[Home]CommunityMayNotScale

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A community relies on trust and respect. These qualities are easy to find in communities where all of the members recognize and know each other. They are much harder to find among people who are interacting mostly as strangers.

When a group grows from dozens of individuals to thousands, it becomes impossible to feel any real acquaintance with more than a fraction of the population. When this happens, community standards and unwritten rules stop working. The group loses focus. Things fall apart.

Can community scale? Are there TechnologySolutions or CommunitySolutions to solve these problems?


See ConnectedGraphSquaringProblem and IteratedPrisonersDilemma for more mathematical formulations of these issues.

See TheTippingPoint, TeethToTailRatio, MetcalfesLaw, ReedsLaw for important factors.


It seems to me that - whether a sense of community can scale or not - what's failing to scale right now on the WikiWikiWeb is RecentChanges. -- LukeGorrie?

Discussion has been moved to GlobalResource.


I've been thinking about this for awhile, and I wonder if it is the community focus that is not scaling. New (sub)communities often form because a few people have an intense interest on a particular topic. For instance, the "software pattern" community is a subset of a more general "software" community.

In the beginning, the new subcommunity attracts those who have an unusually intense interest. Often the founders feel that the larger/original community doesn't adequately meet their needs, or that the original community limits the discussion of a topic. For instance, one of the major reasons for MeatballWiki was that "WikiOnWiki" discussions were discouraged on the C2 wiki. (See Wiki:WikiOnWiki.) The original Wiki:PortlandPatternRepository was a place where people could discuss patterns and related software development.

Over time, however, the original focused "fanatics" are outnumbered by newcomers. Most new members will be attracted to the focus, but they will also have other strong interests. The new members will often discuss their peripheral interests in the community forums.

The evolution of the C2 wiki site provides several examples of "focus" disagreements. Perhaps the clearest disagreement was expressed in Wiki:MissingWikiBeforeXp. (Most of the "pattern" community left in the following months.) Another conflict is explored in Wiki:AppropriateWikiTopics, where people considered whether Wiki should be mostly software/patterns, or if "anything goes". Finally, in early 2000, most of the "Extreme Programming" founders moved their discussions from the C2 wiki to a specialized mailing list.

A problem with "focused" sites is that it is hard to reconcile topic control with a "free" and open community. The leaders of the community do not want to stifle users with a narrow topic, but they also don't want to become just another generic "chat room". This is particularly difficult when some people will simply ignore hints or requests to remain on-topic. (For instance, Wiki:WikiTunaJourney (currently) contains what looks like a private conversation between two people--exactly the kind of "generic chat" that some fear might "take over" wiki.)

Also, when a community becomes large enough, it often becomes more people-centered rather than topic-centered. People begin to discuss off-topic things in the community forums because they are interested in the views of other community members. This frequently happens on the C2 wiki, as in the frequent discussions on religious topics.

In many cases, a community finally "declares independence" from their original topic, and simply becomes "a group of people, who sometimes talk about (the original topic)". The C2 wiki has occasionally flirted with this approach (although some community leaders discourage it). AdvoGato has largely followed this approach, although it still tends toward "free software".

Personally, I think this kind of "subcommunity" formation is a good thing (at least for online forums). People's interests will vary, and not everyone will be happy with the existing forums. The biggest problem I see is that communities don't divide easily, and people often need to choose between the resulting communities. One reason for the choice may be that one doesn't have time to adequately participate in both communities. (This is largely why I have withdrawn from the C2 community.)

Much of my work on wiki-like communities is focused on finding ways for subcommunities to form, without the usual "breakaway"/splitting process. The subcommunities would simply be a more intense focus within the greater community. One inspiration is the common "BOF" (BirdsOfAFeather?) sessions at large conferences. Interested people can easily create these sessions without disrupting the larger focus of the conference. I hope that with tools like InterWiki, PersonalCategories and ViewPoint larger communities can form which preserve most good features of smaller (more focused) groups. --CliffordAdams

I will need to revisit my content below since it was edited by SunirShah since some of the concepts that I was trying to get at are now less apparent - so when I can get a little more time I will comment further on my own text as it now stands. - RichardNelson

At the [SolaRoofWiki] I am exploring the use of WikiGroups that have an unknown potential. WikiGroups are SubPages that fold like PageClusters in RecentChanges. Given that Grouped pages is basic to the structure of PmWiki then if we apply it to a common use - the result is simplicity. A little bit of knowledge such as I have is dangerous but it also lends to my freedom of thinking.

I would like to go in a different direction with this SunirShah, than your understanding seems to be. I do not think of the WikiGroups at SolaRoofWiki as SubPages. It is not about a kind of folders and file system to organize information. I am talking about allowing and encouraging PersonalSpace? within the Wiki that is not part of the NameSpace of the whole community collaborative space that I think of as the "Wiki" proper. Changes in these WikiGroups report separately when you are in that Group's space. This can be a personal space or a team space but it is not there for everyone to reach consensus. It is there to present a personal ViewPoint or the perspective of a specific SolaRoofProject.

I am not concerned with the TechnologySolution - the less visible that is (to the User like me) the better. The "big idea" that has me excited is to combine, within a community both a Collaboration Medium (the "Wiki") and a distinct CommunicationChannel for relationships. This serves as new structural pattern that produces synergy between recognized PersonalSpace? (which is underdeveloped) as distinct from the OpenSpace (which is the Wiki that is a well structured NameSpace) where everyone is assembled for collaboration. The PersonalSpace? at the SolaRoofWiki is more than a HomePage; it is more than a FrontLawn; it is a personal website, taht can include my pages, my topics and my projects where we work individually or in teams and where visitors can incidentally contribute to our personal work. The OpenSpace is the opposite; it is not only the wiki as a whole but all the individual topics that are like ongoing conferences and the linked topics that are like seminars with natural leaders and we are free to walk in and out of all these meeting rooms as we like (guaranteed to miss none of the action because it is constantly documented).

I edited the above paragraph to get closer to the concept that I am trying to express. I would add that in the [OpenSpace] of the Wiki it is best to not have SubPages since this permits various NameSpace to exist and therefore Topics will have variations within the SubPages that defeat the purpose of a single collaborative whole being created and developed together and with consistant meaning (the OnTopic issue applies). But in PersonalSpace? the OnTopic is only in the Context of the ViewPoint of that individual or team.

What goes wrong in a present wiki structure is that a topic at the wiki conference room is mistaken by an individual to be a place to work on his personal project (Wiki:WalledGarden). Or participants start a related but more personal BackRoomDecision and this "noise" conflicts with the effort for consensus. The thing is that any incidental communication going on cannot adjourn to a PersonalSpace?.

I am not referring to a Wiki:WalledGarden, which is an undesirable pocket of disconnected content within the Wiki. I am talking about a desirable (at least at the [SolaRoofWiki]) place for these one-on-one or small group/team discussions to happen but not interfere with consensus formation. This is due to our special purpose to support the implementation of specific instances (projects) of the general knowledge base. This positive aspect of the use of PersonalSpace? will produce further results:

This communication is not inherently negative; it can be and often is the springboard to knowledge building. Therefore it is necessary to support personal communication that has a ViewPoint but to allow it to flow in a separate CommunicationChannel.

The relatively incoherent chatter that is happening in the PersonalSpace? will not distract from coherent collaboration in the OpenSpace because it is not reported in the SolaRoof/RecentChanges. Rather we use our Profiles/RecentChanges as a special WikiGroup?, where changes to these pages are a "feed" to point the community members to activity (communications and developments) that could be of general interest. The individual Profiles/UserName pages are used to report such "Member Activity" and some of the feed to these pages can be automated such as new UserNameLog/LogePage entries that are in the PersonalSpace?. So, members can develop relationships with other members and they can share Project Space and thus select communication channels that they will monitor.

I am very new to the Wiki world - but I don't think I have seen such things happening within the framework of a single Wiki. It looks to me that this stuff is something new and I welcome feedback that will help us to explore the potential of PmWiki/WikiGroups and the like and communication that happens alongside the collaboration for which Wiki are well known. And, will these features help us to scale communities? - RichardNelson

The other important rule would be that these personal communications are never private. They can always be heard (OpenProcess) or they do not belong on the wiki. Everything being said is taken to be relevant (the intentions of the users) to the purpose of the wiki. It is inappropriate for any PersonalSpace? to be Private. Even a newbie must be able to listen in on personal communications of leaders (OpenProcess again). This puts everyone on a fast learning curve. - RichardNelson

What about the UseNet/FidoNet echomail/conference model that naturally broke things down into communities of topic?

I'll disagree about "naturally", at least for UseNet. (I have almost no experience with FidoNet forums.) Modern UseNet newsgroups are very difficult to create--it usually takes several months between a proposal and the creation of a newsgroup. Splitting a newsgroup is usually very controversial (and often leads to breakaway/splitting problems). Some newsgroups have used conventions like "subject tags" to allow voluntary filtering of subcommunities, but few people are able/willing to configure their filtering software. See UseNet for more discussion. --CliffordAdams

By natural, I meant the idea of subgroups was built into the newsgroup architecture. It is clear to everyone that discussions of deep keel sailing should be in a separate newsgroup from discussions of TCP/IP routing. Compare to a wiki, where those conversations exist in the same namespace and are free to converge to diverge as they wish.

As for creating backboned Fidonet echoes, it requires at least 5 messages per month, some minimum number of carrying nodes (I think 10), plus the agreement of two regional echomail coordinators. Before it gets backboned, an echo is on private distribution. GAMEDEV was on private distribution for about a year before I convinced enough SysOps? to carry it and the second REC. -- SunirShah


Is there a one-to-one correspondence between a scalability ceiling and the decline of a community as described in Wiki:CommunityLifeCycle? It rather discourages me that every community is doomed to such a fate. It seems that success (some variety of which most communities would desire) is the greatest cause of failure for a community (or indeed many sorts of endeavor). Rhetorical question: why, then, do we pursue communities? What do we derive from them that makes it worth it for them to undergo such decline? What, if any, are the benefits of EnlightenedIndividualism (which I propose here merely for the sake of consideration, not as a suggestion)? -- anon.

I think the original community is bound to die as it scales because it is impossible to know everybody in, say, a metropolis, but that doesn't mean that the flux of community is dead. New forms of community will emerge from the chaos. Like clubs, circles of friends, Parent-Teachers Associations, etc.

I think we pursue community because it is the natural thing to do. It is, however, somewhat artificial for the maintainer of the community to wish to grow it as large as possible. I think the community will naturally grow to whatever size justified. But online, I think there is some personal satisfaction involved with higher HitCounts. -- SunirShah

Another response to Wiki:CommunityLifeCycle: EmbraceTheCycle

I think I originally got interested in on-line communities because I thought a TechnologySolution might help create the PerfectCommunity? ("perfect" at the time meant squelching trolls, spammers, etc.). I realize now how silly that is -- community helps create the PerfectCommunity?. Wiki is an excellent example in this; it has almost no controls, yet Wiki communities still manage to thrive. Currently what intrigues me is that communities are doomed to failure. So when activity dies down on this Wiki (or when it gets too much to handle!) I'll (gasp!) have to find some other place to carry on this sort of conversation? What if there are other communities that I'll never find that talk about this, and I'll never benefit from their conversation? These sorts of questions nag me a tad, but I guess I'll file it under the unfortunate consequences of HumanNature?. I guess I'm simply sad to see the passing of communities. (E.g., SlashDot is certainly not what it was, though opinions differ on whether what it has become. My own opinion is that it's degrading terribly.) Maybe I should focus more on the excitement of discovering new ones like MeatballWiki.

My other point of curiosity is why we even pursue OnlineCommunity. There are perfect outlets for community in the RealWorld amongst our neighbors, coworkers, etc. Granted, OnlineCommunity enables us to commune on the basis of topics of interest, rather than physical proximity, but is either one intrinsically more worthwhile than the other? Why have I only met one of my neighbors? (My wife and I try to fix cookies for new neighbors.) What do we gain from OnlineCommunity that we cannot get from PhysicalCommunity?? And vice-versa? Nebulous thoughts in my mind right now as I explore my priorities wrt computing, my job, and simply enjoying life. -- anon.

Perhaps the problem is that you're trying to fit your communities into OnlineCommunity and PhysicalCommunity? boxes. Most communities use elements of both. I have written a bit on that here: http://www.mobilecommunitydesign.com/pages/faq.html#8. Communities use both online and offline methods of communicating and sharing resources. Electronically-mediated communities offer advantages that physically-mediated communities cannot, and vice-versa. The interesting space is the merging of these, which is in fact what most of us are doing anyhow without explicitly recognizing it as such. -- JeffAxup

I wonder if a "PerfectCommunity?" would be necessarily like Plato's TheRepublic: fascist. But that's a discussion for another page.

Probably so, which isn't very pleasing to me. Paradox (Mmm!) Political theory (Mmm!)

Anyway, I disagree with you. I don't think communities are doomed to failure. I think they are "doomed" to change. Changing drastically at that. Think about how the community of the planet earth has changed over the last few millenia. It hasn't died yet, no matter how hard we try.

I think I'm still acclimating myself to this idea of DynamicCommunity? instead of the static "PerfectCommunity?". I guess you might say that a community in and of itself possesses a vibrant personality, which thought didn't occur to me at first.

So when activity dies down on this Wiki (or when it gets too much to handle!) I'll (gasp!) have to find some other place to carry on this sort of conversation? What if there are other communities that I'll never find that talk about this, and I'll never benefit from their conversation?

Well, activity did die down on this wiki while I was on vacation for a week. This place is pretty young, and I'm the most active author. When you run the ShortestPathPages script without the CategoryHomePage filter, I come out way on top by a couple hundred distance points. I understand this, although I'm not particularly proud of the fact.

What I do know is that the only way to keep your favourite community alive, functioning and interesting is to put effort into maintaining it, building it, shaping it. You get back what you put in; often many times more. When my friends complain that the conversation is boring, my response is, "Well, say something interesting."

why [do] we even pursue OnlineCommunity[?]

Because it's fun! Do you really need a better answer than that? There are many answers, I'm sure. I do it because it allows me to talk about things with people that aren't interesting to my RealWorld friends. -- SunirShah

Prior to this point in history people belonged primarily to a single PhysicalCommunity?, though academics also participated in a wider AcademicCommunity? that didn't depend on physical location. Through computers the tremendous possibility has opened up of participating in a myriad of communities simultaneously. But we have little historical framework on which to base this idea. Prior to this time, a relatively small group of people (ambassadors, representatives to state or national government, itinerant preachers, etc.) served as links between disparate communities. Now almost any individual can serve as such a link (see GluePeople). I think I've been (inappropriately) trying to understand the enjoyment I get out of OnlineCommunity (and my corresponding tendency to sometimes give PhysicalCommunity? short shrift) through this backward-looking lens.

It's this so called GlobalVillage business, except not the MarshallMcLuhan sense of the word. But it's too hard to make the world one giant community. I don't know Fred in Texas, or Raj in Udaipur. Nor do I particularly care about them in anything but an abstract sense. There are still measured interactions between distinct communities. Just look at the flow between WikiWiki and MeatballWiki. -- SunirShah

I'll write something from the perspective of SenseisLibrary at StratifiedCommunity. -- Charles Matthews


I think there are a few separate (but related) limits to scaling communities:

An advantage of physical communities is that they are often simpler to subdivide. Subgroups can usually be divided by space or time. (For instance, a subgroup can meet in a corner of a common room, or stay after a community meeting is finished.) A problem with online communities is that people rarely use filtering tools (if they are even available), and often complain if the "default" community is too big. --CliffordAdams


ClayShirky chimes in: http://shirky.com/writings/community_scale.html

This barrier to the growth of a single community is caused by the intersection of social limits with the math of large groups: As group size grows, the number of connections required between people in the group exceeds human capacity to make or even keep track of them all.

He doesn't actually say anything much new, but it's all in very non-geeky language. Consider it a gentle introduction.


From history, it is clear that rapidly seeking massive popularity does not work as it dilutes the community's purpose and identity. While some people crave popularity, popularity as a goal is only worthwhile if it is unidirectional. That is, as an audience not a community. Growing a community is much harder for the exact same reason why economies who remain strong for long periods of time do not grow 10% a year. Continuing operational costs (maintenance) will soon consume too much capital that you a) won't be able to invest in new projects and b) won't be able to cover the operational costs, so you will have to cut back. Since it is difficult to cut back on people in any easy way, you cut back on maintenance costs, which makes everything degrade. For an OnlineCommunity, the really worthwhile people are the editors, not the writers. Anyone can write gibberish, but much fewer can think clearly enough to extract value. --anon.

I'm a writer, and I'd rather writing here than editing. My contributions though are valuable, just as everbody's are. We're all part of one big performance, one band. -- MattisManzel

Why are everybody's contributions valuable? Most orchestras audition to weed out people who cannot play. There are lots of contributors with negative value, such as those who flame others, or those who cannot express a coherent thought, or those who undercut the common StyleGuide, or those who post off-topic, or those who don't do research, or those who create LandMines, because these people create a lot of work for other people in return for the little amount of work they put in (i.e. they do negative net work). We presume everyone is valuable at first on an individual basis before we meet them, but some disprove this assumption. The task is to not hold this against them forever, but only so long as they hold it against themselves. cf. RadicalInclusiveness. All communities define boundaries for who can join. Otherwise, you are referring to a market, which is generally agnostic to who may participate (although not actually true in reality), but eventually finds other means to select against negative value people.


ChristopherAlexander talks about centers. The whole is a center, writers are centers, editors are centers, the public is a center, boundaries are centers, pages are centers, topics are centers, contrasts are centers, ... all are essential in a field of centers that add up to create a living thing called wiki online community. I think it will scale in the way we are able to structure systems and keep them in balance. -- HelmutLeitner


CategoryToDo: in the "doomed to [fail/change]" section, somehow factor in TargetReached


Discussion

NathanielThurston -- Thu Sep 17 10:28:33 2009

My thinking about the TeaTime project has paid one dividend: I have an abundance of ideas about solutions to CommunityMayNotScale, which have survived an extensive and rigorous winnowing process within my mind. Three things seem clear to me:

  1. It would be more appropriate to call a successfully-scaled community a society.
  2. MoneyAndCommunity: In any society, some sort of currency is a necessity. I need to state that there are many kinds of currency, only one of which is the "money" system (centrally-administered, secret, MarketEconomy?, ...) that is in almost universal use today.
  3. LiquidityOfTrust: For a society to be beautiful, many different kinds of trust must be at least as liquid as is power, by which I mean that the various kinds of trust must flow freely from community to community.

The reasoning is simple: In a society, currency is necessary due to the connected graph squaring problem; and effective cooperation is only sustainable when SoftSecurity has more power than HardSecurity.


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