The Speed of Community

The format of interactions in a community creates a community’s speed. Interactions are driven by the platforms communities exist on. Voice and messages are fast, events and peer-reviewed articles are slow. Speed is both a constraint and an incentive. It guides a community’s behavior, actions, and content.

Communities can exist at any speed but often have a natural one. Members of a Twitch channel send many short messages to each other while a stream is on. They aren’t writing thousand-word, well-researched messages. On the other hand, a community of scientists (like SSRN) may communicate through papers published monthly to yearly. Every scientist isn’t in a big group chat constantly updating every other scientist on their progress. These communities aren’t limited from using a different speed but settle on an accepted one.

Many communities exist at many speeds. Members of the same community can use blogs, newsletters, comments, social media, events, forums, video calls, and voice chat to communicate with each other. Each platform’s format incentivizes different behaviors. The community’s collective knowledge is created and understood differently at different speeds. Members move towards speeds that work for them, given enough other members are there.

Fast communities focus on a large number of small interactions, slow communities focus on a small number of large interactions. Communities can slow down or speed up by adding different formats into the mix. A Discord server can slow itself down by adding an announcements channel where moderators post only important information. An events-based community can speed itself up by using a platform like Hopin to host online events.

Communities aren’t always working at the right speeds. Members follow the format they are given, they don’t understand how the platform constrains their interactions. A community may be less informative or useful than it could be at a “better” speed.

Platforms for communities are continually improving and innovating, yet many communities are stuck on older platforms with worse speeds. Three barriers make switching speeds difficult: content, status, and quality.

Content is tied to one platform. If a community switches platforms, content must be migrated or it is lost. Migration can be difficult (impossible) for many reasons including the amount of content, noncompatible format changes, and inability to move private content. Many of the longest-running internet communities host their own content to avoid ever having to migrate platforms, but this also means they are unlikely to ever change speeds

It can also be difficult to transfer status between platforms; and therefore, between speeds. Status is usually tied to one platform in the form of attention or reputation. These are difficult to quantify but usually take the shape of followers, likes, subscribers, or a platform-specific metric. These metrics don’t usually line up between platforms. Even if they did, platforms are unlikely to allow transfer because status is a key part of what keeps users locked-in.

Finally, when changing speeds by moving platforms, there must be a balance between the platform’s quality and the members’ quality. Communities want high-quality members on whatever platform they are on. If these members exist on one platform and refuse to move to another (even if the other is “better” for the community), the move won’t be successful. The quality from the change in platform must make up for the attrition in member quality caused by the migration.

Even though these barriers exist, there are reasons for optimism that communities will move towards better speeds in the long run. Many new platforms are created for communities to exist on and barriers to migration are lowering.

Tools and platforms like Forem and Circle.so are being developed and improved to appeal to specific communities. Community platforms are extremely competitive, meaning innovation must happen rapidly to stand out. The increase in development and innovation creates options for communities and helps them find an ideal platform and speed.

Barriers to migration are also lowering. Members are realizing how important the ownership and transferability of their content is. Disconnecting content and platforms is a growing trend. Platform-agnostic content means platform-agnostic status. The username transcends the platform. Members are realizing platform lock-in is bad. Cross-promotion and platform diversification is becoming standard.

Users ultimately decide what speed works for them. The platforms you spend your time and energy on are the platforms you are promoting. If you believe a different speed is better for the community, move towards that speed. Be thoughtful about speeds you choose to engage with because it shapes the community’s behavior in the long run.

Let me know what you think on Twitter.

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