When we set out to create an online community, we often seek to attract people to join in, to generate engagement. One of the features of online communities is that you need a certain critical mass to make it all work. One of the less explored facets is that if it gets too big, it might stop working.
The questions of ‘how big is big enough’ is, of course, subjective, but there are certain things that we can bring to bear. For example, most people maintain meaningful relationships with about 100 people. Some a few more, some less, but the reality is that you can’t develop an endless number of meaningful social relationships, be it at work, in the pub or online. You might get to 200, but not 20,000. There comes a point at which you are just broadcasting to the masses.
Take LinkedIn as an example. It includes many different communities, themed around subject matter expertise. Within each of these communities, there are question boards where people pose questions and other people answer. Sometimes a small group will engage in dialogue, which tends to have value, but often there will simply be a long series of people posting answers. This is fine as a bulletin board, but fairly meaningless as a dialogue. Any feedback to the points that i might pose simply get lost in the noise.
To some extent, this is ok, but it does rather depend on how you are measuring value. Within a learning context, we often want to use a Community of Practice to support and challenge learners. We want to drive up engagement and get people to take part in dialogues. In a typical forum, levels of engagement can be low, less than 10% contributing, but it is possible to drive this up substantially, but size can work against us here. We need enough people to have a ‘buzz’ about the place, to feel that new content is being posted and responded to regularly, but we also need the conversation to be ‘small’ enough to be personal and meaningful, and this is where the concept of ‘knowing’ someone comes in.
It typically takes around three encounters before people start to disclose personal information and engage in properly productive dialogue, before they are willing to challenge and accept feedback. The role of the moderator in any Community of Practice may well include facilitating this initial contact. By proactively driving conversations and engaging with the disengaged, we can help people get to know each other better, and off the back of this, they are likely to engage with each other further.
At this point, the maximum size of a community can come into play. Is there a maximum size that works? Well, to an extent, the answer must be both yes and no. Not very helpful i realise, but communities are largely self organising. When people join, they take familiar and predictable roles. Some people step in as leaders, some as trusted sidekicks, some as comics, some as observers, some rude, some nurturing and so on. Large communities can be viewed as being made up of smaller ones, linked by common interests of common individuals. In essence, the community is just made up of a series of personal networks.
In a learning context, we may want to artificially divide our community to create specialist areas, based on geography, subject matter, experience and so on. We can then use the moderator to drive the initial ‘getting to know each other’ types of conversation, to foster strong links, and then start working on activities to integrate the disparate communities. This can have added benefits, because people from one community, effectively one online village, are likely to step in to support each other when they join the wider community, much as people would do in real life.
Community is based around commonly shared interests and the assumption that by working together we can reap greater security and rewards than by working separately or against each other.
These truths, these group dynamics are true in both real and online worlds. There is always a questions of ‘what’s in it for me’, even if that is sometimes countered by the motivation to help others.
Bigger is not always better. There’s a scale at which things become abstract, at which they lose their immediacy, and it’s highly significant when we look at the strange world of online communities.