Build them small and they will stay

This post was inspired by a essay by Darius Kazemi titled “How to run a small social network for your friends” which I highly encourage you read before you read this.

I will be talking about my own experience in being part of and creating online communities and a lot of Darius’ thoughts on the matter closely reflect how I have grown to think about online communities and their dynamics.

In the beginning there was phpBB and vBulletin

My earliest experiences with online communities were web forums. I had this particular one that I would visit every day.

One of the things that I can remember is how the generic online community construct of a web forum in those days would segment itself into smaller micro-forums with their own little communities. There were people who would only post in the art section of the forums and others who would only post in the theory-crafting/fanfic section of the forum.

While all of these people technically posted on the same site, there was a certain unspoken understanding that the various sub-forums in the forum had their own subset of specific rules that applied to that community.

This forum was a lively place to be and I wanted to create something like that as well. I did so and was met with abject failure. At the time, I did not really understand why I was met with such failure. Was my forum not pretty enough? Was the software hard to use? Did I pick the wrong piece of software? My thinking at the time was highly technically oriented (for context, I was a teenager at the time). I did not realize at time that while I had created the technical structure of a web forum, I did not really have any of the social aspects of such a community figured out.

What made the aforementioned forum a lively place to be was not the forum software it used (vBulletin, yikes!) but the people on it and the various communities that had sprung up.

So the first lesson I learned – the technology alone cannot provide the whole of the online community experience, it is certainly a part of it but it is incomplete without the community aspects.

Inspired by InspIRCd

My next distinct foray into online communities were IRC channels and/or networks.

It all started with a YouTube channel about Linux, “This Week In Linux” or TWIL as it was abbreviated.  The person running the YouTube channel also had a IRC channel on Freenode where the viewers of the channel would gather to discuss various topics. I decided to fire up a IRC client and join the channel.

Over the subsequent months of being on this channel, I made new friends (yay!) and at that point I wanted to create a separate space for my friends and I. Hence the #asininetech IRC channel on Freenode was born. Over some more time we decided it would be best if we moved to a separate network of our own.

Remembering the first lesson I learned, I realized to a small degree that I had something special with what was going with the creation of EntropyNet. I say small degree because hindsight is 20/20 and I was still very much new when it comes to managing online communities. I had a small group of like-minded friends who wanted to a build a community of their own.

To reflect on Darius’ piece some more, the operative word here is small. The core group of people that were there at the start of EntropyNet was small enough that I knew everyone well enough where community management things like rules and boundaries were easily discussed and agreed upon. Over time, there was of course conflict, some of which was handled poorly, some of it was not but things were handled with the general well being of the community in mind rather than in the interest in growing the community.

EntropyNet is 8+ years old now and still going strong. People have come and gone over that time as is the nature of such things but EntropyNet still remains a small online community that I am happy to call my home.

Another lesson was learned here – do not be afraid to make decisions solely to maintain a good community and favour a good community over a large one. The “growth at all costs” mindset is a poison that is anathema to what makes for good online communities.

Let’s meet up at the ActivityPub

I won’t reiterate too much of my initial experience with joining the fediverse as I’ve already written about it in the past.

What I will talk about instead is what I have observed over my time as an instance owner and therefore community moderator. When I first started Ten Forward I had already internalized the various lessons I had learned from running EntropyNet and the specific ones. I intended to create a community that was small, well moderated and lively. On that front I think I have mostly succeeded.

As in many things in life, it was not all smooth sailing. I learned that sometimes to moderate properly, one needs the distance of time to clear one’s head and think about a contentious moderation issue. I made an errant moderation decision and a few hours later I realized that it was made in error and had to reverse it. The errant decision was made in a state of mind that I can only concisely describe as “righteous agitation”.

The lesson I would like to impart with this final section is – be decisive but not stubborn when it comes to making community moderation decisions. We all are fallible and it is important to understand that and be humble when it is pointed out that your decision was in error. Don’t be afraid to apologize, it does not make you weaker.

A Toast to all the good communities

I would like to end this post with a heartfelt thanks to all the people who make the fediverse a truly wonderful to be. The instance owners and moderators who do a often thankless job. All the lovely people that make up a lively part of all the various communities on the fediverse.

The fediverse is not without it’s issues of course but what I have observed is that we seem to be continuing to improve and understand the social aspects of the various online communities we call home.

This cat is content to come back to this warm fire every day.