Communities do not scale they divide

The very first part of the Web2Open in San Francisco I was able to sit in on, for only a few minutes, was answering the question: “Do communities scale?”. Of course, there were many opinions as to whether or not they do, whose doing it best, and how to improve in the future. But in my observations thus far they scale to a certain point and then divide – and I feel this is a good thing.

One of the good examples of scaling communities mentioned was Flickr. Obviously they’ve become the community poster-child and rightly so. They’ve put a lot of thought and hard work into making their communities thrive, grow, and in some ways scale very nicely. However, there is still a limit that any community will hit and then it is forced to divide regardless of the feature-set that the service offers.

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Online communities reflect their real-world counterparts so lets use New York City as an example of community division. Everyone that lives in New York City is part of a community. They all feel it. They all take pride in it. And in some way or another they all take part in it. However, none of them are familiar with everyone inside of their community. Most of them will never meet face to face. But each one of them has their own much smaller communities that they belong to. Maybe they work at a company, or visit the same coffee shop everyday, or play basketball with their same five friends in the park on Saturdays. Regardless, they’ve divided themselves from the much larger community and created or taken part in a much smaller community inside of the one that surrounds them.

Flickr has given some really great features to its group administrators allowing them to setup their own communities under the much larger Flickr community. That’s the first divide. Flickr has worked really hard to make those communities work well whether there are only two members of that group or ten thousand. But, is there a limit? I feel there is and it might be different for every community.

Once a group gets too large, other groups begin to emerge that may do things very much in the same way as the much larger group – yet they divide in order to find elbow room. To help themselves separate the signal from the noise or even just to pull their friends along. I’ve done this myself. I belong to both the 365days group and the MeToday group. However I’m far more active as a MeToday group member than I am a 365day group member because the MeToday group seems like its my friends getting together and posting their 365day shots. I’m a member of the enormous Macintosh group but I also belong to the Macbook and Apple symbol groups.

On Viddler I’ve noticed other divisions occurring too. We’ve not released any group type features, though we plan to, and yet already groups of people are banding together to create their own social groups. This is done a combination of ways and obviously marking each other as friends is one way, or tagging videos the same way is another. But then we have our forums where small grass roots efforts to form communities (like our newly formed Viral Marketing Team, which is too freaking cool) are taking place. This is the first divide. I’m sure we’ll begin to see others in the near future and I can’t wait for those days to come.

When you put people into the same place with similar interests they all band together with common goals. When that group reaches “the community limit”, they begin to divide while still being loyal to the larger group. I do not think that any set of features can help to stop this and I don’t think too much time should be put into trying to stop it either.