Thoughts about community growth

Someone on a discord server I frequent has left with the following message (paraphrased and shortened in some places):

I think this server has become something that a lot of us have dread. While growing and trying to convince everyone, we lost what made us unique in the process.

Last year, when I was new, I had so much information presented to me that would change my way of thinking. Since then, we’ve grown and expanded. And that can be great! But, as of the last few months, it has left this server to become extremely diluted. The doers have done and the dreamers are busy. People and ideas have come and gone and I think the idea of ‘solar punk’ has as well.

It’s become a space for everyone that isn’t us. The identity of our group has been pushed to the back burner so we can find a space for everyone.

I think one of two things has happened: either I have outgrown this, or this has stopped truly growing. That hurts to think about, it feels like this group can’t move forward as its numbers do.

I’ve reached out to a lot of y’all for friend requests to keep in contact, and I’ll stick around a couple more days if anyone else wants to add me.

When asked how to make the server more inclusive, she replied:

Its not that its exclusive, we just try to accept absolutely everyone (and we should) but thats at the expense of the intimacy of the type of community we advocate to

This resonated with me, because it mirrored my experiences with online communities as well. It usually goes like this:

You find a new community and you connect with the people there. Discussions move slow and some days barely anything is happening, but that's fine because you have a good connection to the people there - it feels like a bit of home.

Then the community gets a publicity boost and an influx of new members. Suddenly, the discussions speed up, you do not know half the faces in the chat. Worst case some people join that you cannot stand at all, but you cannot say anything against them: they haven't done anything wrong, it's just personal incompatibility.

The first people from the "old guard" leave, either because of real life issues or maybe because they feel the same as you. You withdraw from discussions, which leads to connecting less with the new members. Then one day you check back in and realize that this isn't the community anymore that you once joined. It's not your community anymore. It's the community of all these new people and you don't belong anymore.

This is not just restricted to online communities. If you have ever been part of communal spaces, you probably know that effect. In fact, the effect may be even more pronounced. People move away, leaving the group for good, and if you don't mesh with someone, avoiding them (in that space) is much harder.

Where do we go from here?

For me, this feeling above comes with a certain amount of guilt. Of course everyone has the same right to the community as you. Of course being accepting to new members is a good thing. Of course you yourself were a new member once. And yet it hurts to see that you have lost connection to a space you valued -- especially since this often comes in tandem with losing contact to people you liked.

From the point of view of those remaining in the communities, seeing long-term members leave runs counter to principles of inclusiveness. It can also lead to a migratory effect, with several members breaking off at once.

So what can we do to limit these effects?

Community Actions

Restrict signups

Signups can be limited in order to control the rate at which new members join. This allows new members to be properly integrated and prevents old members from feeling drowned out. There are several levels to this, from not allowing any new member to join to having fixed quotas to allowing any existing member to invite new members.

Examples of this are e.g chaos.social which doesn't have open signups but allows existing members to generate new invites; and the solarpunk discord where members can request moderators to give them time- and use-limited invite links.

On the downside, too restrictive a rate can lead to members leaving faster than they are replaced and the community dying out. Additionally, restrictive measures often don't mesh well with communities which value accessibility and inclusiveness.

Vet new users

Make sure that new members fit into the existing community culture. Again there are different degrees to this. One of the most radical approaches to this is to allow new members to join for a limited time and then require a quorum of existing users to agree to let them join on a permanent basis. No one likes telling people they have to leave, however.

A different approach is to allow new members to access a part of the community. If they behave well for some time, allow them to move up to full membership. This works well to filter out the worst of offenders and maintains a rough consensus of behavior in the community. However it does little to address the flood effect or smaller shifts in community tone.

Personal Actions

Maintain connections outside the community

This works well especially in online communities: If you have formed a close connection with some people in the community, follow each other on Twitter, Tumblr or similar platforms. This allows to stay in touch even if either person leaves the original group. In my experience, this doesn't really allow for the same close connections. But it can allow you to meet up again in new communities.

Form sub- and spin-off groups

It is possible to pick some people you get along with and form a new group - a new Discord server, a new hackerspace. I've never seen this work out with amicable relationships between the two groups though, probably because there needs to be a huge amount of pressure for several people to break off at once.

In Conclusion

I'm not entirely happy with either of these options. None of them seem feasible for sustainable community growth, i.e. so that the community does not die and old members do not feel alienated. In fact, the personal action are rather just mitigating damage after it happened.