For the last couple of weeks, I have been beta-testing the Farcaster mobile app on my iPhone. Farcaster describes itself as ‘a sufficiently decentralized social network’. I call it a sort of web3 hybrid of Twitter and Facebook. Right now the app is in closed invite-only beta, and founder Dan Romero claims it has about a thousand active users.
So far, I absolutely love it. The userbase is very techy and some of the stuff (ok a LOT of the stuff) is over my head, but I am loving the vibe of Farcaster. Here’s what I am seeing there from the users:
- Almost no self-promotion
- No politics
- No arguing
- A lot of questions being asked that lead to organic conversations
What I am seeing on Farcaster right now reminds me a lot of how Twitter was in 2008/2009.
And that’s the problem.
Two of the overarching themes on Farcaster are:
1 – Wow I love the experience here versus Twitter!
2 – What are the plans to ensure that we keep this same experience as the userbase grows?
To his credit, Dan has thought about this a lot, and has a plan in place to protect the community on Farcaster, while growing.
But history has shown us that it won’t work. A community cannot go mainstream. A community can only scale so far before it snaps. And that breaking point typically arrives long before it achieves mainstream appeal.
What is a Community?
For the purposes of this post, let’s define a community. A community is a group of like-minded individuals who have a shared sense of ownership in something larger than themselves.
Let’s go back to my early Twitter experience. It greatly mirrored what I am seeing now on Farcaster. A lot of organic conversations. It was quite easy to ask a simple question on Twitter in those early days and get sucked into an hour-long discussion. And make 10 new connections in the process.
There was no politics, no fighting, no broadcasting, no self-promotion.
Ironically, we all looked forward to the day when Twitter would go mainstream. Our reasoning was when EVERYONE knew what Twitter was, it would be even better!
Then it happened…
I was driving down the highway in rural Alabama, I believe in 2009, when I saw this billboard. I had to pull over and take a picture (and immediately post to Twitter). I immediately knew that Twitter was about to go mainstream.
And I was right. Ashton Kutcher’s campaign to get Twitter followers opened the floodgates for other celebrities like Oprah, Britney Spears and the Kardashians to join Twitter. When celebs started flocking to the bird app, journalists were right behind them.
Overnight, Twitter went from our cozy bird app with around a million users in March of 2008, to having over 100 Million users in 2011.
And almost just as quickly, the experience on Twitter completely changed. It seems celebs like to talk about themselves. And it seems the media that followed them to Twitter wanted to talk about them.
Meanwhile, those of us who were enjoying our organic conversations and lack of self-promotion or fighting, suddenly felt like some fat, smelly guy had just cannonballed, uninvited, into our quiet and peaceful pool. Now we were all soaked, and ready to leave.
Be Careful What You Wish For…
But the thing is, we had wanted this. At least we thought we did. We wanted Twitter to go mainstream. We wanted to see everyone enjoying the bird app and its community as we did.
Yet we didn’t think about how new people joining Twitter would fundamentally change the experience on Twitter.
And it totally did. Organic conversations gave way to ‘broadcasting’ from ‘thought leaders’. Or if an organic conversation did get off the ground, it was quickly sabotaged by a troll, who had likely joined Twitter sometime after Oprah did.
Why did this happen? Because the new users that Twitter rapidly picked up hadn’t help build the community that had been there since 2006/2007. They didn’t have that vested interest in growing and sustaining something that they hadn’t help build. They came to Twitter completely detached from the current users, so they wanted to use the bird app in their own way.
And savor what you have today. I remember back in 2008/9 so many of us here couldn’t wait till Twitter went mainstream. We’ve been wishing we could turn back the clock ever since it did. https://t.co/ogHuqFrlsY
— Mack Collier (@MackCollier) October 2, 2022
So Twitter went mainstream, but that small community of a million or so users from 2008 did not. If Farcaster goes mainstream in a few years, the small community of users it has now will not. It’s just the nature of how communities evolve and grow.
Why Can’t a Community Go Mainstream?
Let’s go back to the above definition of what a community is: A group of like-minded individuals who have a shared sense of ownership in something larger than themselves.
Those two bolded qualifiers are important. A community is a group of people who are both like-minded AND who have a shared sense of OWNERSHIP in the community itself. By its very nature, these two qualifiers restrict the size of a community and prevent it from going mainstream.
Think about the size of a community. As the community grows, it becomes more difficult to find new members who are of like mind as the current community AND who want to join the community as someone who will build and sustain the properties that make that community unique.
Every time a community welcomes a member who is NOT like-minded and/or who doesn’t have a desire to build or sustain the current community, the overall experience and value of that community degrades. If it happens often enough, the community itself can fracture and come undone.
Think of every community, online or offline, that you’ve ever joined and participated in. The odds are the reason why you left that community came down to one of two reasons:
1 – It was too small
2 – It added people and you felt the values and spirit of the community was no longer appealing to you
When a community is pursuing growth, it should focus first on adding members who are like-minded with the existing community and who have a desire to work with the community to help it grow and create more value for all.
Community Growth is About Growing Value, Not Size
For years, I’ve been writing about how the social web needs to move back to a decentralized model vs a centralized one. I’ve been on the internet since the late 1980s. Over that time, I’ve been a member of countless communities covering countless topics, beliefs and ideas.
These communities have always, without fail, followed the same pattern.
1 – Start small, usually just a handful of passionate people. Sometimes the community never grows past this point.
2 – If the community continues to grow, then its growth will either be fueled by simple word of mouth, or by the community itself personally vetting and bringing in new members. Word of mouth leads to faster growth, but the overall experience typically degrades faster. If the community itself drives growth, the community typically stays smaller, but the experience can actually improve even more.
3 – At some point, the community either stops growing (often on purpose), or the community continues to grow and the overall experience of the community is altered to a point where the community itself becomes too detached from its original experience, and the community itself fractures.
Let me give you a simple example: I joined CompuServe in the early 1990s. CompuServe had a number of chat rooms and I loved these. One chat it had, every Sunday night, was called College Chat. As I was still early on in my college journey at the time, having a weekly chat where I could talk to students around the country going through the same period of life I was, well it was really cool. At first, the community was really small, about 20 or so regular members. You had a few who would be moderators, who would drive the conversation. After a few weeks you would start to get to know members and you’d make friends. And all this did was deepen my connection to this group, since I would only see them once a week, for an hour every Sunday night.
After a year or so, CompuServe’s growth really started taking off. A flood of new members to the platform meant a lot of new people participating in College Chat. Unfortunately, this degraded the experience. The moderators found it too much to deal with, and moved on. When they left, other regular members followed. The new members that joined hadn’t been here and built this community up and hadn’t seen what made it special. So they didn’t have the vested interest in building and growing the community. The community grew too big and fractured, but for that one year or so I really enjoyed College Chat.
Why Decentralized Will Win Over Centralized
When it comes to communities, in most cases, smaller is better. A small community can create deeper connections between its members, and those connections are pivotal to having a community that creates maximum value for all.
Think of it this way: Centralization would be all of the United States. Decentralization would be the individual cities that make up the United States. Each city has its own vibe, its own culture. And typically, the culture and vibe of a city becomes more distinct the smaller it is.
Think of that in terms of the internet. Twitter would be the United States, a centralized body where everyone is. The individual cities would be decentralized online communities that you could easily visit and participate in as you wished. A smaller community typically means a more in depth experience with like-minded people who have a much sharper focus and aim for participating in said community.
This is a big reason why I am excited about web3. Because the promise of decentralization is so immense. I just hope as these brilliant builders are growing in a decentralized web3 world, that they will forego the desire to grow too big, too fast. Let growth flow slowly, and from the community itself. This is how you increase your chances of growing in a way that adds to the value of the community, rather than detracting from it.
Steve Case says
Well said. I have observed the same thing with various online communities over the years. Newsgroups, BBS forums, and Twitter all became more accessible and less useful. I hope the Farcaster group you are in is able to find away to keep it special.
Mack Collier says
Hi Steve, ‘more accessible and less useful’ is the perfect way to describe what happens as communities grow too large. I think of it as being like a dinner party with 8 friends where everyone knows everyone. Then halfway through the party, the host runs a radio ad inviting ANYONE to join the party. As people showed up and the party of 8 friends turned into a group of 100 strangers, the atmosphere at the party would change dramatically. Without careful curation and care, a community can easily lose its culture and identity as it grows.
Christine Taylor says
Your post really clicked with me! This insight is helping me understand what I feel like I’ve been missing from my social media, especially Twitter, since – yep – right around 2011. I think this will help me frame out a way to stick around online and not feel as overwhelmed. Thank you!!