The evolution of expert communities
Much has been written about the usual evolution of general-interest online communities. Less attention has been paid to the dynamics of more specialized, expert-led forums — and the unique if ultimately destructive role of expertise.
Over the past 25 years, I participated in dozens of such groups. The forums ranged from 200 to 200,000 members, have been hosted on a variety of platforms, and have dealt with topics ranging from electronic circuit design, to emergency preparedness, to collectible antiques. In almost every instance, they followed the same trajectory — so today, I’d like to put forward a general lifecycle model for expert-led communities.
Stage 1: orderly growth
Most online communities begin the same way: as an offshoot of another, less specialized online group, or as an ad-hoc forum for local hobbyists.
At the first stage of growth, this new community is defined mainly by the hunger for knowledge. Its members are excited to compare notes and share what they learn. There is no well-defined pecking order and there are no stupid questions; all newcomers are greeted with open arms and patiently tutored along the way.
Within the first couple of months, the group’s epistemological consensus begins to emerge, often dictated by the group’s most active or most knowledgeable participants. The consensus defines the correct way to learn the craft, outlines a set of technology preferences, and perhaps demands loyalty to specific brands. At this point, dissenting views begin to be marginalized, although usually in a subtle and jovial way.
Stage 2: the deluge
Successful online communities usually don’t plateau at stage 1. Instead, the group eventually reaches a threshold of visibility that triggers a prolonged period of explosive growth. The exposure can happen organically or can be triggered by external events; for example, the /r/preppers community on Reddit quintupled in size in the wake of COVID-19.
The uncontrolled growth is initially welcomed, but it soon becomes a liability: the never-ending stream of repetitive beginner questions wears down the core contributors to the group. Some leave; others inevitably pen diatribes decrying the decline in discussion quality and calling for a new set of norms.
Stage 3: the crackdowns
The next stage begins with the development of elaborate rules meant to restore order in the community. To further this goal, seasoned members develop lengthy FAQs and create strict, multi-page posting guidelines.
These good-faith measures usually fail. Many newcomers are disinclined to scroll through pages of fine print; others find the canned answers unsatisfying or hard to parse. Core members of the forum usually take such defiance as a slight. So begins the period of “noob sniping:” the ridiculing and summary punishment of good-faith participants who do not follow the protocol. The tone shifts palatably; gatekeeping, snide remarks, and permanent bans for minor offenses become commonplace.
Under siege, key members of the forum close ranks. The tolerance for dissent decreases; those with a different vision for the group are driven away. Schisms and purges within the administrator community commonly happen at this point, too.
Stage 4: the meme slope
The crackdowns usually succeed in stemming the flow of inexperienced participants — but they also deal a fatal blow to meaningful growth. The reduction in noise soon exposes an uncomfortable truth: several years in, there are relatively few important topics left for the core participants to discuss. Industry headlines and product announcements provide momentary relief, but aren’t enough to give a sense of purpose to the group.
In response to the continued attrition of long-time members, the community begins to lean more heavily on esoteric tangents, meta discussions, and insider humor — sometimes of the offensive variety. The phenomenon can be thought of as trying to save a marriage by spicing things up.
Stage 5: the terminal plateau
Eventually, the forum reaches its end state. Stuck on a now-outmoded platform, it is no longer a natural destination for those seeking expert advice. Most of the less committed participants drop out, leaving a small core team of folks who have known each other for a decade or more.
Off-topic banter takes center stage: the most active threads deal with politics, health issues, divorces, and deaths. When on-topic conversations happen, they usually revolve around the supposed ignorance of the new breed of experts and the superiority of the old way of doing things.
I dread to call it a decline: it’s a metamorphosis that reflects the shifting priorities of the members of the community — and naturally makes room for new communities to thrive.