You may have noticed, if you’ve participated in online communities or forums*, that the old guard always thinks the forum used to be better, and simultaneously the newer members often think that it’s pretty great as it is now. I propose that this is a necessary consequence of having a community.
You want to start a forum or blog or whatever to talk about something that’s interesting to you and doesn’t have a lot of interesting discussion elsewhere that you can find. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, the topic you’re really interested in is Shakespeare’s poetry (and, again for the sake of argument, let’s pretend there aren’t a thousand other places that people like to discuss this). So you start up a blog and you post really interesting thoughts about the Sonnets, and you engage with the academic criticism, and so on. People start noticing that you’re insightful and knowledgeable, and you start getting regular readers commenting on your posts, saying things like, “hey, that was really interesting – it reminded me of this paper I read recently, what do you think?” and in general a conversation is started and a community begins to form.
Then one day, one of your community members links to a blog post they found interesting about Edmund Spenser. Spenser is also an important part of the canon of 16th century English poetry, so you let it slide, and people start talking about Spenser. They bring up interesting points and are friendly with each other, so all is well.
Unfortunately, these people were too interesting, and now you have a regular “Spenser thread” commented on each of your new posts where people congregate to discuss The Faerie Queene or whatever. This isn’t the end of the world — most of the people in your community are still mostly discussing Shakespeare, after all, and if they’re getting to know each others’ tastes a bit and finding more common interests to discuss, isn’t that a good thing?
Before you know it, people who are only interested in Spenser are popping by your comment threads, and they’ve only ever read Hamlet and none of the sonnets! You’re a little miffed by this, but your Shakespeare-focused fans who also like Spenser think they’re adding a lot to the conversations, so you let it slide yet again.
And so on. You get someone talking about John Donne, and you get threads derailed by conversations on T.S. Eliot’s criticism of Hamlet, and then someone starts talking about how great Eliot’s poetry was, and suddenly your community isn’t about Shakespeare anymore! It’s a bunch of relatively like-minded people just talking about poetry in general.
And There We Have It
Now the people who joined at the beginning, who are truly fanatical about Shakespeare, start bemoaning that there’s hardly any good discussion of Henry IV anymore, and who gives a shit about Rembrandt or whatever has come up the last two weeks, and why is this community such a shithole these days?
And the answer is: it’s become a community, and communities are tied together by friendship and conversation and humour and so on, not just shared devotion to a particular topic. The small number of people who really just want to discuss Shakespeare constantly are massively outnumbered by the large number of people who do genuinely love Shakespeare but want to talk about lots of other stuff, too, with other people who “get” them.
So? What’s wrong with communities?
Nothing! But I think this pattern is approximately inevitable unless you take a very strict stance from day one in terms of what people can discuss in your forum, and then you end up with a very small group of people who don’t feel especially connected to one another. I think your choices are basically either to have a small, focused group that is extremely insular and not socially connected, or to have a sprawling, loosely-connected group of people that just starts to feel like any regular community over time.
* I imagine this occurs in meatspace communities, too, but I’m going to stick to online ones for this post.