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

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.

Kevin Fischer and Ed Weissman

Kevin Fischer and Ed Weissman are two of the top users of Hacker News, Y Combinator’s social news site.

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.)

Who should we feature on Mixergy? Let us know who you think would make a great interviewee.