A community exists that is ideal for you. How do you discover it?
Many of us are trapped in communities not ideal for us. We don’t get the most out of our time there but don’t know the other options. We are jealous of people who find their ideal spots. They have created connections, grown their knowledge, and improved how their time is spent. You can be like them through discovery.
Discovery is difficult because communities are competing with everyone for your attention. They have neither the marketing budgets of businesses nor the status and monetary incentives of individuals. Communities promote themselves less than either and are worse at doing it. This makes it difficult to break through the noise and reach the people they should be reaching.
Because communities have difficulty promoting themselves, people are often stuck at a local optimum: they spend time in communities they enjoy that they have discovered. We want people to be at a global optimum: spending time in the best of all possible communities.
It is easier to improve someone’s ability to discover communities than it is a community’s ability to be discovered. The signs of communities are in front of you each day, but you might not realize them. Gaining an awareness of where you see communities helps you find better ones.
The simplest way to find communities is to search for them. Find an interesting topic or idea, Google it, look for community sites (Google hack: use site:reddit.com, site:stackoverflow.com, site:discord.com, etc), read what interests you, and repeat. This is the “rabbit hole” approach. Let the internet lead you to interesting places, and often there are communities built around them.
Think about communities as an end goal instead of only a source of knowledge. As the saying goes, “discover a community and you have knowledge for a day, join a community and you have knowledge for a lifetime.”
When searching without communities in mind, you often pass by them without realizing it. You find information, get linked elsewhere, and never return. To counter this, make a habit of bookmarking communities, even if you won’t be an active member. This creates a list to explore when you have the time and energy to do so. It also allows you to tap into domain-specific collective knowledge when necessary. For example, searching a developer forum about a problem often leads to better results than Google does.
Too few people leave communities without engaging with them. Many you’ve passed through could be good for you, but you can’t know without engaging. Try engaging with the next one you find in your search. Ask a thoughtful question or contribute to the discussion with something relevant, you may find the community is better than expected. You can’t understand if a community is a good fit for you until you engage with it.
Communities are interactions between members. By definition, they do not involve non-members. They do not have “distribution.” Yet intentionally or not, these interactions leak into the broader world. These leaks are artifacts of those communities.
Artifacts are parts of a community seen by non-members. They attract people to communities by providing a preview and enticing them to explore more. They also help members share a community in a way that is legible to the outside world.
Artifacts can come in many forms. Events are a popular example. They often allow both members and non-members. They have attendees or speakers who attract attention. Events are self-contained, you don’t need the larger context of the community (you probably need some informational context though). It gives a preview of the culture of the community (“we talk about things like these”) without forcing you into the deep end.
Two internet-specific examples: Compound Writing’s attributions and Interintellect’s meeting screenshots. Both bring attention to the community while giving a preview of why that community exists.
Compound exists to help writers improve their writing, and their artifact shows this. It shows a list of names at the end of a piece of writing (which you presumably read). It gives a preview of the community by showing its function: writers giving feedback on the writing. If you are also a writer, looking to improve your writing, you may want to learn more.
Interintellect is a community that hosts live, informal, unrecorded, evening-length conversations anyone can join (Salons). The Interintellect artifact shows people having a wide-ranging conversation focused on an interesting topic (Antigone). If you find group conversations on interesting topics interesting, you may explore more.
Both of these artifacts provide ways for members to share the community with the wider world. You can’t capture an entire experience in a single post. This makes it difficult for members to share a community because the content for that community is not made to be shared. Providing a framework encourages members to share more, which they already want to do (signaling).
Artifacts exist where information is shared. Social media, articles, messages, and communities can all be sources. Curating your sources leads to more relevant artifacts. Although the sources are familiar, the forms may not be. Artifacts can look different on the same platform or medium. For you to notice it, an artifact has to be created, make it out a community, then win the battle for your attention. When this does happen, explore it more because it is a rare situation.
Word of Mouth
The people you spend time with are likely similar to you and probably have similar interests. People are the most important part of a community, so recommendations from them create a strong discovery mechanism.
Word of mouth is challenging because it requires someone to know both you and a community well enough to connect the two. A person probably only belongs to one or two communities. The chances you are a good fit for one of them are low.
Waiting for communities to arise through word of mouth might be too slow. You have to want to discover communities through word of mouth. You can optimize word of mouth by asking for communities people are a part of, or listening for mentions of the communities people talk about. I’ve found “where do you get information about X?” is a great question that often leads to community discovery.
Communities can encourage members to add their friends who they think are relevant. Members can make recommendations by talking about what they are doing in a community. You can also talk about and recommend communities you are a part of more. All this improves discoverability, and help people find their ideal spots.
The key to discovering communities is knowing what to look for. Understanding what communities look like in search, as artifacts, and through word of mouth creates opportunities for discovery.
It doesn’t mean you’ll discover them all. Some communities are tough to find. Private ones rarely get mentioned. They are in a “dark forest” where they don’t create artifacts, aren’t listed anywhere, and are rarely talked about. When you do hear about a private community that interests you, capitalize on that opportunity to explore it further.
There are lots of communities out there. Don’t fear missing out on not being a part of a specific one. Similar ones exist that could be better suited for you. I’ve found many in similar niches that are dramatically different in quality, and often better match my goals. If a smaller community gets you to engage more, it is likely better for you.
Keep searching. Without knowing what is out there, you’ll never discover the community ideal for you.
Thanks to Mindy Zhang, Ali Q, and Lyle McKeany from Compound Writing for the feedback.
Let me know what you think on Twitter.