Do you want to build a community where users search or hang?

Everyone wants to build community, especially developer focused companies.

A community helps your customers and users succeed, creates content that your team doesn’t have the time to do, and builds a competitive moat.

But what type of community are you building, or looking to build? Every community is different. Which should be no surprise.

After all, offline communities aren’t identical. Neighbors are one type of offline community characterized by certain expectations and interactions. Maybe you watch their dog, wave when you see them, and get their mail for them on vacation.

Friends and family are another. You invite them for parties and see them during the holidays, discuss politics, and stay in touch through the years. Depending on family bonds, you might even lend them money or donate a kidney.

Similarly, developer communities have different levels of engagement and commitment. These can serve different audiences and needs.

A community is not a community is not a community.

One easy way to think about the community is to ask the question: are you a “Facebook” or a “Google”?

No, I’m not talking about whether you should “move fast and break democracy” or “don’t be evil” and set up a panopticon.

What I mean is: “what does your typical user want to do: hang out or get a question answered and move on?”

Facebook is where people go to hang out. It’s the dominant social media site, even if the kids are moving on to something else these days. In this type of community people chat, hang out, and get to know each other better. The technology or software solution is often the original impetus and the source of much discussion, but there are other aspects to the community. Topics range widely. In some cases, people remain members through job and role changes.

The community may even have a real life component, such as a conference or members meeting up if they are in the same area.

In contrast, Google (the search engine) is where people go to get answers. This involves searching, then leaving Google as quickly as possible. Community on Google is tenuous. It really means “people there at the same time” or perhaps “people asking the same questions”. Anonymity is fine and even valued.

The point of search engines is to send people on their way as fast as possible so they can focus on solving the problem that they are faced with. When you are looking up an error string, you don’t want to chat with someone about their hobbies, you want to get your answer and go fix the bug.

This is also a crucial, often ignored, purpose of a developer community.

What are some examples of these two types of community?

Examples of developer communities that are “Facebooks”:

  • The Rands Engineering Slack
  • The Ruby community
  • Orbit.love’s discord

Examples which are “Googles”:

  • StackOverflow (for almost all participants)
  • The Elasticsearch forum
  • Almost any other forum, for that matter

What makes a community more likely to be a Facebook or a Google?

There are many reasons why a community might tend toward a hangout or a search engine. Consider:

  • How self contained is the technology? Components or tools snapped into an existing system, such as a security framework or logging library, are more likely to be a Google-type community. Frameworks and other solutions that are bigger and more self contained lend themselves to a Facebook approach. Few folks want to hang out and discuss the intricate details of logging, but a bigger project like Haskell or Rust will have more to discuss.
  • Are there events that happen in real life around the community, such as conferences? These are likely to make the community more of a “Facebook”. There’s a feedback loop; when I meet someone in real life, I want to hang out more with them online.
  • Is the community open source? Does it have a unifying philosophy? Or is there a strong common interest such as gaming? These all make a community more likely to be a Facebook, since there’s already more to discuss than simply problem solving.
  • How do members interact with the software supporting the community? If often, there’s incentive to invest in getting to know other members. If, instead, the tool is used once in a while, then there’s less incentive. This correlates to the tool vs framework point above.
  • How big is the community? The smaller the pool of members, the more likely any interaction will be personal, and hence similar to Facebook. This is especially true if combined with a philosophy, as mentioned above.
  • How long has the community been around? Longer lived communities have, by definition, more chances for members to interact.

All other things being equal, a community where people want to stick around and chat is more valuable. It’s also harder to build, and may be impossible. And it’s only part of the picture. People hear the word “developer community” and think of IRC or discords where developers hang out, but community is so much bigger than that.

What are the ramifications of this characterization?

As a community builder, when you are starting out, you are likely building a “Google” type of community. To help it succeed, provide the most help you can in the time you have.

Help builds trust. It shows you care about your community and their success. Offering help shows you value your users time and is foundational for any other type of community endeavor. Few community members will volunteer time to help answer questions on your forum/chat if the company doesn’t seem to care enough to provide good docs about the tool or software solution.

So, your job is to help developers using your software get the answers as quickly as they can. How?

  • Well structured documentation. If possible, allow users to suggest changes to it.
  • Publicly searchable question and answer archives. I like forums, myself.
  • A clear roadmap for the product. Yes, it’ll change, sometimes rapidly, but offer as much guidance as you can.
  • Multiple channels for community feedback. GitHub, StackOverflow, hosted forum, Twitter, email, Slack, Discord, conferences. Pick some to focus on, but support as much as you can. There are plenty of tools to consolidate these disparate sources.
  • Share the changes the community has suggested that are implemented. This can be as simple as a shout out in release notes.

You can help work towards a deeper community by helping members get to know one another. This can be done in a variety of ways, including:

  • Virtual or in-person meetups
  • Profiles of community members
  • Encouraging direct communication between members, if you see people with similar interests or problems
  • Synchronous chat platforms like slack or discord

Just like it takes time for a sports team or company department to gel, it will take time for a community to do so. In fact, it will take more time, since members spend less time in your developer community than they do in others. Prepare for a long journey with missteps along the way.

Why not both?

Of course, a community can be good for hanging out and getting answers. Different users can have varying expectations and experiences within a single community.

Stackoverflow is a good example. Most people arrive there via search engines, ask or answer a question, and then leave. But there is also a lively community, meta.stackexchange.com, where users get to know each other, hang out and argue over the rules and culture of the Stack sites. It is important to design and be aware of these different needs, including lurkers.

But, in general, most communities have a clear tilt toward one mode or the other. Either you are a watering hole where folks hang out or an encyclopedia where developers come for answers. When you are helping foster a community, you’ll want to have a clear understanding of which type of community you can realistically achieve.

Thanks to Rosie Sherry for her review of this post.



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