Part 1: The Next Great Online Community

Editor’s Note: I’m sharing my research on how to build better online communities by studying internet history. Join the mailing list and follow me on Twitter for more notes and app updates!

Part 1: The Next Great Online Community
Part 2: Usenet — Let’s Return to Public Spaces
Part 3: Slashdot vs Advogato - Reputation vs Trust in Social Software

People who work on social software are closer in spirit to economists and political scientists than they are to people making compilers. They both look like programming, but when you’re dealing with groups of people as one of your runtime phenomena, you have an incredibly different practice.

— Clay Shirky, A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy


If you’re one of the brave souls willing to come within striking distance of building a community app, Clay Shirky’s A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy and Group as a User: Flaming and the Design of Social Software are canon.*

*They’re also hard to find. Your best bet is to get your hands on The Best Software Writing I by Joel Spolsky, or reach out to me 😀

Shirky’s quote is one of my favorites, because it gets to the core of what you’re actually doing when building community software:

You aren’t just deploying code to a server - you’re establishing a new system of government. 

Every decision you make (and don’t make) influences how your citizens (users) interact with each other, and how they interact with the state (community).

In community software building, understanding psychology, sociology, anthropology, and human nature is just as important as knowing how to push code.

Accept this, and you’ll realize the quick-and-dirty MVP you were planning to release over the weekend isn’t going to cut it.

Not to diminish their achievements — but it seems to me the “move fast and break things" approach “worked” for Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook insofar as they happened to also be blessed by the Internet Gods.

They’re thriving despite the flaws in their governance systems.

To be clear, you’ll definitely need to rub on Buddha’s belly and carry around magic crystals to build something that hits - but rushing into things won’t help.

What’s that? You’ve never built a government from scratch before? Same. 👊

Just spit-balling here: Might the best place to start be studying what’s already been tried — and going from there? 

Here’s a running list of notable online social experiments:

Pre-Internet Era
Community Memory - 1973
PLATO Notes - 1973
CommuniTree - 1978
Usenet - 1979
FidoNet - 1983
Minitel - 1983
The WELL - 1985
IRC - 1988
ECHO - 1990
LambdaMOO - 1990

World Wide Web Era
Geocities - 1994
Craigslist - 1995
iVillage - 1995
theGlobe - 1995
Classmates - 1995
Slashdot - 1997
SixDegrees - 1997
AsianAve - 1997
BlackPlanet - 1999
Advogato - 1999
LiveJournal - 1999
MiGente - 2000
Google / Yahoo! Groups - 2001
Wikipedia - 2001
Meetup - 2002
tribe.net - 2003
del.icio.us - 2003
Friendster - 2003
MySpace - 2003
LinkedIn - 2003
4chan - 2003
Second Life - 2003
hi5 - 2004
Orkut - 2004
Facebook - 2004
Digg - 2004
Ning - 2004
Reddit - 2005
YouTube - 2005
Club Penguin - 2005
Twitter - 2006
Hacker News - 2007
FriendFeed - 2007
Pownce - 2007
Justin.tv - 2007
Twine - 2008
Chatroulette - 2009

Mobile Era
WhatsApp - 2009
Path - 2010
Instagram - 2010
GroupMe - 2010
Snapchat - 2011
Twitch - 2011
Airtime - 2012
Product Hunt - 2013
Telegram - 2013
Vine - 2013
Slack - 2013
Discourse - 2013
Branch - 2013
Yik Yak - 2013
Secret - 2014
Discord - 2015
Mastodon - 2016
TikTok - 2016

This list probably trends toward infinity (shout out to Mahalo - 2007, Yammer - 2008, Yobongo - 2010, Convore - 2011, Jelly - 2013, etc.) — but it’s a good starting point.

Important Note: Many of these don’t strictly fit Shirky’s definition of “community software” (supports group interaction). In this series I’ll be focusing mostly on those that do fit, while sprinkling in lessons from others.

By the way, did you know Community Memory was founded by a non-profit (could that work today? 🤔) and attempted to prevent spam + raise funds by charging $0.25 ($1.45 in 2020) per post??

Moderation tools and business models have been a problem since 1973, folks. To be fair, back then everyone at Berkley shared a single computer. 

What’s our excuse?

Community software is ripe for innovation - how better to come up with fresh ideas than to dive into the history and mistakes of as many communities as possible?

My goal in sharing these lessons openly is to inspire a new wave of more thoughtful and effective community apps.

I shall call this series October First, in honor of Eternal September — the original “my grandparents just joined on Facebook”.

Let’s pour one out for USENET, the topic of my next post… 🥃

Don’t forget to subscribe and say hello.

I’ll leave you with a treat from the Community Memory archives:

Spread love! ✌️

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