Saints, Knaves, and Moralists of Internet Communities

Do you ever wonder how internet communities persist despite trolls, grifters, bullies, and other undesirable characters?

How do members persevere and remain positive despite these bad actors? Most communities don’t have employees to manage or create content. Most people are too busy or distracted to contribute, yet many communities still function well. Why doesn’t everyone’s self-interest break them?

In his book War and Peace and War, Peter Turchin explains group coordination. People aren’t driven purely by self-interest. He argues there are three categories of people: knaves, saints, and moralists.

The self-interested, rational agents which Turchin deems “knaves” never contribute to the common good and choose to free ride unless forced to do so by punishment. Examples include trolls, grifters, people who don’t add to discussions, and others who “take” from the community but never “give.” They beg you to sign up for their app, buy their product, or read their article without contribution to the community.

Second, there are “saints” who contribute to the common good, even when it is obvious to everybody that cooperation has failed (although most tend to do it less). These are people who contribute actively, moderate, write guides, manage, organize events, and more. They are far beyond self-interested. They might contribute because they enjoy the subject, love the people, crave praise, connect with the mission, or many other reasons.

Finally, there are “moralists.” This group constitutes the largest number of people. They prefer to contribute so everyone is better off, but in the absence of a mechanism to punish knaves, become disgusted by opportunistic behavior and withdraw their cooperation. When punishment is available, such as suspensions, banishment, fines, and scolding, moralists use it on the knaves (which forces knaves to contribute). They range in activity from moderation and active posting to lurking and mild trolling.

The key to group coordination is the dynamic between them all. When saints and moralists do something, it puts pressure on knaves to do the same. When you are contributing actively and supporting the removal of off-topic conversation, you help set the example of what you want the community to be. In other words, saints and moralists hold up social norms. Applying this framework to internet communities reveals some interesting insights.

Balance

The goal of any community is survival. It wants to continue to be active, provide value, and facilitate interactions for its members.

Too many knaves in a community can cause its collapse. Knaves can overwhelm saints and cause them to leave. Without punishment, moralists also stop contributing and the community will rapidly decline. If there is a punishment option, moralists will punish the knaves to save the saints.

“Remember that a moralist not only behaves according to the norms, but also detects and punishes cheaters—people who break such social rules. A “second-order” moralist also keeps track of those who shirk by not punishing cheaters, and punishes them.”

There are never too many saints. A community full of saints would be great, but unsustainable. As Turchin writes “a group with more saints wins out in between group competition but saints lose within group competition.” This is because the benefits from prosocial actions are spread evenly among the group, including knaves, but the costs are borne entirely by the saints. A group of saints rapidly fills with non-saints.

You often see this in public communities with good distribution, such as Reddit. A subreddit starts with people genuinely interested in the topic. A large proportion of members are posting high-quality content. That content attracts people less interested in the topic, but value attention. They post lower-quality content, troll, and argue with existing members. If the knaves aren’t punished for this behavior, saints will leave, making the community worse.

Saints can become burnt out from carrying the group, especially when other people hear about how good the group is. Communities change faster than civilizations because people can join and leave rapidly. Behaviors that work for saints in one day can leave them overwhelmed on the next. The saints’ natural tendency is to care about the group but they can become overwhelmed with knaves at the wrong time.

When you see knave behavior on the internet, you become accustomed to knave behavior. It moves you towards thinking knave behavior is normal behavior, especially when it goes unpunished. When you see someone make off-topic posts or troll in the comments, you are more likely to do it yourself. It might encourage you to be a bit more knave-like, and this isn’t a good thing. So is there a good way to prevent knaves and attract more saints?

Fewer Knaves and More Saints

Because internet communities are smaller than civilizations, they have more options for maintaining the fragile balance of saints, knaves, and moralists. They do not require demographic or cultural change when they can adjust incentives, enforce different rules, or change their structure.

A community does not need to be free of knaves to work. They do not need a large number of saints either. What they do need is the capacity to remove knaves and attract saints. This capacity shows that a community remains vibrant.

Removing knaves is easier online than in a civilization because you can ban them. Most communities are oligarchies, having a small group of leaders able to ban people easily. For example, I’ve seen Discord servers and Twitch channels with one-word permanent bans available to moderators. Compared to something like a ban request form, a one word ban command makes it easier to remove knaves, which means it will happen more.

A community with a strong capacity to remove knaves likely has the capacity to make changes elsewhere. It shows the community wants to maintain quality of interaction and membership. It has standards and rules that are understood and enforced. All good signs.

Removing knaves is not the only area a community can show capacity. It is also vital to attract saints. The best communities have the largest and most active group of saints. Communities with saints win out in competition between communities. We all love saints and want to spend time with them.

The ability to attract saints shows the community is good at something. It may appeal to the saint’s interests, be entertaining, or informative. More saints amplify these qualities further in a positive feedback loop. If a bad community can attract saints it will improve because they “contribute to the common good, even when it is obvious to everybody that cooperation has failed.” Without saints, a bad community won’t have many contributors and won’t improve.

For you as a member, it is most valuable to find an area where you want to be a saint and spend time there. You might be interested in other areas, but only as a moralist. You are less active than you can be. A good way to test your fit with a community is to ask “would I be a saint in this community?” If not, there may be a better one for you.

An interesting way to both have fewer knaves and attract more saints is through paid communities. They prevent people who aren’t serious from joining. The penalty for getting banned is real money lost. Paid communities can also hire saints. For example, Foster hires editors to edit members’ work. Before doing this, it was done mostly by the saints of the community. This lightens the load of saints while maintaining community quality.

We all want to be a part of communities with more saints and fewer knaves. There are many more ways than what I explained to do this. Some are up to the community, and others are up to you.

Be a saint if you can.

Don’t be a knave if you can help it.

Just that would make communities better places.


Thanks to Tom White and Marko Ayling from Foster for the feedback.

Let me know what you think on Twitter.

How Dunbar’s Number Makes Or Breaks A Community

We think of internet communities as one collection of people all interacting with each other. This isn’t true. People can only maintain a certain number of relationships with others. They have limited time to gather information about a group, build relationships, and stay engaged. This limits the size of the group they can interact and form relationships with, and that limit is Dunbar’s number.

Dunbar’s number is the cognitive limit of the number of stable relationships someone can have. It is commonly known as 150, although the practical number for a community is lower because people always have relationships elsewhere. 150 is the max where a large amount of time is being spent on “social grooming.” Christopher Allen’s hypothesis on the consequences of varying group sizes states:

the optimal size for active group members for creative and technical groups—as opposed to exclusively survival-oriented groups, such as villages—hovers somewhere between 25-80, but is best around 45-50. Anything more than this and the group has to spend too much time “grooming” to keep group cohesion, rather than focusing on why the people want to spend the effort on that group in the first place—say to deliver a software product, learn a technology, promote a meme, or have fun playing a game.

For in-person communities, Dunbar’s number isn’t a major problem because of physical constraints. For internet communities, it is. Through the lens of Dunbar’s number, internet communities become a collection of many groups under one banner, space, or identity. Growth causes changes to community dynamics which need to be handled to maintain quality and functionality.

A History of Communities and Dunbar’s Number

Before the internet, communities were physically constrained, both by geography and space. First, there had to be enough people in your city or town who shared the same interests. Those people had to discover each other then coordinate events or meetings. This is a lot of work, so people rarely ventured away from the communities they were a part of. If they did, they likely joined previously established ones.

When someone did manage to create or join a community, members were still constrained by space. Everything happens in person. Only so many people can fit in a space, and few spaces are designed to hold more than 150 people. Members likely interact with only a small number of the meeting attendees each time.

All of these put natural limits on a community, helping it grow sustainably and avoid problems with Dunbar’s number. The internet disrupts them.

Without physical constraints, communities can be created easily and grow rapidly. They can quickly reach and pass Dunbar’s number without realizing it. In-person communities can see and hear problems through overcapacity, noise, and complaints. Internet communities often don’t have these signs. Members leave without a reason, and problems don’t get handled.

Handling Dunbar’s Number

A common problem caused by Dunbar’s number is the quality of information degrading. A common way solution is “splitting” the community. This might be by topic, interest, content type, or permission. This happens because platforms give the option to do it and it is what others are doing. For example, take two Kanye West-related Discord servers:

You can see the evolution of a community over time. It is likely the “Kanye” server had a similar amount of channels as the “West Server Ever” when it was smaller. The “West Server Ever” has started to split, separating “general” discussion from “(kan)ye” discussion (same as “Kanye” server). They are also starting to split up less relevant topics like “politics” and “ddt-hate.” It is easy to foresee future splits as the server grows.

Splitting is an example of passively handling Dunbar’s number. It doesn’t create a significant change to the community. The structure, behaviors, habits, and policies stay much the same. Minor rule changes, roles, and stricter moderation are all similarly passive solutions.

The problem with passive solutions like splitting is that they may not solve the problems the community is having. Splitting still lowers the quality of main channel discussion as it causes the community to grow away from its original area of focus. More channels distract from the main focus. These non-focus areas are likely lower-quality because members didn’t join for these areas. The more a community splits, the more it moves away from its original purpose.

Not handling Dunbar’s number well hurts member experience. It causes members to be less satisfied and spend time elsewhere. A “sense of community” is broken. Whether they realize it or not, members will look for other communities that better handle Dunbar’s number to provide a balance of connections and knowledge.

Communities that are valuable for their members spot and handle challenges with Dunbar’s number. They continue to create connections while facilitating interactions to benefit members and create collective knowledge. A passive solution may not be the best solution, it may require a more active approach.

Handling Dunbar’s Number Actively

Although the internet has caused more communities to face challenges from growth, it also provides more solutions. There are many options beyond splitting, rule changes, and stricter moderation. Communities can apply more active solutions by changing their structure, limiting their size, and developing means of making connections.

Structure

Choosing a platform is important, among many other reasons, because it provides structural solutions to growth. The structure of the platform creates the behavior that happens there. Some platforms have more options and customizability than others. Certain structures allow for better conversation at larger sizes, better overview of activity, or better facilitation of connections. As a community grows past Dunbar’s number, the structure becomes especially important.

The most common space for internet communities to exist is the channel, whether that is a group chat, Slack, Discord, or somewhere else. The problem with channels is they isolate information into silos. It can be difficult for members to find areas that may be of interest to them. There is rarely a way to see historical activity or get an overview of what’s going on. Those silos also aren’t information-dense, when compared with forums or posts. A conversation between two people can quickly take up the whole page.

Low-density Demand Curve Growth Slack channel

Posts and forums are more information-dense. With them, members can see a variety of conversations happening at once, and figure out what is popular. They provide better access to “best-of” and historical content. Take a look at the supertalk forum. Their homepage is dense with information, with forums branching off forums. Members can, at a glance, see the areas of focus and the active areas.

High-density supertalk forum

Every structure has a trade-off. Communities must ask themselves if their structure reflects what their purpose is. Channels might be the right decision if the goal is real-time and create casual conversation. They work well when topic areas split easily. If neither of these is the case, exploring another structure may be a better option. Luckily, there are many platforms and options to explore. Being able to tailor these platforms to specific use-cases is becoming easier, meaning better structures are being found.

Size

A second way of handling Dunbar’s number is best explained through the online education industry. In the early 2010s, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) were all the rage. Millions of people took them on a range of topics. The problem is few people complete them, causing a lot of potential learning to be lost. A cause of this is the failure to solve Dunbar’s number for their community. They did little to create connections between students which motivate and help them learn more.

Recently, many courses have found success with cohorts (cohort-based courses). Rather than being “massive,” they are small to medium-sized. This allows students to build connections with other students and creates motivation to continue in the course. It also adds new ways of interacting and learning from the course materials. Since cohorts are smaller, they handle Dunbar’s number better than MOOCs and are more valuable to the average member.

Communities can learn from this example by changing the way they look at their current size and their growth plans. Being as large as possible doesn’t always align with the goals of the community or its members. Paid membership or required expertise/credentials are often more sustainable for managers while providing more value to members. On top of paid and credentialed communities, other ways to experiment with size include:

  • Limit size with DAOs and tokenized communities by forcing ownership. Align incentives through the creation of owner-members.
  • Create copies/cohorts of the same structure of the community. Add every 150 (or less) members into a copy of channels private to them. Engage each set of members separately.
  • Maximize exclusivity with the nightclub approach. Put a low cap on the number of members, let in high-status members who loudly promote the community, remove inactives or trolls, keep a waitlist, charge more. It isn’t inclusive but makes sure every member is serious about being there. It also increases loyalty through the prestige of being included.

The idea that a community needs to be open and as large as possible doesn’t always create the best experience. Smaller communities often better align with members’ goals, even if they don’t realize it. They are places for higher quality conversation and connections. I’ve written before about why people need to explore higher friction communities, but they need to exist for people to join them.

Connections

Finally, communities can create connections at the individual level. They can create systems to connect individuals or small groups of members. This makes a big community small.

By joining, members show their interest or that they share an identity. Connecting these individuals can lead to good conversation, potential friends, and collaborations. It also creates a deeper connection with the community by making the members real. People generalize the community on the members they know. They think “the person I met was thoughtful and smart, so the rest of the members are also this way.” This creates a better overall perception of the community. Examples of tools that facilitate these face-to-face connections include Luma, Gatheround (fka Icebreaker), randomcoffee, Zoom, and many more.

Voice rooms and small, non-public events are other ways to facilitate these connections. I’ve seen communities do “cafes” or “work sessions” where members work together in a Discord, Zoom, or Clubhouse room. I’ve seen spontaneous listen or watch parties. Not every event needs to be a big public spectacle. Internal events to build connections should happen more.

All of this works well because it makes the community very small for a short period. This allows people to make deeper connections without the broader context interfering. When you are interacting with one person, you don’t need to think about how your actions fit into the broader community. It provides focus, something many communities lack when they get too large.

Conclusion

Dunbar’s number exists and internet communities must handle it. Most handle it passively, barely realizing the changes it causes. This may work for some, but many will have to actively handle Dunbar’s number or see a loss in quality.

As a member, you should be wary about joining a community that doesn’t handle Dunbar’s number well. Their stated goal might be much different from their actual goal. They may state they want to help you accomplish a task, make connections in a specific industry, or create valuable conversations. They may have succeeded prior to reaching Dunbar’s number, but as they grow they fail to handle the challenges arising from it. Know your goals when joining. Look for communities with the structure, size, and connections you want. The platform, habits, and artifacts of the community are the best clues to figuring this out.

As more attention is paid to internet communities, we will see new ways of handling Dunbar’s number. This helps people find and benefit from communities matching their goals. It creates healthier communities and, overall, a better online environment.


Thanks to Kate Canniff, Abe Winter, Casey Rosengren, and Nick Drage from Foster for the feedback.

Let me know what you think on Twitter.

Content About Creation Is Procrastination

Consuming content about creation won’t make you a successful creator. It is a trap that leads to thinking there is a “right” way to create, thus preventing you from creating. Meta-creators (creators who create about creating) say the answer is in their newsletters, video courses, writing workshops, tweet threads, and productivity guides. These “answers” won’t do the creating for you but do distract you from creating. There are many ways to be successful as a creator, but the similarity between them is creation.

Meta-creation is popular because we like the idea of creating more than actually creating. Meta-creators help people indulge in these ideas without doing the work. The lack of action taken after consuming the content is proof of its lack of impact. The majority of improvement in creation comes from creation and iteration. Meta-creators fool aspiring creators into thinking otherwise.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.

Richard Feynman

Meta-creators are the embodiment of what Steven Pressfield calls “the Resistance,” a universal force that wants to stop an individual’s creativity by any means necessary. The Resistance wants you to procrastinate, overthink, get distracted, and not create. Meta-creators, without realizing, help the Resistance achieve its goal.

If meta-creators were good, it would show in the long-term success of their followers. They could point to specific cases where followers increased their quantity and quality of work by applying what they learned. Their followers would credit the meta-creators as the source of their success. This rarely happens. Instead, meta-creators “prove” their success through the metrics of money, subscribers, followers, and attention, none of which help you create more.

Some tutorials and inspirations may help, but endless consumption is a trap. At best, it provides a short-term boost. Meta-creators should inspire or improve content creation. Feeling uninspired after consuming a meta-creator’s work is a bad sign. It is a sign to cut them off because they are wasting your time.

There are many alternatives to procrastinating with content about creation. Seek content that inspires you to take action. Look for advice from people you actually want to be like. An interview with a domain-specific expert often gives more insight than any meta-creator could give. Avoid people who aren’t creating what you want to be creating. Looks for ways to create a small version of the content, rather than consuming more. Try and see what works for you.

Next time you see a meta-creator trying to trap you into another course, article, or tweet thread, shut it off and create something. Do you think the creators you admire consume this stuff? Probably not, and neither should you.


Thanks to Steven Ovadia, Rob Hardy, Ryan J. Williams, Nanya Sudhir and David Burt from Compound Writing for the feedback.

Let me know what you think on Twitter.

How To Discover Your Ideal Internet Community

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.

Search

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.

Artifacts

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.

Keep Looking

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.

Why Executives Should Care About Internet Communities

Ask a company what they value and there is a good chance they say “our people.” Without employees, customers, and other stakeholders, a company wouldn’t exist or succeed. The interests, problems, and passions of these groups shape a company. Increasingly, the place to talk about these topics is internet communities, and that is why executives should care about them.

Internet communities are groups of people with shared interests and identities who interact with each other on the internet. Platforms like Facebook Groups, Reddit, Slack, Discord, as well as purpose-build sites and forums make interaction simple. Many are pseudonymous meaning information shared is rawer (for good and bad).

Members trust these places to talk about best practices, industry knowledge, and their problems. They want to talk about their work with other people who know. Communities also provide an opportunity to network and develop their career. This is especially important when cut off from the in-person communities (or workplaces) people socialized in.

Communities are opportunities for executives to better understand their people and industry, as well as to educate and share messages. Key people pay attention to and are influenced by them. Executives who do the same create a better knowledge of what their employees, customers, and other stakeholders actually care about. In the long run, it helps protect their company’s reputation and build better offerings.

Communities are Spaces for the Passionate and Opinionated

The people who join and engage internet communities care a lot about them. It takes effort and knowledge to join and say something. It shows they are passionate about their work and industry. They are likely more passionate and opinionated than your average industry or workforce member. These passions and opinions can help or harm a company’s reputation as well as be an opportunity to create better offerings.

The shared identity members have in community creates trust. Members with similar knowledge and experience are trusted over “outside” sources like media, industry reports, and company communications. This allows them to have candid discussions, but also isolates them from other sources of information.

In every community, there are many more “lurkers” (non-posters) than posters. The members who do post, post a lot. They can have a massive impact on the opinions and knowledge of the community. A niche opinion held by an active poster can quickly become a popular one. This can impact a company’s reputation within the community and beyond.

For example, see Blind “a trusted community where verified professionals connect to discuss what matters most.” Members share company reviews, work experience, salary details, interviewing processes, and more. Because Blind is verified and anonymous, members often trust it to make crucial career decisions. A better reputation here could lead to attracting top talent. It also provides tons of high-value information to these companies (and their competitors).

Opinions radiate outwards from communities like this. A small number of core opinion leaders can influence a company’s reputation. A negative view of a company can snowball, especially if there is no one mentioning the other side of the story. An active promoter for a competitor can also create more than their fair share of influence. Both can happen to companies that don’t care about internet communities.

Community is not only about mitigating reputational risk. Members voice their opinion about all sorts of things, often in a less filtered way than you find in public social media or within a workplace. Searching a community for problems and complaints about a company or industry leads to insights. These insights lead to building things people want. Not things people pretend they want, but things they go out of their way to complain in search of a solution for. It provides executives a source of knowledge and feedback that few other companies are taking advantage of.

One way anyone can tap into the power of communities now is:

  1. Go to Facebook or Reddit
  2. Search for your industry or customer’s profession (the more niche the better)
  3. Join multiple groups or subreddits.
  4. See what gets talked about a lot (look at the comments). Search for your company (or competitors).

You might pick up an insight or two you didn’t think about. Not someone complaining for attention on social media, a biased survey, or an opinion from a “thought leader,” but a real interaction between people. There are millions of interactions like this across platforms. Executives should be paying attention to at least some of them.

Always-On Events

The question remains: how does a company interact with communities? An answer for many executives is seeing them as “always-on events.

A company without a presence at an event is forgotten. Same is true in communities. Conversations are always happening, but there is no way to gain from them if you aren’t there. Companies that embrace communities are talked about more, have better control over their reputation, and gain insights from the members.

It is also important to understand how a company is perceived within a community. Executives should realize it is about the people first. Communities aren’t social media, you cannot broadcast your message and expect to succeed. Imagine if you went to an event, got up on stage, and yelled “buy our product” over and over. It wouldn’t work, and your reputation would take a greater hit than if you said nothing at all.

Like events, communities provide many opportunities to engage with members directly, provide insights from key people, and share relevant content. This requires executives to empower their employees to engage and provide resources where necessary. Executives can’t hover over every conversation an employee is having at an event, the same is true here. Answering questions and being helpful can go a long way to improve a company’s reputation within a community.

A good example of a company interacting directly with a community is Stripe having an unfavorable story is shared on Hacker News. Instead of releasing a press release or responding through the media, Stripe’s co-founder goes straight to the comment section to reply:

Stripe also empowers employees to engage with real users in these communities. See another Hacker News comment section after the announcement of a new product line:

Opportunities like these happen more often than you think. Companies that don’t have a presence and don’t empower their employees are unable to have these interactions. The “always-on events” mindset allows companies to engage where relevant without over-stepping into overt promotion.

Community on the internet is early. No one has figured it all out yet. Executives that pay attention and engage now have a chance to build relationships and ways of working that others don’t.

Community Creates A Competitive Advantage

The size and importance of internet communities continue to grow. Reddit grew 44% year over year to 52M daily users in 2020. Discord has 140M monthly active users. 1.8B people use Facebook Groups monthly. Startups like Geneva, Circle, Upstream, Clubhouse, and many others continue to innovate and create better spaces for all types of people. It is increasingly likely your customers, employees and stakeholders spend time and are influenced by these communities. They aren’t going away.

The executives who understand and engage with communities create better control over their reputation and deeper insights into their customers, employees, and stakeholders. Both are new areas to create competitive advantage others are missing out on.

The answers to how a company should interact with a community are unique for each situation. The “always-on events” mindset may not work for every business. What isn’t unique is that executives should care more about internet communities. The ones who do will find an advantage in the long run.


Thanks to Ergest Xheblati, Philip Hendricks, Abu Amin, and Camila Mirabal from Compound Writing for the feedback.

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Supercharging Communities Through Ownership

Ownership supercharges community. It combines two trends:

  1. Large scale communication and coordination through internet community platforms.
  2. Decentralization and increased distribution of ownership.

The combination created rapid growth of membership, attention, and value within these communities. Examples of communities supercharged by ownership include:

  • WallStreetBets taking Gamestop from $20 to $350 per share.
  • Bitcoiners causing Bitcoin to pass $40,000.
  • Rise of alternative credentialing institutions like Lambda School or OnDeck.
  • Early rise of NFT collectibles in art (Foundation), content (Mirror), and sports (NBA Top Shot).

These trends aren’t stopping any time soon. Communities with ownership coordinate and grow faster than ever before. They do so by capitalizing on two concepts: skin in the game and FOMO.

Improving coordination through skin in the game.

Ownership in a community creates skin in the game. It aligns individuals to make decisions that benefit both them and the community as a whole (although that doesn’t always work out). Individuals benefit when the community benefits, they lose when the community loses.

Without ownership, community growth benefits members indirectly (more sources of information, people to meet, and opportunities). It requires members to act on opportunities to benefit. With ownership, any action that benefits the community benefits the owner both directly and indirectly. They get similar opportunities as they would get without ownership, with the added benefit of owning a piece of the community that is (hopefully) growing in value.

Owners want the value of their ownership to grow. Because of this, they are likely to:

  • promote the community
  • encourage other members to become owners
  • show how well their ownership is doing

Owners of NFTs or students of Lambda School are quick to promote their success and try to convince you to join. New people buying-in improves the value of the community. It helps makes the early adopter’s decision look better, increases the value of their share, and improves the likelihood the community continues to grow. The actions that benefit the individual simultaneously benefits the community with ownership.

On the flip side, there is potential for members to act in ways that hurt the value of the community. Owners with skin in the game are more sensitive to downside. They realize their actions could hurt both their relationship with the community as well as the value of the community. They will likely behave better and encourage others to do the same. Owners factor the downside of their behavior on the community more than non-owners do.

Owners are also more likely to stick around and try to fix the community if broken. Members without ownership can easily leave if there is little tying them to the community. They are especially quick to flee when problems are hurting their value as individuals. This could create a “death spiral.” Ownership has a chance to break this spiral. Owners balance the value of redeeming the value of a community with further losses. Nothing helps someone want to fix something more than ownership.

Skin in the game strengthens tribal identities allowing communities to build trust and move faster. It clarifies who “us” is and who “them” is. Like in the Wall Street Bets and Gamestop example, communities often take the role of David versus the goliath of big, historical institutions. It is often impossible for the goliath to become an owner of the community, creating clear sides. The community then gets the added benefit of fighting against a collective enemy, only leading to increased growth and trust. This is critical for success in stressful times.

Communities with skin in the game are better incentivized to make good decisions than ones without. This doesn’t mean it always happens. They are just more thoughtful with their decisions. They think more about their decision’s impact on the value of the community, not just themselves. At scale, this can create massive benefits.

Fueling rapid growth through FOMO

Ownership makes the benefits of community clear. You can see numbers going up. Exponentially increasing graphs and triple-digit percentage gains are a good example of this. Owners like bragging about how well their ownership is doing. They do it to show how smart they are, to signal they are part of the in-group, and to try to attract more people to join them. This bragging creates FOMO.

Wall Street Bets is built around making risky bets and bragging about you gains. Ownership makes this possible. Without ownership, bets aren’t risky and gains are small. Gamestop was a risky bet that worked out, and hit the mainstream. When non-members saw how many people were benefiting from the trade, they wanted to join too. The subreddit grew from 3M to over 6M in a week. The bet was perceived as less risky because “millions” of others were also making the it. At the very least, it could also be written off as entertainment. People feared missing out on the clear benefits (and entertainment) it offered and Gamestop shot up to the moon.

When it becomes clear there is significant growth in the value of a community, many new people are interested in taking advantage of it. They fear losing out on the benefits. Luckily for them, ownership is a quick way to join a community. It creates skin in the game quickly and creates a self-reinforcing growth loop.

FOMO is also useful for people on the margins of a community. Every communities, especially large ones, loses members. People have limited time and focus. If it isn’t clear what benefit you get from a community, you’ll probably leave. If you fear missing out on a benefit, you are likely to stay longer than someone who doesn’t have ownership. When you are an owner, you stick with what you own. You are likely to revisit the community. You’ll fear missing out on the redemption, especially when a community has redeemed itself once before (like Bitcoin).

For example, more members in OnDeck means more high status people and more recognition of the “OnDeck” signal. OnDeck grows by attracting high status people to lead a growing number of untapped, specific communities. Every community within OnDeck benefits from new communities succeeding. Members are less likely to leave because they fear losing out on the benefits of OnDeck’s momentum. The more quality people join OnDeck, the more their ownership (signal) is worth. As momentum continues, more people are likely to join and existing members are more likely to stay.

From Bitcoin to OnDeck, owners have two reasons to stay: the entertainment and knowledge they get from the community and the upside from ownership. If they choose to leave, they lose both. Owners have more to lose when leaving a community than non-owners do. An owner will likely be a member of the community until they cash-out or better opportunities come along. The fear of missing out on future upsides could be the key piece to getting them to stay.

Nothing creates more fear of missing out than ownership. Communities can use this to their advantage to fuel growth and maintain membership. Ownership gets members to return to a community and makes it more difficult to leave a community. People fear losing out on continued gains from being a part of the community.


Ownership is a powerful motivator for users to contribute to products in deeper ways, be it with ideas, computing resources, code, or community building. This more cooperative economic model helps ensure better alignment with users over time, resulting in platforms that can be larger, more resilient, and more innovative. This is the Ownership Economy, and beyond being a positive social endeavor, the platforms building it are able to leverage the strongest form of market incentives to grow network effects.

Jesse Walden

Communities that create ownership for their members are more likely to grow rapidly and succeed than the ones that don’t. Ownership does not automatically mean something will succeed. It is a way to supercharge something that is working. It is a way to increase growth and improve retention within a community.

Ownership in community grows with the trends of large community platforms and distributed ownership options. More communities will have ownership options and more members will be owners. As it gets easier to create ownership within communities, we will see more communities with ownership options succeed. In the long run, this creates better communities.


Thanks to Miranda Newman from Compound Writing for the feedback.

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Explore Higher Friction Communities

People avoid friction because it’s work they’d prefer not to do. Luckily for us, the internet eliminates friction. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Reddit succeed because they are the best at doing it. They make it easy to join, consume, and engage. Through eliminating friction, they reach their goals of user growth, content consumption, and engagement. Realize that these are their goals, not yours. Your goals likely require more friction, because the “popular” internet is not optimized for your goals.

Better spaces exist if your goals are learning something new, connecting with people, growing your career, or talking about interests. The spaces are higher friction communities on smaller platforms like Discord, Circle.so, Slack, Telegram, Signal, Upstream, Substack, Forem, and many other special-built community sites. They exist behind paywalls, invitations, subscriptions, events, and paid content. This is friction we don’t normally go through.

People expect low friction and constantly move towards it. An example of this is TikTok. It shows that even YouTube has too much friction. TikTok removed the friction of choice by showing you an endless feed of videos tailored to you. It proves endless frictionless entertainment is there if you want it. If you have different goals, higher friction communities are the way to go.

Higher friction creates smaller communities. These communities are better aligned with positive outcomes for their members. They trade smaller membership for a higher quality of interactions. By overcoming friction, members have skin in the game. They paid the required “price” to join the community and are better aligned with the incentives of the group. They want a higher return on investment for energy spent joining and staying a part of the community. Those who get through are more serious, engaged, and knowledgeable.

When compared to internet communities, many popular in-person communities have high friction. They require consistent attendance, thinking, engagement with people, and sacrifice of resources to the community. Examples include universities, volunteer organizations, meetups, social clubs, local politics, and team sports. In-person communities were key parts of people’s lives, but are fading in importance (especially with restricted in-person interaction). If internet communities are to be as important, they must mimic the increased amount of friction.

To increase the amount of friction, people and communities must move away from the lowest friction platforms. Big social media platforms will never want higher friction because it means fewer users, less attention, and fewer ads that can be shown. Higher friction communities must develop on different platforms, and people must go through the effort of finding and contributing to them.

Content on the internet offers an example to follow. The move from print to digital has long caused a decrease in friction. Many areas in content are now seeing a rebound in friction. Both companies (e.g. The New York Times) and platforms (e.g. Substack) are moving away from maximizing reach and monetizing with ads towards content behind paywalls. The creators of content are finding increased friction better aligns with their goals and the goals of their audience. Communities will find the same.

Internet creators will be key early adopters of higher friction communities. Many of the communities they appeal to exist on these low friction platforms. Creators face a growing choice between spending time creating content for maximum reach or using it to build communities. Although building for communities limits the number of people seeing content, it increases engagement and affinity with their audience. If creators build on higher friction communities, their audiences won’t be far behind. This has knock-on effects on related communities.

The communities you belong to on low friction platforms exist on higher friction ones, but they require more work. Your move towards higher friction communities will benefit them, as well as yourself. Higher friction communities are more focused and likely better align with your goals. The large, low friction platforms we spend our time on have the goal of keeping us there. If we (ourselves and our communities) want to prioritize other goals, we must explore and move away. When we do, we’ll find many new, unrealized benefits.


Thank you to the Compound Writing members who reviewed this post: Noah Maier, Yishi Zuo, and Stew Fortier.

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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.

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Your Future Makes You Unique

How you think about the future makes you unique. It is your knowledge and experiences projected forward. Your ideas about the future shape how you spend your time and energy. There are many futures for you to explore and pursue. You should try to pick the best ones.

Start by exploring many futures. You can’t live towards a future you do not know. The internet is the greatest catalogue of futures ever created. You should try to create an explanation of your future you can move towards. Let past futures guide you. What many people do today is the result of what a few people did in the past. Your present exist because of past people’s actions.

Realize your future is your advantage, but it requires focus to capitalize on. Your future is where you focus that others aren’t. Everyone can’t focus everywhere, we have different futures. You don’t need to care about every future. There are some areas in life you should be content with the present. You don’t need a future for everything. You can borrow other people’s futures. There are people everywhere who share their future with everyone, this helps that future become more likely. You can follow along, and focus on the futures most important to you.

Your future can be wrong. We don’t know what future is right until it happens. We deem futures “right” after the fact. It happens once a group accepts a future became the present. No one knows if a future is right until they act on it. Creating a future requires action. Work towards the wrong future is not lost. Knowledge gained can be useful in another future. We are constantly inventing new futures for ourselves and others. We take action with the expectation we are working towards a better future, and we never stop.

If your future is right and others follow, you can gain status, power, and money while the rest are joining you. The greatest people pull their future into the present. They start with a future and a way to pursue it. They then drag themselves and their group into their better future and are rewarded for it. To create progress towards a future, you must focus on it and act.

The present was created by people like you. They had a future in mind, worked towards it, and now you live in it. Everyone can do the same. This is not only true of the physical world, but of our knowledge, behaviors, norms, and values.

Explore many futures, find one you believe in. Do your best to pull that future into the present. Work on what future people will work on, behave like future people will behave, think as future people will think. The future is yours.

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Communities Should Create Paid Content

Communities normally monetize in two ways: access and status.

Many communities exist “after” knowledge. They are an incentive for getting through the course, project, guide, or certification. They allow access to people who did the same. Once you gained the knowledge (and often paid for it), then you get access to the community. This is the way communities have made money for thousands of years, paying to access or stay in a community.

Communities also monetize by selling status. Status exists naturally in communities. In a community, it shows who is active, cares, and is knowledgeable. It tells us where to look. Status comes from signaling you have knowledge or are important.

Communities monetize status by allowing members to show they care about a community and to stand out from the crowd. Often, the platform the community lives on monetizes through status. Special benefits, roles, badges, and display features are all ways of charging to signal status. Selling status is appealing because it allows people to stand out without hurting other members’ experiences.

But there is a third way to monetize few communities take advantage of, knowledge.

Communities are built on knowledge. They build collective knowledge of top posts, guides, tools, norms, and best practices. This collective knowledge is loose. Often community members don’t add to it or formalizing it. It grows slowly. The content is temporary, hard to maintain, and often lost. Paid content incentivizes improvements to collective knowledge and allows communities to monetize in a better way.

Others Do It, Why Can’t Communities?

Lots of places sell knowledge, there is no reason communities can’t be one of them. Communities have a supply of, and demand for, knowledge. Many community members pay for similar knowledge elsewhere.

There is a stigma around paid content in communities. Because nearly all content is free, paid content is looked down upon or banned. Although no one is certain, this often prevents important work. Developing high-quality content may require paying people. Since there are few mechanisms for paid content in communities, it doesn’t get created.

There is a growing amount of tools and products to monetize knowledge. Paid newsletters, courses, and guides are growing in number and relevance. The internet allows people to sell specific pieces of knowledge to specific audiences.

People already sell within communities. Lots of people use communities to promote in a roundabout way. I’m sure you’ve seen a community post with a call-to-action like “if you liked this post, check out my blog.” On their blog, they have an email funnel that leads to a paid course, guide, or product. They created content that appeals to a community but monetize away from it.

Advertisements are another example of selling on the community without the benefits going back to the community. Often ads have nothing to do with the community itself. Replacing ads with content crafted for a community is an improvement.

Communities should take control of their monetization.

How They Do It

Paid content starts with buy-in from the platforms and moderation team. None of this happens if paid content is banned or the community doesn’t want it. Paid content also requires tools to promote it and ways to communicate it. It is more work to get someone to buy content than it is to get them to read it.

Creating paid content is more work than the average post. The content must be valuable to the community; to do that, it must be developed by some subset of the community. If it is truly community content, it may involve many community members. Paid content requires more effort and coordination, but money provides a good incentive to coordinate.

Areas members should focus on to provide the most value:

  1. Formalizing basic collective knowledge.
  2. Expanding collective knowledge.

Formalizing Collective Knowledge

When I enter a community, I look for the most important information first.

  • Top posts of all time.
  • Content from most active and highest status members.
  • Member wiki, introductory guide, recommended readings.

Paid content can improve on these formats. Paid introduction guides, paid content written by high-status members, a curated collection of top posts (with permission and revenue-sharing) are all options. If I am interested in a community, I want to dive down a rabbit hole. Often communities set up a wiki and forget it for years, links are dead, quality is poor. I may churn out before I understand and interact with the community.

Imagine a year in review or year ahead guide created by key members of a community. For it, you pay $5-20. Although basic, it can be valuable to new and existing members. They get high-quality knowledge and support the creation of content they like.

A brilliant example I saw (and bought) while writing this piece is the collected essays of LessWrong. They are charging $29 for a set of books containing the best writing from the community. It monetizes a free community by benefiting members of the community.

High-quality introductory content makes all members better members. It gives them the context they need to understand and participate in the community. It also encourages new members to stay longer. It is a valuable shortcut to knowledge communities don’t do well enough.

Expanding Collective Knowledge

Everyone wants to learn something new. New knowledge is knowledge at the boundaries of what the community covers. This is research into specific topics, experiments, or in-depth analysis.

The problem is innovative content is less rewarded than basic content in communities. The overall appeal of innovative content is lower than basic content. If a member is looking to maximize their status with the community as a whole, creating good content that appeals to all of them is better than creating excellent, innovative content that appeals to a minority.

Creating content that expands collective knowledge is a risk. By paying for it, communities can incentivize its creation. Without this content, a community can stagnate. The content within the community becomes a repetition of existing ideas. Old members lose interest.

Spend enough time in a community and you want to move beyond the basics. Members should push into uncharted territory. They should innovate and be rewarded. A boost in status often isn’t enough encouragement. Paid content can fill in.

Will It Happen?

As mentioned, paid content requires buy-in from both the platform or the moderations. As it stands, few platforms provide the tools and culture needed for paid content to thrive. Communities must communicate with their members on why paid content exists. It must be understood that paid content benefits the community. If members can be convinced, it can bring value to a community.

People complain that creating paid content within a community prevents free content. The balance is saying most of it exists already, and free content isn’t going away. Paid content is extra. It helps communities develop better, more specific content that will benefit the community into the future.

A future where communities create paid content is a future with better communities.

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