David Reibstein‘s theory holds true online as well. Let’s look at an example of how this works with online communities, knowledge – based communities in particular. Let’s say we build an online community around a specific topic. When the site starts up, we attract the early adopters – some of them thought leaders in their fields. The posts, articles, and debates are generally led by a handful of these thinkers, and they attract a following. The newbies, as they engage with the community start off by learning, asking questions, sometimes just lurking. The quality of these early debates is typically high and participation intense and invigorating.
So what happens when the community suddenly experiences growth – massive numbers of the hoi-pollloi descend on the site and suddenly the quality of discussions takes on a Twitter-like feel – stupid and stupider. The old school rebels, first through silence, and second by disengaging. This takeover by the wisdom of the masses can be avoided, through ruthless editorial direction and skilled moderators. And every once in while, the new participants challenge assumptions that deserve to be challenged, and are given their space in the sun.
So how do we manage this growth and stay true to the community’s intent?
Three options come to my mind:
1) Manage membership – simply keep the community at growing in a measured way – firing the “bottom” 10% each year, and bringing in a fresh crop of participants at 20%… This is the surest way to sustainable growth.
2) Create a merit-based aristocacy – with tiered membership based on the value of the participant’s contributions.
3) Create a feeder community which is built for the masses and an elite community for the thought leaders and their followers. Moderate the interaction between these groups with the possibility of upward migration based on peer-based invitations.
You’ll notice I am not advocating open communities where everyone has an equal voice. That’s because I’m not talking about social communities, but communities of practice where respect is reserved for the competent.