This month (February 2023) marks a momentous moment in the history of FWB, and digital communities at large. We’ve launched the alpha release of our community platform, FWB.APP. In its nascent form, it allows members to post images to a feed, RSVP to community-led events, search members in the directory and stay updated on current and upcoming governance votes.
I’ve spent the last 10 years being a part of or studying digital communities, starting from Multi-User Dungeons, touching on unbounded Tumblr aesthetic groups all the way to collective memory in MMORPGs. I’ve always been fascinated by the factors leading to demise as well as the early indicators of success.
Primitives and risks of online communities
Digital communities have three primitives: technology, members, engagement.
We can use these primitives to derive the main causes of decadence in digital communities.
The first is platform risk. In my talk "Foray into Tumblr-core", I relate the history of subcultures who, having been de facto expelled from LiveJournal, in 2007, during the Strikethrough and Boldthrough incident, move to Tumblr only to be forced out in 2018 during the Great NSFW Tumblr Purge. Communities who do not control the platform they use are at the mercy of whoever manages and owns the platform they currently use. The events of Tumblr and LiveJournal led to two important movements: Archive of Our Own (AO3) and Network of Our Own (NO3). The pair affirm the need for communities to build from the onset methods of archival as well as the importance of self-sufficiency and platform independence.
The second is member growth. However counter-intuitive, controlling new entrants can be a crucial part of community-building. Many trending communities, after gaining popularity, enter a phase of “Eternal September”, a term used to describe the period around 1993 when a flood of new users started using Usenet thereby changing the composition of the existing communities. As the composition changes, so do the norms, informal leaders and etiquette, though this is not negative, per se, but contains a lot of risk as to the continuing existence of the community. For instance, when the Cool Freaks Wikipedia club hit 20,000 users, factions began to emerge, divided by politics and ideology, the group split up into multiple subgroups with different sets of policies and different posting etiquettes.
The last is admin fatigue. Many communities are not started intentionally. A few friends make a group and by word of mouth they grow organically. After the average degree of separation exceeds 1, the need for moderation emerges. Communities need to build rules and guidelines for newcomers, as well as a code of conduct. Moderating is hard and requires a heavy amount of emotional labor. For example, in the Simpsons Shitposting group, the exhausted admin sold the group to Macedonian advertisers due to a lack of transition planning. Communities do not always perish by lack of user engagement but by admin fatigue, when the creators give up or move on. The period of transition after a founding admin departs is crucial to the future of the community.
Community risk mitigation
FWB.APP and the FWB DAO tackle these issues head-on. The APP serves to address platform risk and building a Network of Our Own, our membership team and application process are current iterative solutions to the new member paradox, we’ve also built a community-voted Code of Conduct to deal with internal issues, and lastly our distributed leadership bakes in fault tolerance so that the DAO can live on even after the departure of a top leader.
Conversations with members at Fest made us realize that we must control our channel of communication with our members. With Twitter, Email, Discord, the information dissemination is diffuse and not always effective. Communication is one of the key growth factors for engagement URL and IRL. Whether it’s an event, a new vote or a town hall, effective channels allow participation and engagement.
Through user research we’ve gathered central question on community engagement:
All the above relate to the means of communication. Hence, we’re moving to a single community-owned mode of communication through the APP.
Web 2.0 social media is based on a series of assumptions of user wants:
These aren’t bad definitions of user goals, per se, but they do not reflect the new reality we have found ourselves in, 15 years after the launch of Facebook, Twitter and all the other social networks. They required further expansion. We have not fully grasped yet the second order effect of an individual going over Dunbar’s number of 150.
The average Facebook user has 338 friends according to Pew Research, double of Dunbar’s threshold. Another interesting data point is that the average Facebook user is at 3.57 degrees of separation from any other. Only 3.57! From any other user. Impressive tell of how small our big world is. Nonetheless, the nature of the relationship we build on legacy social networks is still subpar. Facebook users say they only consider 28% of their friends to be genuine or close friends. By driving adoption of their platforms and encouraging users to follow one another, legacy networks have reduced the quality of the relations we build or request rather. The new features such as close friends and circle which they have launched in the past years speak to the need to return to smaller networks.
Sure, people want to be connected, but they want to be connected with the right people. Sure they want to find friends, but friends with whom they share affinities, practice or aesthetics, homophily matters! We can now claim in hindsight that follower count is meaningless if engagement is low. It is not so much about having lots of fans, but about having ones who care. (See 1000 fans) In the age of the attention economy, the quality of the attention matters more than its quantity.
Our social media feeds have become algorithmically individualized, removing any feeling of common browsing experience. We are still mourning the Fall of the Facebook Wall. Very few places on the Web exist as “third places”, to borrow the term from Ray Oldenburg, a locus of collection and semi-anonymous sharing. Whereas direct messages represent what Oldenburg would call a “first place” (private) and their antipode Twitter post a “second place” (public), FWB.APP represents the emergence of a third which helps members build a shared sense of place in the infinite expanse of the Web.
FWB.APP is our attempt to build a small social network, quaintly called "micro-social" (the opposite of Wumbo!). A platform owned and managed by a community of individuals whose collective attentions matter to one another, who share commonalities and who’ve been through the community selection process. Our metrics of success are no longer MAU but rather community adoption (how many members are using the platform) as well as Social Entanglement. We want to have a high % of members of the community who are friends with one another, reducing the average degree of separation to under 2. Our wager is that an entanglement is one which will grow and persist over time. APP is the result of learned lessons in the history of digital communities with new ownership mechanics enabled by the Ethereum blockchain. It is built to last and it is built for us!