The atmosphere of community

Hurricane Katrina Satellite Image
Photo shared by Glenn Letham under a Creative Commons License.

Was thinking over the Digg and Flickr hub bubs and had an observation.

For one thing, Kathy Sierra’s mediocrity index comes to mind — where you’re either at both ends of being loved and hated (to greater and lesser degrees) or you’re in the middle, and frankly, no one cares.

There’s something else that’s missing from that graph though… part of it is helping to prepare community builders and managers for what happens when you get a surge in one direction or the other… and the other part is what leads you to climb outwards, in either direction.

I might propose a natural phenomenon to be considered here, and that is the phenomenon of atmosphere and the weather that results by being contained in this protective particle shell.

Without atmosphere, you’re a dead planet — there’s no oxygen, the conditions are extremely harsh and barren, and life simply cannot thrive.

Too much atmosphere and you get global warming effects — things like “community algae blooms” where too much life is created too quickly and the internal ecosystems break down because they buckle under the weight of the increasing resource demands… we are living in a period similar to this today (also, think spam!).

Now, the sweet spot — where systems are in harmony and life is able to sustain isn’t necessarily a walk in the park. Under these conditions you definitely get weather — and that weather can be destructive, can come on unexpectedly and worse, can ultimate change the landscape forever.

From a community building standpoint, this is the kind of weather that you need to be extremely careful of, because these tempests in teapots can wreak havoc on the livelihood of your broader community ecosystem and can do untold damage if you’re unprepared when it happens. The strategy to take varies on the kind of weather we’re talking about, and whether you’ve conjured it up by something you’ve done or whether external factors are to blame.

A couple examples: Digg’s founder Kevin Rose declares the end of the Top Diggers list… Flickr declares their acquisition by Yahoo… 18 months later, they announce the termination of independent Flickr accounts… The Wikipedia co-founder breaks off to establish his own competing project called Citizendium… Mozilla revenues are flat after earning upwards of $80M the previous year… The Flock founders leave in semi-rapid succession… BarCamp is planned and executed in a span of 6 days “changing the way we think about, organize, and participate in technology conferences“.

All of these events bear an interesting semblance to what I might call social weather patterns: moments in time when a tropical storm could have made the shift from a benign warm rain into a destructive gale force hurricane at a moment’s notice. Also consider tremors and earthquakes as coming from within, typically along well known social fault lines where some well known controversy erupts and shakes the pillars of the community. In some cases, these shifts have happened, taking out entire communities or leading to the crumbling of support infrastructure or the dissolution of leadership causing people to flee for refuge in neighboring communities. These behaviors are all fairly well documented and established in the real world — but for once, because of the digital context I’m thinking on, we can see precisely that this weather is heavily influenced by us — a conversation of sorts that our environment is having with us and for us on a grand scale.

In any case, looking at Flickr in particular, there are lessons to be had.

In particular, Flickr decided to drill into a particularly well known fault line in the community and stirred up a minor tropical storm. They had prepared for it, however, and in the early hours of the storm, had staff manning the levee-forums as the first order of defense. Next came the blogger response with heavy winds and crashing waves — Stewart and others waded into the comments and attempted to diffuse any self-spiraling weather patterns. Finally, with the leadership and community infrastructure still firmly intact, the storm subsided into the sea (aside from a few stray lightning bursts) and things continued on as normal, as they should.

But this is not always the way things go down. And without proper preparation and an understanding of the goal of resiliency as opposed to domination, you’re likely to fare far worse under similar conditions.

So the greatest lesson from this is to consider the existence at the poles of Kathy’s index… to realize that stormy weather is a good thing, and a result of positively creating atmosphere — an excellent indicator that you’re alive and creating the conditions for life and for survival. Without weather, you’re probably dead; and with too much atmosphere, you’re probably suffocating your community, in which case, it could be too late to turn back anyway. Keep these things in mind as architect the foundations of your community — and remember that community isn’t warm and fuzzy all the time.

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: (YC W18), Uber, Google.

4 thoughts on “The atmosphere of community”

  1. Brilliant! And incredibly overlooked by organizations. It is so easy to get caught up in the energy of the storm.

    I would not call it emergency planning, but it can lead to an emergency. Where do I sign up for training?

  2. Fantastic extended metaphor. It really is a great analogy, particularly since I’ve been on both ends of the flood in the past decade.

  3. “Mozilla revenues are flat after earning upwards of $80M the previous year.” Just for the record, Mozilla revenue was approximately $53M in 2005, the most recent year for which figures have been published. (This number includes both the Mozilla Foundation and the Mozilla Corporation.) Revenue figures for 2006 haven’t yet been released, so it’s not yet possible to guage the revenue growth compared to 2005.

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