Community Managers: Avoid an Eternal September of Your Own

Online communities change all the time, and sometimes they bring in changes that aren't necessarily welcome to the old guard—say, Twitter users who signed up before most people knew what a tweet was. Read on for some thoughts on how to keep your community growing without losing its soul.

A year ago this month, one of my favorite online social networks got bought out.

That community, Tumblr, earned a big payday from Yahoo, topping the $1 billion mark. And people were kinda freaked out about it. I wrote a blog post about it at the time, noting the concerns many had about the community losing its way or becoming irrelevant to its users.

We’re about a year in, and while the site has a few more ads in the dashboard interface—the primary way many use the site—the community has largely stayed in place. Maybe the network isn’t having the kind of epic growth it once had, but the network’s creators appear not to have screwed anything up lately. Score one for the community.

But an article I spotted last week got me thinking about my emotions during that time all over again. It was a piece in The Atlantic, arguing that Twitter—a much larger and (sorry, David Karp) more influential network—was on the cusp of its twilight.

Strong words, and not necessarily the right ones. See, the piece conflated a modest slowdown in growth—the kind of thing people on Wall Street care about—with the outright decay of a culture. It’s not the same thing.

Like ska music in the late ’90s, we’re well into the third wave of Twitter, and it’s more mainstream than ever.

Twitter: The Next Generation

If anything, the culture’s shifting. It’s becoming more open to the outside world. The early users—the ones who first logged into the social network during that fateful South by Southwest (SXSW) conference where the site caught some of its earliest fans—have long since faded into the ether in terms of relevance to today’s broad swath of users.

Likewise, the second generation of users that got really into Twitter—the social media experts, the 140-character philosophers, the journalists, and the movers and shakers who like to carry on conversations wherever they go—are losing some interest in, and relevance to, the current state of Twitter. That Atlantic piece was a eulogy for this group.

Like ska music in the late-’90s, we’re well into the third wave of Twitter, and it’s more mainstream than ever. Any social network worthy of a front-row seat at the Oscars has clearly moved past the days of influencers alone.

September Is Eternal

Why should this matter to you? Because the evolution that Twitter is going through is a common one in any online community.

Back in the ’80s and early ’90s, the internet discussion system Usenet largely played the role that Twitter does now—providing a quick way to tap into the cultural zeitgeist and project conversations onto the larger universe—through posts on a series of broadly defined categories called newsgroups. (The system’s organizational structure, though decentralized, works somewhat like Reddit does now.)

But there was a problem. The internet still had a learning curve and remained closely tied to the American university system, and every September, a new crop of college freshmen would appear, raring to use the internet but having no idea what to do when they got there. The older users didn’t like this so much, because it meant their community faced continual disruption from confused users. (Eventually, though, they’d figure it out.)

But that was nothing compared to what happened in September 1993, when AOL opened up access to Usenet for its dial-up home users. Suddenly, those confused users were coming along every day of the year, turning a fairly controlled situation into something more anarchic. Members of the community called the phenomenon “eternal September.” Usenet is still around, but it never recovered and now is something of a footnote in internet history.

The blame for this, however, doesn’t go just to those confused users, but also to the older members of the community, who could have been more welcoming to those new voices. The older, more technical users had chilly reactions to newer users, and neither party was happy.

Sounds awful, doesn’t it?

Room to Curate

Twitter has some benefits that will help it avoid the worst of this phenomenon: One, the culture as a whole is more tech-savvy now than in 1993; and two, Twitter is a large company with the resources and know-how to adapt itself to newer users.

Usenet was a protocol, and it didn’t have an incentive to change with its audience, so those new users eventually moved to another network instead: this thing you might have heard of called the World Wide Web.

Closed communities in membership-based associations can avoid this fate. First, active community managers can help throw out the welcome mat for new members taking a dip into the pool, keep a close eye on conversations, and find ways to build better engagement with people who need a helping hand.

And because most association online communities are more controlled than Usenet or Twitter, there’s room to tweak and prune, the way you might a bonsai tree. Sure, it’ll keep growing, but you can influence the shape it takes.

The old guard might tire of you after a while, but there’s always room for a new one. The flexibility to change with that community is how you’re going to keep it fresh and avoid an eternal September of your own.

Unlike those tech-inclined nerds pounding away on beige 386s in the computer lab, you want the newbies to show up.

The best way to keep a community strong might be through good, regular pruning. (iStock/Thinkstock)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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