Maintaining a Web Community is as Hard as Building One

Finding the balance between the content you take from users and the value you give back is tricky business, especially since “value” and “money” are rarely synonymous in the user-generated space. Yelp, a volunteer-driven hub of local business and restaurant reviews, is one community that seems to have struck the right chord with its most active members. From the New York Times:

Yelp identifies its most consistently praised, prolific and witty reviewers as members of the “Yelp Elite Squad.” The company says it looks for those possessing “a certain je ne sais quoi — we call it Yelpitude.” I find that it saves time to read the reviews submitted by the Elite Squad and ignore the rest.

Singling out the best and the brighting contributors in the early days of a community is putting the cart before the horse. You need critical mass — or a route toward critical mass — before the natural audience strata appear. Nonetheless, it’s smart to develop a notoriety plan in the off chance you catch lightning in a bottle. This could be a complicated mechanism like Yelp’s Elite Squad or Slashdot’s moderation system, or it could be driven by organic relationships between community moderators and promising users.

Note: Some community systems associate coy user types with users who’ve met certain thresholds — i.e. post 100 comments and become a vaunted “Senior Member.” Auto-generated user types have a degree of value, but a true notoriety initiative requires a lot more effort.

Even with adequate notoriety tools, the most successful communities still suffer from turnover and diminished interest among key users. When I developed my first few communities I mistakenly assumed that once the audience was in place, the natural organization within the community would replace my development efforts. But that’s not how it works. Most members have a lifecycle within a community — it’s a linear progression with an endpoint, not a constant user pattern. It’s important to acknowledge this natural line and counter inevitable user drift with ongoing user development.

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