Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Community Lifecycle: How to Prevent Evaporative Cooling from Eroding an Online Community

Evaporative Cooling, a termed coined by Eliezer Yudowskyis the natural loss of user base on a community, tare if you will. Time, crises and change will contribute to Evaporative Cooling. It can't be prevented, but it can be slowed and managed. In response to a question on Quora, I detailed a few steps to identifying, managing and modulating Evaporative Cooling on an online community.

How to Prevent Evaporative Cooling from Eroding an Online Community

1. Acknowledge Community Lifecycle

2. Passion At The Top to Ignite Passion at the Bottom

3. Reward Users With Rewards, Not Rank

4. Architectural Flexibility = Good, Managerial Flexibility  = Better 


1. Acknowledge Community Lifecycle

There is no way to "prevent" Evaporative Cooling (EC) in an online community completely. 

Your active user base will ebb and flow over time. Incremental growth may or may never lead to an explosion of popularity, but tare will exist with every new generation that joins the community, because people's priorities change and technology changes over time. What is a passionate interest now could become a vague interest later. Technology will change and no matter how innovative a community architecture is right now, at some point it will be old-school or obsolete. Not updating the technology means you'll lose people - updating the technology means you'll lose people. Keeping the group small and intimate means you'll lose people. Opening the community up means you'll lose people.

The key to keeping a community alive has a lot to do with keeping the currently engaged users engaged. In part, this can be achieved by...

2. Passion At The Top to Ignite Passion at the Bottom

I'm speaking here as owner and moderator of 4 concurrent communities, all based around an interest - not a hobby even, merely an interest. Of course people come and go in this interest space and in the more than ten years I've been running these communities, the thing that sustains me - and the communities - is that we all still enjoy the topic. My passion for it communicates to some degree in everything I do on these communities. My communities give warm welcomes to other fans, who find their enthusiasm rewarded.

In communities I haven't run, but have had the pleasure of moderating for, when the passion at the top cools, the community congeals almost instantly. Community builders that choose moderators so they can play with the architecture, cede control to people who don't have their vision or their passion. Moderation becomes a "thing to be done" not a "thing that keeps our community thriving." (1) (See point 3 for more on this.)

To slow one's own EC, one must acknowledge the limits of one's own passion - and energy. Like any community leader, I go through phases of burnout, or if there is simply less to talk about, I let the conversation ebb. Ebb tide is not an irreversible trend on a community, a blog or even in a conversation. When I've been blogging with frequency and intensity, I often take a few days off to let the audience - and myself - have a break. When I come back to it, my readership jumps. The same is true with a community. Short breaks in news/updates allow for a more relaxed approach when one returns - time for chat, personal opinion and other less quantifiable discussions that make up a community. Or a pattern of small news/chit-chat can be excited by big news or broader topics. 

The more passion a leader brings to the community, the more passion the community will generate.

3. Reward Users With Reward, not Rank (2)

I cannot stress enough how critical this point is.

It's time for a story. Two, in fact. In both cases, I was a Admin-level member after rising through the ranks by just being a good contributor and relatively unflappable.

The story is very similar in both cases. In the first case, there was a member of the group who offered to take charge of one of the committees. She was a horrible leader; selfish, mean and lazy. Everything she touched withered and died. She was so bad, that even the people above her left because she was loud and intractable and it just wasn't worth the energy. When the person above her left, invariably she would be given that position. No one at the executive level would be the bad guy and tell her to get lost (in part because this was a volunteer community, in part because of who was chosen to lead.) She rose through the ranks, more quickly as time went on, because the higher she got, the more people had to work with her and more would leave.

Ultimately, in the first case, the person took over the community and - no surprise at all - within a year the community was dead.

In the second case, a top user was rewarded with rank, because she was online so often. The community owners relied on this person for feedback but there were no checks and balances to her intel or actions. Her misinformation was the only information the owners received and like idiots, they relied on that. The problem was that the reason she was online so often was that she was conducting a cyber-affair with another user (who was a major contributor of money, which translated to rank on the community.) The two of them formed a block that abused, harassed and destroyed other users they felt were a threat.

In the first case, rather than dealing with the problem, that person was given power. In the second, the community owners used hours logged as a metric for valuable contributor. In both cases, the community owners set the community up for massive EC as the community members were disengaged and occasionally, active persecuted, by people who unsuited to hold any power at all.

In both cases, I pointed out the fallacies behind the appointment, but The Powers That Be chose to pretend nothing was wrong. I did not stick around long.

How can this problem be rectified? Understand that the #1 value good contributors are making is not their presence, not the hours they log, not their experience. Good contributors contribute good content. Rewarding them by giving them management tasks which will suck away their energy and desire to contribute is the perfect recipe for EC. It's the Peter Principle, online community style.

When I created a reward program for one of my communities, I focused on rewards that reinforced the "team" aspect of user support. Rather than adding on burdensome responsibility, they are rewarded for what they already do, the way they already do it. Time is not an issue. Amount of money spent is not really a major factor. Power is taken out of the equation entirely. The point of a reward is to make someone feel rewarded. (3)

By using Rank as a Reward, you disincentivize your top users to use. Their time on the site becomes unpaid work, their voice becomes the Voice of Authority, so it's harder for them to kick back and have fun. Many sites give rank without power or tools to maintaiin order- a veritable death spiral for online community moderation. Additionally, training for Moderators is poor or non-existent on many communities. The end result is that your best users are too frustrated and tired to contribute. 

There is no faster was to kill a community than by using Rank as a Reward for contribution. It is the major EC generator.

4. Architectural Flexibility = Good, Managerial Flexibility  = Better

In the article quoted, the focus is more on the technology than the people. It is absolutely a benefit to be able to adapt to the times. Adding social sharing and alternate means of communication, providing spaces for digression and dissension (warrens) and open fora for conversation are a fantastic way to slow down EC.

Even better is management that acknowledges mission/scope drift and is as transparent as possible (4) when changes are made or have to happen. "We're adding a new feature because we want to try it out" is something that community builders can (and should) say. Users may or may not try the new feature out - this, and what they have to say about it when they do use it, is valuable feedback. When a new control has to be rolled out, the best way to explain that is to say just that. "We had to do this because...." Engaged users will understand. Don't be coy, "Hey we made new changes that will take away something you liked because we did." Are there so many cases of something that a new rule was warranted? Say that and say it plainly.

Users believe they ought to have some say in a community by virtue of their time and engagement. Management has to make decisions based on the greater good and the bottom line. But surely there's a way to bring these two things together? Harness the insight of new users, casual users and heavy users in regards to community change  - and publish these findings so people can feel as if they were represented, heard and understood. In the volatile start-up world more=better, so it's understandable that changes will be rapid and constant. Can you think of any community anywhere, online or off, that likes change? People get used to what they get used to and they adapt very quickly, but they do not realize this. Every change, no matter how ultimately important, will increase EC...unless you include the community in that change.

It's easy for engineers to tinker with architecture, it's far more important for community managers to tinker with community engagement.

5. Conclusion.

While Evaporative Cooling is a fact of online community life and cannot be prevented or avoided, it can be slowed and managed. Understanding which aspects of community life are the most vulnerable to EC, establishing a rhythm to harness the ebb and flow of community life, maintaining engagement, rewarding contribution, providing tools for moderation and flexibility in management can decrease EC over the long-term. 

More reading:

1. Perils and Pitfalls of Online Community Management by Erica Friedman on 'Splaining: The Bloarg

2.Moderation: Policing, Curation and Shoveling Behind Elephants by Erica Friedman on 'Splaining: The Bloarg

3. When a Reward Program Feels Like a Slap

4The Myth of Transparency in a Community by Erica Friedman on 'Splaining: The Bloarg

Erica Friedman has been managing online communities since the olden days of BBS. She was a moderator on Usenet, and has owned, adminned or moderated about 2 dozen communities online. She currently own and runs 4 communities.
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