PennApps Spring 2014 took place—as did our largest meet-up to date:

I think this picture speaks for itself, but just for a sense of scale, picutred is only only 2.3% of our current membership—nearly 1700 students and mentors.

Trimester III: Growing Pains

Things didn’t always go as smoothly as that picture might suggest. The “TeenDev debacle” proved to be more of a rule than an exception—scaling is hard, and scaling moderation is harder. There were numerous other high-profile incidents which threatened the almost impossibly fragile illusion of stability that kept our group humming along.

“What’s on-topic?”
“Who belongs in the group?”
“Where are the rules, anyway?”
“You should stop permitting those kinds of posts.”
“Let’s ditch Facebook and use Discourse!”
“Let’s fork this group and focus on ____!”
and, most painfully,
“Man, what happened to the old HS Hackers?”

I don’t know.

If I ever wanted to design a “politics simulator”, I would probably start by reverse-engineering my experience running HS Hackers. Occasionally, I’d get private messages from someone saying “Hey, you should really do X”, and a few minutes later, someone else saying, “I’m really glad you didn’t do X”.

Some days, maybe even most days, it felt like I had no idea what I was doing, or worse, that I was screwing up. Who was I to orchestrate a community of my peers? I didn’t have all the answers, and I have plenty of regrets about my actions and inactions. One of the ways I tried to frame my thinking about these conflicts was in terms of Tuckman’s stages of group development.

If you’re anything like me, you probably just glanced over that chart and filed it under “models which are too perfect for reality”. We may be right, but in my experience, this model has proved not only descriptive, but also prescriptive.

In terms of Facebook groups, I take away three major things from Tuckman’s stages:

  1. Conflicts (“flamewars”) are essential for success.
  2. If your group is meant to survive, it will cope. Let it.
  3. Whenever your group’s membership perceptibly changes, you have a whole new group (which will need to re-flame & re-cope).

Those steps aren’t very comforting. As a community leader, you feel powerless—“hands off” is usually easier said than done. That said, there are a few things you can try to smooth over the process.

Remind everyone how awesome they are:

Suggest guidelines and request feedback:

From “Welcome to HS Hackers

When all else fails, perform damage control:

To Infinity and Beyond

I don’t know what the future holds for HS Hackers, but I do know one thing: I shouldn’t be the one to figure it out. If my time in high school taught me anything, it was that George Washington’s greatest achivement as the first President of the United States was not winning the war, but stepping down after four years. In voluntarily resigning from office, he proved to the American people—and the world—that at the heart of democracy is a peaceful transition of power.

I’m certainly no George Washington, nor is being the administrator of a Facebook group a particularly powerful office, but I do firmly believe that HS Hackers should be run by HS Hackers for HS Hackers—once you graduate, it’s time to move aside and make way for the next generation.

To that end, I am stepping down as admin of HS Hackers, effective immediately. Zach Latta, one of the aforementioned original 12 members of the group, and a rising junior, has graciously agreed to moderate the group with Jared Zoneraich, my long-time co-admin.

As Randy Pausch once famously said, the best thing to do with something you love is to “find somebody better than you to hand it to”. I could not be more optimistic about the future of HS Hackers under Zach and Jared’s leadership.

Addendum: Fun with numbers

(As of July 1st, 2014)

  • There have been a total number of 58,870 “likes” in the group, including 18,351 only for threads.
  • Including thread bodies and comments, over 390,966 words have been typed in the group. That’s more than 6 novels’ worth! (source)

Thread count vs. membership count: