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Joel on Software

Modern community building

by Joel Spolsky
Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Stack Exchange network is already up to 51 sites on diverse topics, from math to cooking to science fiction. Each site is a community on its own, and each community has its own needs and values. Pouring a big fat algorithm in equal measures on top of 51 different groups of people does not always work the way you might hope it would work. Maybe that’s why the super-algorithm companies (like Google) tend to suck when they try to build social applications.

Our goal as a company is to incubate each of these 51 communities—to get them to critical mass. Critical mass is that magic moment when the community has enough activity that it grows by itself.

Building communities on the Internet is a new kind of profession. There are an awful lot of technology companies, founded by programmers, who think they are building communities on the Internet, but they’re really just building software and wondering why the community doesn’t magically show up.

Stack Exchange is trying really hard not to suck at building communities. I would say we’re earning a solid B so far, but we’re working really hard at learning... doing little experiments and getting early results. And one thing we noticed is that the pure, algorithmic approach can’t possibly work for different communities: you need a political/social approach. That is, you need smart human beings to use smart human judgment and cultivate each community individually.

Or, to use a metaphor that has been on my mind, you can’t use a robot to train a puppy. Every puppy is different.

With 51 communities and a new one opening almost every week, our small team of four community managers are doing a great job but they just don’t have the bandwidth to help cultivate every site. So we depend on the most active, enthusiastic users to promote their own communities and help them flourish. But these users are usually domain experts, not community organization experts.

So what I plan to do is build a team of super-evangelists here at Stack Exchange to serve as backup. Sort of like Lady Gaga’s backup dancers, but probably without as many muscles, they are not onstage to lead; they’re there to fill up the stage with more hotness than one person can provide.

This job will be sort of like being a community organizer at a non-profit. It combines elements of marketing, PR, and sales, but it’s really something different. I don’t expect that there are a lot of people out there who already kn0w how to do this well, so I’m going to train them, personally. Not that I know how to do this, but we’ll learn together. Every workday is going to start with a huddle at 9am and a plan for the day’s activities and an intensive six hours of work. Every workday is going to end with an hour of learning... reading Kawasaki and Godin and Ries and Trout, talking with invited experts, meeting with members of the community about what worked and what didn’t worked. Everyone who joins the program (and survives for a year) will come out with an almost supernatural ability to take a dead, lifeless site on the internet and make it into the hottest bar in town. That’s a skill worth learning for the 21st century.

If you or someone you know is enthusiastic, energetic, super-outgoing (a social connector), a great communicator (capable of sending 50 personal emails in an afternoon), with some training in psychology, political science, economics, philosophy, or the humanities in general, and you’re looking for an alternative to a dead-end mailroom job at a PR agency, this is a rare opportunity... please apply.

HyperDev is the developer playground for building full-stack web apps, fast.

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I’m Joel Spolsky, co-founder of Trello and Fog Creek Software, and CEO of Stack Overflow. More about me.

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