People inherently want to experience the feeling of community, of gathering and interacting with others who have similar interests or ideas. They want to feel connected, but in today’s modern, over-scheduled world in which people have limited attention spans, many seek to satisfy their longing for belonging by going online–both for social and business reasons.
Community Life Cycles
Online communities first emerged in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s as places of connection where members from all different backgrounds and histories could engage with others, rallying around content based on common interest. As we’ve subsequently learned, the more people who discover community content or are invited to join, the more content gets created, which then appeals to an even wider swath of people who wish to take part in the conversation. Reddit is perhaps the most widely recognized example of a community platform today, with more than 330 million monthly active users (MAU) who dive into its threads.
But, aside from Reddit, many online communities have struggled, due primarily to issues of scale. As communities grow, it’s easy to lose a bit of focus and magic that attracted people to them in the first place. Fragmentation happens. New, more specialized groups spring forth around topics with which users more closely identify, creating additional sub groups. For perspective, in Reddit’s case, this translates to 138,000 active subreddits. While this kind of fragmentation is natural and serves as a means for people to find increasingly specialized content, it also becomes less than ideal for people seeking ways to dip their toes in, engage and interact in ways they have not done previously.
This may seem antithetical. With smaller, more specialized groups, one would think interaction would increase, yet in reality the general sense of community winds up diminished. Members find themselves belonging to more and more groups, and as such, the amount of time they devote to interaction is split. The quality of the community begins to slide, and participation in forums wanes. And of course, with every point of fragmentation, there is a significant risk that community members will seek out a new platform that can better meet their changing needs.
Social Is Not the Answer
Social media really took off when online communities first experienced growing pains. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter–sites that started with what Alain Sylvain described as “an optimistic vision of bringing the world closer and creating opportunities to share ideas without barriers”–assumed the mantle of connecting people. That is until social developed growing pains of its own. These rapidly and loosely formed connections essentially linked millions-to-billions of people to each other in a manner that opened the door to some of the ugliest facets of society, including cyber bullying, fake news, and FOMO, much unlike the safe, anonymous spaces online communities had cultivated. Additionally, advertising came into play, as companies, personalities, and platforms began to seek to profit from their droves of followers.
Today, social has become more of a marketing channel or personal brand builder than facilitator of meaningful interaction. As such, there has been a resurgence in online communities, which stem from different DNA, where relevance, authentic belonging, and genuine community matter most. These communities seem to deliver more fully on what Kaitlyn Tiffany called “The old promise of the internet — niche communities, human connection, people exchanging ideas.”
But even as people take a renewed interest in online communities, the question remains: how can they thrive while they scale? That answer lies with another technology experiencing a resurgence–chat.
Chat + Online Communities = The Most Engaging User Experience for a New Era
Gone is the AIM of old. Chat has received a big upgrade in recent years, becoming a staple of everyday life, creeping into nearly all forms of business and personal communications. Chat allows people to get things done quickly and painlessly, on their schedules, while still maintaining a layer of privacy. At the same time, chat makes personal conversations and relationship building easy by enabling people to “talk” online in snippets as they would in the real world. There is no pressure. Because of these factors, messenger apps have surged this year, with roughly 8.2 billion people using them for various activities and services.
So what does chat offer an online community?
It enables platforms to combine the strong attraction of high-quality content with the interpersonal glue of group communications, belonging, and authentic connection.
Whether the community is built on emotional connections or knowledge sharing, real-time chat can strengthen interpersonal relationships within the community, making it more engaging. Just think about how organizations from startups to schools are using Slack. These bodies have pressing needs to start online communities, yet they have opted out of typical community platforms. Instead, parents are on Slack channels with other parents, coordinating and discussing school activities, while groups like engineers or customer support staff use Slack to communicate with their customers. And this is just the tip of the iceberg, thanks in large part to the benefits and flexibility of chat.
Chat and messaging technologies offer every option needed: huge public chats, large members-only community chats, and private group or 1-on-1 messaging. Additionally, community chat isn’t searchable by the media or public. It also preserves anonymity so that members are free to be themselves, and it’s highly secure.
Online communities create groups around shared knowledge extremely well. Where they falter is with fragmentation that leads to a loss of cohesion. This can be built, however, by nurturing connections within the community. Chat technologies bind members more closely together so that they are more invested and engaged. As users create genuine connections with other members through chat, long-term effects on platform loyalty and trust are realized.
With an increasing number of monolithic communities adding chat to their platforms, it is clear that chat as a crucial strategy for building a greater sense of belonging and better user retention, all while maintaining the anonymity users need to be their authentic selves. As communities recognize these benefits, and people everywhere engage more fully with content and with each other, the experience of going online and finding one’s own space to connect will move much closer to early visions of the Internet as a powerful tool that brings people together rather than driving them further apart.
John S. Kim is the Co-Founder and CEO of SendBird (YC W16), a B2B startup providing a messaging solution for enterprises. The platform currently serves millions of monthly active users and helps businesses build 1-on-1 messaging and group chat quickly on their applications. SendBird has raised over $120M to-date, backed by Y Combinator, Shasta Ventures, August Capital, ICONIQ Capital, Tiger Global Management, and FundersClub.