Why Do People Join Online Communities? An Interview With 2 Top Hacker News Members

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I didn’t get what I was looking for from this interview, but I think what I learned is even better.

I called up Kevin Fischer and Ed Weissman because they’re two of the top users of a site that was sending Mixergy a lot of traffic, and I wanted to learn how to get more. The site is Y Combinator’s social news site, Hacker News.

As I talked to them, I felt that they loved Hacker News so much that asking them how I can get traffic from the site would feel dirty. So I switch direction. I asked them questions to learn how you & I can build such passionate communities in our businesses. Here’s what I learned.

Being different

The Hacker News community is a bit different. For example, even though just about every other online community encourages user profile pictures, Hacker News doesn’t allow them. Ed & Kevin didn’t even want their pictures in this post. Paul Graham, Y Combinators’ founder, explains why there are no pictures: “I think it’s better if people make their own portraits with their ideas.”

It seems that communities need to go against convention as a way of attracting members. Seth Godin said it was a key element of communities in his Tribes presentation.

Working alone/together

As more people work independently, talking with peers online seems to be a bigger need. Ed told me something that I’m increasingly hearing from others, “I literally sit from 12-16 hours a day 5-7 a week programming in a cubicle alone…. These people are my peers, so it’s almost like a virtual water cooler.”

Meeting in person

Even though most of their conversations happen online, Ed, Kevin and other Hacker News members have met in person at a Y Combinator event. It seems that in-person meetings help built tighter connections for online communities.

Sanjay Sabnani, who runs some of the biggest online forums, told me that he often brings his online members together for in person events at his house.

Getting Bribes Rewards

Online community organizers talk about their communities as if they were hippie communes where members participate because they only care about a greater good. But in the interviews that I’ve done, I’ve noticed that there’s a good deal of quid pro quo.

At Hacker News, the top members are invited to Y Combinator’s Startup School. AJ Vaynerchuk said he gives people who join the PleaseDress.Me community free tshirts. Ethan Bauley of M90 said that his agency encourages clients to give active members products. And at the Mixergy Viral Forum, Jason Nazar of docstoc did an experiment to show us how giving away a document can grow a Twitter community.

I’m not criticizing any of these tactics. I think we need to understand how communities are really built so we can grow ours intelligently.

Do you have any other ideas for how to grow online communities? Add your ideas in the comments or email them to me.

(And check out Hacker News. I’ve become a huge fan.)

  • Olivia Kuhn-Lloyd

    We’re going to be using incentives very soon to grow and reward our fledgling member community. We’re rewarding “Ambassadors” and doing a content giveaway to encourage people to invite friends to the site.

  • http://www.gogreensolar.com Deep Patel

    great post! the benefits of a business having a active, engaged community are priceless. Although building up the user base to foster a community in which people are returning and interacting on your website is the most difficult hurdle to jump over. I have been trying to build a community for my niche over the last few months and have ran into similar roadblocks which were mentioned on the interview. I think you’re right Andrew, you have to “bribe” members with free stuff to overcome the hurdles of launching a community. I am thinking a free tshirt give away, maybe that can entice more people to join up and get active.

  • Andrew Warner

    Deep: I agree that building community is tough. I’m going to try to do more interviews with people who can teach me how to do that.

    As for the tshirt, I’m not sure that’s going to do it. Unless you’re aj vaynerchuk & your customers are coming to you because they want tshirts, I think people will ignore it.

    You’re working in the green space. Maybe a better bribe is a green product. Or a ticket to a green event (which you can get free from the organizers in exchange for publicity). Or maybe use a phone call with a prominent person in your space as an inducement.

  • http://www.gogreensolar.com Deep Patel

    Andrew: thanks for your feedback and ideas. Right on, maybe I can give some solar panel kits away, the free ticket to a renewable energy event would also be very interesting proposition for the visitors. I agree with you, this is going to take more then a free t-shirt. I’ll keep you updated about my progress here….looking forward to learning more about this subject through your interviews.

  • http://wallen.typepad.com Wallen’s

    Why not giving shares of the start-up to the most active users? I see 2 main reasons for this:
    1) After all without these users the start-up would be nothing
    2) Its being consistent: community based products always say that the community is part of the project, that the community “co-owns” the product, that they want to build the product with their community, etc.. Then if that’s really the case, the community should also get some part of the capital

    Of course there are operational difficulties to do it and maybe even some legal aspects to take into account. But still could be a cool concept: a truly collaborative one.

  • Andrew Warner

    Wallen: If communities can help their members grow their businesses, they may not have to pay them or give them shares in the community. For example, any share that Zappos got of Twitter would be tiny in comparison to the business value they’re getting out of using Twitter.

  • http://wallen.typepad.com Wallen’s

    Fair enough in this cases. I was more thinking of B2C platforms where there is no business benefits for the community. Anyway a long shot out of the box idea.

  • http://www.selfinlight.com michele

    this was a great interview….very to the point
    what i came away with is the “golden rule” –just be you
    as ed was saying “be sincere” “good stuff rises”
    i think the ‘old paradigm’ of ‘trying to sell something’ makes people think they have to strive.
    ya, there is persistent effort-elbow grease so to speak, but there really isn’t competition if your innovation & focus is authentic.

    re: incentives, i think sometimes a consult, or as you put earlier in the stream a phone call. many times people are part of a tribe or listening/reading because they want to know what you have to say, value it, and are trying to get face or ear time.
    so, a good “reward” as you put it can be a mini consult or “pick your brain’ time

    great site, andrew :-) really great info & feedback

  • Andrew Warner

    Michele: I agree that “good stuff rises,” what I wonder is how do you make good stuff? And what’s considered “good”? I’ll have to do other interviews about that.

  • http://www.blogtalkradio.com/awakenings michele

    andrew:
    re: the “good stuff rises” i have been researching this for a bit now and it seems that what is “good stuff” is as individual as individuals.

    i so agree, by what i have seen & experienced, with tim ferriss that the “messenger” is key & the message secondary.

    i guess even in the age of tech it is all about people…& relationship & inherent in this is connection…. is someone relatable, believable, trustworthy, genuine & authentic to their intention/cause?

    i look forward to listening to more of you interviews as well as what you uncover re: good content and what makes it so.

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