The Evolution of Community Operating Systems

“It used to be that people were born as part of a community, and had to find their place as individuals. Now people are born as individuals, and have to find their community.” — Bill Bishop

Han Wang
Han Wang
Aug 12 · 9 min read

The communities that have existed for most of human history have been products of circumstance. If you were born before the 20th century, your social circle would largely be defined by the neighborhood in which you were raised — a community which would likely be sequestered based on factors such as religion, ethnicity, and status.

Recent generations, however, have witnessed what is perhaps the greatest shift in the way communities are formed. The internet has made it easier than ever before to find and meet likeminded people. It has given us the freedom to reshape our social words by our own choices. Today, anyone can join a forum or chatroom on any topic from Minecraft to electrical engineering and engage in conversation with people around the world.

Behind this shift is a long running legacy of different individuals and companies who have built products for social interaction. These community operating systems, as I call them, are the predecessors which have given us the foundation for our modern communities. This article will share the progression of these predecessors and how it enabled the digital communities that we are a part of today.

Community 1.0: The birthplace of digital communities

Some of you might recall this interface from the ’90s

AOL was positioned perfectly at the onset of the Internet Age. Personal computers were more affordable than ever, and millions of people around the world were connecting to the web for the first time. Before it came around, online chat was something no one knew they needed. But once people got a hold of it, many realized almost instantaneously that it was something they couldn’t live without. In less than half a decade, AOL grew to host over 19,000 chat rooms and 17 million active users. It was the first product of its kind to reach such a monumental scale.

AOL and its competitors, SixDegrees.com and Yahoo Messenger, are products that defined Community 1.0. These pioneers laid the foundation for an internet with user profiles, member-based communities and digital chatrooms, all of which are core features that are inherent to community platforms today.

Features in Community 1.0 include

  • User profiles
  • Member-based communities
  • Ability to create and join chatrooms based on any subject
  • Online activity status

Community 1.0 proved that people were comfortable tracking each other online, and, more importantly, transferring emotional intimacy through their computers. These early social networks also conditioned users to the convenient and instantaneous of a digital lifestyle.

The success of this basic model went on to inspire many entrepreneurs, and in only half a decade later these early acolytes would usher in a new era of the community operating system.

Community 2.0: The social networks

Social networking as we know it today made its debut in 2002 with the launch of Friendster. Unlike its predecessors from Community 1.0, Friendster had the philosophy that a rich online community can only exist when people have common bonds. Rather than allowing anyone to join chatrooms, the platform was focused on helping users build upon their existing networks. It introduced a degree of separation concept and recommended other users sharing the most direct mutual connections. Years later, LinkedIn and MySpace came along to offered many of the features that characterized Friendster, as well as the tenets of Community 1.0, to professionals and young adults respectively.

Facebook learned from the success and failures of the platforms before it to become the kingpin of social media in the modern world. In doing so, it introduced massive scale to the community blueprint, one that previously only extended to tens of millions of people. While that sounds fairly large in the first place, Facebook now enjoys a community of two billion active users.

Social networks introduced Community 2.0: the ability for anyone to form groups with unprecedented scale and speed. Pulling a friend with common interests into a group chat is just a few clicks away. An online group on just about any topic enables it to reach a large audience incredibly quickly. With Facebook in particular, it has never been easier to find likeminded people in the millions.

Features in Community 2.0 include

  • Expanding networks through common bonds
  • Ability to form groups at unprecedented scale and speed
  • Functionality to find millions of likeminded people

Community 3.0: A tale of two platforms

You might have noticed an interesting trend. Discussion groups (those dedicated to a particular topic rather than a friend group) are opting out of using Facebook or LinkedIn. Instead, they are choosing to host discussions on Slack and Discord. Just yesterday, I was invited to the Cornell Astronomical Society Slack workplace, to join with over 200 fellow enthusiasts of the night’s sky.

Social networking platforms are losing their monopoly as places for active discussions. While they still serve as great tools for connecting with friends and family, much of the world is looking elsewhere to communicate their ideas within a group of likeminded individuals.

Today, you can find all sorts of communities on Slack and Discord.

Today, Slack and Discord host millions of communities with total membership in the tens of millions. For many users, these platforms have become places to meet new friends and be themselves among people they trust. Communities centered around common interests are becoming easier to find, and easier to access, and people are more comfortable than ever before using them.

It’s fascinating how Slack and Discord, platforms originally built for workplace collaboration and gaming, have become de-facto homes for many communities. In trying to develop a product that is more conducive for communication, these two platforms have serviced a variety of needs that former community operating systems had missed. As it turns out, self-service group chats and features like channels, user roles, audio chats, and live reactions do a much better job of resembling real-world community behavior than what was previously being done by popular social networking platforms.

As a result, users sought out Slack and Discord for their communities instead of the other way around. Discord even admitted — “we didn’t predict how creative our users could be!” As of March 2020, Discord changed its motto from “Chat for Gamers” to “Chat for Communities and Friends.”

Features in Community 3.0 include

  • Conversation as the focus
  • Self-service group chats
  • Sub-groups within a larger community
  • User roles and permissions
  • Audio chats
  • Open-ended reactions

Community 4.0: Every medium, every need

Today’s landscape is more diverse and vibrant. New platforms have entered the market and given the community operating system a new philosophy: platforms should be customizable, targeted, and embeddable.

Customizable

Communities are diverse in nature. A discussion group made up of Minecraft gamers behaves and communicates much differently than a group of electrical engineers. While this may seem obvious, even communities that are very similar to each other may differ greatly in needs.

Corporate communities (used by companies for customer success) have a wide range of use cases. Some, if used for customer support, may demand Q&A features so that the platform can operate like a forum. Others, desiring customer retention, may want the ability to enable leaderboards and incentives that are built in to the process. Exclusive communities may want a paywall or invite-only access. On top of it all, many companies nowadays expect communities to be white-labeled and branded to their likings.

While at Tribe, I was responsible for building customizable themes and channels

The problem that many have encountered is that there is no static mold of the perfect community platform. Slack and Discord are often better than Facebook because they allow community leaders to manage members and empower members to form their own discussions. But both have their limitations. Innovators of Community 4.0 platforms agree that customization is a must have for today’s communities.

Targeted

As digital communities grow over time, they become increasingly wide-ranging. Today, rather than just being in a community about startups, many also are also involved in the communities for specific companies. Rather than being in a community that discusses gaming, communities are formed around individual gamers.

To this effect, communities can be categorized into genres with very different and distinct needs. Communities for businesses are largely used for customer engagement, retention, and self-service Q&A. Communities for content creator’s communities, on the other hand, offer exclusive content and communication channels directly to the creator.

Today, community products often require focus into a specific genre. Tribe, for example, specializes in growing communities for customer success. Circle builds communities for content creators. Stack Exchange specializes in tech and educational topics. While all of these platforms aim to facilitate discussion, the genres they target drive them to be significantly different from each other.

Embeddable

Many of the top players have made it easier than ever to set up a bespoke community, but there is a demand to take that a step further with a social+ component. As Siavash Mahmoudian, the CEO of Tribe puts it, “products are easy to replicate, communities are not.” Now, many companies are seeing the communities around their products as necessary to cultivate in order to put themselves at a competitive advantage.

Embedded communities are thriving all around us. GitHub, despite primarily offering version control for programmers, hosts one of the largest and most active forum of developers with tens of millions of users.

Issues page for an issue on the React repository

Games like Roblox have thriving discussion groups built-in to their software. Even these internal groups are built with notable features from former community operating systems. The company even confirmed that they plan on adding voice chat in the near future.

Roblox’s chatrooms are also available in their mobile apps

Embedded communities vary in how much they are interwoven with the primary product. PeerBoard, on one side of the spectrum, provides no-code and an extremely easy setup for admins to kickstart their communities on their own platforms. Memberstack, somewhere in the middle, offers tools to manage subscriptions and memberships. While Sendbird, on the other side, enables programers to build communication tools directly within their products.

Features in Community 4.0 include

  • Extreme customizability
  • Targeted services and functionality
  • Embedded components

Continuous evolution

It’s important to note that while this article paints a sequential picture of community products over time, the next iteration is not necessarily the “next-generation.” Today, there are vibrant communities across all operating systems: Facebook, Slack, and Tribe alike.

As we march onwards, we will continue to see innovations that will improve our digital interactions. Each improvement brings us closer towards achieving one of the loftiest goals of modernity — a place to feel complete belonging and acceptance. It is through communities that we will reach this goal.

Special thanks to Siavash Mahmoudian, Richard Beezley, Kevin Zhang, C.C. Gong, and Zeeza Cole for their contributions and feedback to this article.

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