Communities Need Tools to Protect Themselves From Scale

Rolin Moe points me to the pointlessness that is another study that finds massive, temporary forums are not as engaging as smaller online groups.

This is why I spend zero time publishing academic articles, frankly, besides the obvious Reviewer #2 junk. The state of knowledge among people who have actually run large online communities is so far advanced beyond the research community that most research in this area is more amusing than helpful. Education researchers are the worst offenders, and you’ll notice that paper Rolin points to has barely a citation before 2011, because isn’t that when we discovered massive forums?

Sigh. I’m trying to stay positive, I really am.

That said, I think a lot of this comes down to the fact that people who have run large online communities largely assume everyone is aware of this stuff. We don’t have the arrogance to post old knowledge as new insights, and so we loop past snoozing the I Got You Babe alarm clock time and time again.

I’m running to a meeting, but I figured I had 10 minutes to drop one of these long known truths here, one that could have saved people from writing that paper. It was (to my mind) most succinctly expressed by Clay Shirky:

You have to find some way to protect your own users from scale. This doesn’t mean the scale of the whole system can’t grow. But you can’t try to make the system large by taking individual conversations and blowing them up like a balloon; human interaction, many to many interaction, doesn’t blow up like a balloon. It either dissipates, or turns into broadcast, or collapses. So plan for dealing with scale in advance, because it’s going to happen anyway.

This is a really simple observation, and it’s not Shirky’s. Shirky is actually expressing community admin knowledge from 1980s BBS’s that was forgotten in the 1990s.

This is discovered repeatedly throughout history, and you could write a taxonomy of different techniques we use to protect users from scale. Maybe I will at some point. But I’d beg you to stop reading recent research until you read what actual practitioners have known for years, since the BBS really. Please?



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